M27, Part Two: From BAR to IAR – How the Marines Finally Got Their Infantry Automatic Rifle

M27, Part Two: From BAR to IAR – How the Marines Finally Got Their Infantry Automatic Rifle

Above: September 2011, Camp Leatherneck, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. A Marine with 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment adjusts the SU-258/PVQ SDO (Trijicon Model TA11SDO-CP) day scope for battle sight zero on his M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle in live fire exercises upon arrival in country. This MOS 0311 Squad Automatic Rifleman is likely to agree with many others who are more than happy to make the switch from the heavier, and often troublesome M249. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Chandler)

- – - Part One of this article appears in SADJ Volume 4, Number 3. – - -

As threat forces match the firepower of the current rifle squad, the Marine Corps must maintain the innovative edge for which it is famous.  While experimentation is still required, the evaluations undertaken by Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, definitively indicate that the Marine Corps should place the M249 into a light machine gun role and add a true automatic rifle to the squad’s inventory.  (Conclusion to AUTOMATIC RIFLE CONCEPT, an unsigned monograph circa 2001, circulated in the USMC Infantry community)

Friends and foes of the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon in the U.S. Marine Corps’ infantry fire teams have been engaged in often fierce verbal firefights dating back years before this innovative light machine gun entered Leatherneck service; soon after the Army adopted FN’s MINIMI in 1984.  While the reasons for this are many and varied, astute observers often cite two main points of contention:

  • Advocates of belt fed weapons like the M249 admire their relative portability and high volume of fire at critical times in offensive and defensive actions.
  • Critics say the 5.56mm SAW‘s hefty 20+ pound combat weight slows movement and reliability issues too often degrade the gun’s claimed firepower advantage.

This second group has argued long and strenuously for an “Infantry Automatic Rifle” that’s both lighter and simpler than the SAW, with similar combat effectiveness from better accuracy and realistic capability in full auto and sustained fire.

Now, more than a quarter century after the Belgian belt-fed joined the Marines, and a decade after the infantry automatic rifle tests by 2nd Battalion 7th Marine Regiment, the IAR camp has won the argument.

“After a rigorous testing process, both in garrison and deployed environments, and in-depth consultation with weapons experts through the Corps, the Commandant approved the fielding of the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle.  Fielding of the IAR will significantly enhance the ability of infantrymen to gain and maintain fire superiority, reduce the fighting load and provide them with a more ergonomic and accurate weapons system that can keep up during the assault.”  (USMC press statement, June 2011)

The winning IAR is a lightly modified HK416, beating out dozens of rivals along the way to earn Heckler & Koch an initial contract for as much as $23.6 million to supply up to 6,500 M27s.

More than 400 of these are already in the fight in Afghanistan and full fielding to all of the Corps’ Infantry Battalions and Light Armored Recon units should be complete in 2013.

January 2005, Camp Habbaniyah, Iraq. Iraqi soldiers aim in their magazine-fed 7.62x39mm RPK light machine guns during the Iraqi Small Arms Weapons Instructor Course taught by the Marines of the 2nd Marine Division Training Center here. Admiration of the combat efficiency of the Soviet-designed RPK was a factor in persistent and growing requests from rank-and-file Marines for a true automatic rifle. (USMC)

Back Story
What follows here contains only brief note of the tactical pros and cons of SAW vs. IAR because these have long been and are likely to remain an ongoing debate.  This is, we believe, best left to the Corps’ combat-hardened professionals who have a ‘Devil Dog,’ so to speak, in the fight.

Instead, it is intended to be a close look at how the Marine Corps went about the process of fielding what is hoped will be a worthy successor to the iconic “B.A.R.” – John Moses Browning’s Automatic Rifle.

In addition to official program documentation, our primary sources of information for this feature include three career Marines, each with detailed knowledge and relevant perspectives.  They are CWO5 (Ret) Jeffrey Eby, recently Senior Gunner for the Corps, Major (Ret) Charles Clark III, USMC Infantry Weapons Capabilities Integration Officer at Marine Corps Headquarters, and Gunnery Sergeant (Ret) Robert Reidsma, HK’s M27 IAR Project Manager.  Reidsma’s interview served well as the backbone for the first installment of this two-part series.

Additional input has come from other knowledgeable individuals who, not surprisingly, have asked not to be identified due to sensitivities both professional and personal.

Gunner Eby, now Advanced Technology Programs Manager for the cutting-edge weapon sighting systems innovator Trijicon, moved up steadily in rank and responsibilities from CWO2 with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, to the pinnacle of this career field in the USMC.

An outspoken, principled and tireless advocate of the IAR from the time he was involved in the first real IAR trials around 2001 and continuing through the M27’s adoption, Eby offers us his detailed perspective on the Corps’ recent decision:

“The primary focus of replacing the M249 with a true automatic rifle stemmed from the understanding that the M249 is a Light Machine Gun that was adopted by the USMC because the Army had a contract method that we could use.  The goal of the effort that led to the M27 stemmed from a desire to reduce system weight from 26.5 lbs to 10.5 lbs, increase lethality by increasing the hit ratio of all shots fired and increase the portability of a system in the hands of an offensive force that is trying to “close with the enemy” as opposed to attempting to use a weapon such as the M249, better designed for defensive engagements.

“The Commandant of the Marine Corps, along with many other Marines, was concerned about the loss in pure volume of fire when moving from a belt fed weapon to a magazine fed weapon.  Experiments by Marine Corps Operational Test and Evaluation Activity (MCOTEA) proved that the M27 significantly outperformed the M249 in suppression, used significantly less ammunition and had less downtime during reloads when total down time was measured through a full combat load of ammunition.  This was especially true at night due to the complexity of the M249 function/operation creating a greater frequency of stoppages and malfunctions.

“The Marine Corps believes, as do I, that the M27 will prove to be a key component to:

  • Level the movement, portability and maneuverability across all personnel,
  • Reduce the visible indication of the location of automatic weapons to the enemy,
  • Utilize a common ammunition source,
  • Streamline all training tasks,
  • Enhance the automatic rifleman’s direct fire contribution in Counter Insurgency environments when the volume of fire is not necessarily desirable (collateral damage),
  • Allow the squad to maintain the ability to provide a high-volume of fire when required.

“The squad will be more lethal from accurate fires.  The squad will be more mobile from significant weight reduction of both weapon and total ammunition requirements.  The tempo of the rifle squad can now be set by the squad leader instead of the slow moving light machine gun.

Okinawa, 1945. A Marine of the 1st Marine Division draws a bead on a Japanese sniper with his .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun while his companion, armed with a .30-06 caliber Browning Automatic Rifle, ducks for cover. Although heavy and having only a 20 round magazine, the accurate, hard hitting and long-reaching BAR is held in highest regard by many veterans of WWII and Korea. The Corps’ subsequent tries at its replacement started with a bipod-equipped M14. When this proved unsatisfactory and ‘Fourteens’ were replaced during the Vietnam War with M16s, certain riflemen in each fire team were designated as ‘automatic riflemen.’ That didn’t work very well either so the Corps fielded the M249 in 1985. (US Marine Corps photo/National Archives)

“The loss of the psychological effect of a high volume of inaccurate fire provided by the M249 will NOT be an issue, as any combat veteran who has heard gunfire can attest to, as after the first “dive to cover” occasion has been conducted, the sound of inaccurate fire passing somewhere nearby no longer impresses the veteran to the point of taking cover.

“I do not believe there are any negatives to the M27 replacing the M249 from any aspect that has been considered.”

Some of the M27’s Main Marines
Success of the IAR initiative in the form of the M27 is the result of a team effort with many players in addition to Eby, Clark and his immediate predecessor, Patrick Cantwell.  These men and others, notably Major (now Lieutenant Colonel) John “Ethan” Smith, IAW Project Officer, labored long and hard in the honored tradition of quiet and selfless service to the Corps.

While the scope of this report doesn’t permit identifying all of them, some of the key personnel brought to our attention are Lieutenant Colonel Mark Brinkman, MARCORSYSCOM’s Product Group 13 Program Manager for Infantry Weapons, along with Captain Edward Leon, succeeding Smith as IAR/M27 Project Officer.  Also, working patiently and steadily behind the scenes was PMIW Engineering Team Leader Salvatore Fanelli, well known and respected for decades of important work in the world of military small arms.

Our initial requests through USMC public affairs channels to interview any of these men proved unsuccessful until persistent efforts eventually paid off with permission to conduct only one – a telephonic interview with Clark, speaking from his office at MCB Quantico, Virginia.  This retired Marine Major is the Infantry Weapons Capabilities Integration Officer for the Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration, a three star command at Headquarters, Marine Corps.

Identifying himself as the “user representative” inside the acquisition process, Clark was well positioned in the latter stages of moving the IAR requirement through the bureaucratic maze.  The IWCIO and his five person team cover all infantry weapons, individual and crew served weapons, optics, sniper capabilities, and remote weapons stations.  They’re not only responsible for the requirements for each of those capabilities, but also for all the Marine Corps doctrine relating to those weapons systems.

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