The Future of the Military Assault Rifle
ABOVE: ISAF Troops returning fire in Afghanistan. Insurgent forces partially overran COP Kahler in Afghanistan in July 2008 in part due to the failure of numerous M4 Carbines and M249 SAW’s which lead to the deaths of nine U.S. soldiers. The enemy achieved “overmatch” employing basically WWII small arms technology against current, aged U.S. small arms capabilities. (U.S. Army PFC Cameron Boyd)
November 1942. The beleaguered German Army “Kampfgruppe Scherer” unit is surrounded and outnumbered by Red Army forces on the Russian front. The German Luftwaffe drops the new and super-secret MKb42 “machine carbines” and equally new 7.92x33mm Kurz ammunition to the vastly outnumbered German unit. The encircled German troops break out of the tightening Russian noose to fight another day in great part to the tremendous and sudden increase in “firepower” provided by the revolutionary new German “assault rifle” and its intermediate rifle cartridge in its first appearance on the battlefield. Close combat would never be the same again.
Fast forward to July 13, 2008 during the Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan, Combat Outpost Kahler, manned by the troops of U.S. Army’s C Company, 2-503rd Infantry, 173rd Brigade Combat Team. In this horrific infantry battle nine U.S. troops were killed with another twenty seven injured in what arguably was a failure of U.S. small arms to keep up with Russian weapons designed decades earlier. Numerous M4 Carbines, M249 Squad Automatic Weapons and MK19 AGL’s stopped firing as they overheated in the 173rd’s valiant attempt to repel the superior numbers of determined insurgent fighters armed with AK-47s and RPGs. In the case of the M4 Carbine, the U.S. Army Material Command tests as early as 1990 revealed that the M4’s maximum safe sustained fire rate was 90 rounds per minute, and that under excessive sustained fire rates as described above, the barrel would overheat causing the weapon to fail. This shortcoming was documented again in 2001 in a U.S. Special Operations Command report on the M4. It was well known in 1990 that the AK-47’s sustained fire rate was 120 rounds per minute, 150 for the newer AKM model seen at Wanat. No one needs a calculator to see how badly this ends for the good guys.
Since U.S. operations in Somalia during the “Battle of the Black Sea” operation in Mogadishu in 1993, also known in the media as “Black Hawk Down,” dozens of U.S. and NATO programs have been conducted to improve or replace the 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge first developed and fielded in the early 1960s for the AR-15, America’s first true assault rifle. Developed by industry to replace U.S. M1 and M2 Carbines carried by U.S. Air Force security policeman, the 5.56mm round was a modification of the commercial .222 Remington Magnum cartridge designed for use on small varmints out to 250 yards. The AR-15’s designer, the world renowned Eugene Stoner, created what would become the 5.56x45mm or .223 Remington round, selected primarily for its light recoil, to be used in the lightweight AR-15 and later M16 rifle platform. For that intended role it was a perfect choice. However decades later the original M193 Ball round and its 1980s replacement the green-tipped M855 “Penetrator” round, developed primarily for steel helmet penetration and intended for use in light machine guns, would be fully replaced in the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations Command after having failed repeatedly on the modern battlefield.
Threat “Overmatch” – the Product of Falling Behind
One must ask, and many are, have our troops lost their ability to win and survive in a small arms encounter against a determined enemy armed with basically WWII-era technology? Are we being overmatched at ranges outside those of U.S. and NATO 5.56mm weapons by the enemy’s use and outright exploitation of SVD rifles and PKM and now PKP light machine guns firing the nearly 100 year old .30 caliber 7.62x54mm rimmed Russian cartridge? Few foes on the planet could hope to dominate America in an air, tank or naval battle yet every bad actor with an AK or PKM takes on American ground forces in a small arms fight because we are no longer appropriately armed and thus not respected in that battle space.
Have we allowed our rifles and ammunition capabilities to decay chasing after the 100% solution, the better idea, the so-called “leap-ahead” technology that never materializes? Why are America’s top tier special operations units not using Army standard-issue handguns, carbines and grenade machine guns and instead fight with superior (in terms of safety, reliability, accuracy and service-life) cost comparable commercial alternatives? Why do we simply not provide these combat proven superior SOF weapons to at least the approximately 140,000 front line combatants in our close combat units who are tasked with finding, fixing and finishing determined and ruthless opponents with small arms? Do conventional forces not deserve the same superior weapons with which to survive, win and return safely from the battlefield? This article will explore these questions, outline U.S. failures to maintain a technological advantage in small unit small arms capabilities over our existing and potential enemies, offer actionable near-term solutions, and look to the future for answers on how current small arms parity can be transformed into small arms overmatch against our foes, both existing and emerging.
How We Got Here
The history of U.S. small arms and ammunition development and acquisition is a sordid one at best. One need only read the books Misfire, The Black Rifle or more recently The Gun to understand the ups and downs of U.S. ordnance successes and failures. This history is full of a “deeply engrained organizational resistance to change” and the endless but failed concept of “good enough.” Clinging to single-shot breech-loading rifles decades after reliable repeating rifles were available. Entering the 20th century without the Maxim machine gun (first offered to the U.S. in 1888) only to have it used with devastating effect against U.S. troops in the First World War or waiting a full 27 years to field America’s first true assault rifle, two decades after the AK-47 was first fielded. Sadly this is an incomplete list. Too often and especially in the last half century America has delayed serious and obtainable “evolutionary” improvements to small arms capabilities while investing heavily to the tune of billions of dollars in the seemingly endless search for the imaginary small arms Holy Grail.
The concept of the true assault rifle originated during WWII in the fertile creative minds of German developers engaged in a world war on many fronts and against opponents with limitless resources. Always looking not to place their troops in a fair fight the German war machine of that era developed many revolutionary weapons like the general-purpose machine gun, the ballistic missile, even the atomic bomb was well within their reach; all German-born inventions that remain state-of-the-science in concept and practice still today. Firing a cartridge in length and power between a submachine gun and full-caliber battle rifle, possessing a straight-line stock design, a detachable large-capacity magazine and controllable select-fire capability proved to be a winning combination of core attributes with which all other assault rifles share their lineage. The Russians were quick to closely copy the cartridge and weapon design and as a result developed the most widely made and distributed small arm in history with easily more than 90 million AK rifles and endless variants produced since 1949.
The advent of the pivotal work of lead American designer Eugene Stoner in the development of the AR-15 employed new materials and design concepts to create an evolutionary step forward in rifle configuration and production materials. Produced from lightweight aluminum forgings and early polymer components, the AR-15 became the direct competitor to counter the AK-47 on the world stage in countless wars, regional armed conflicts and terrorist engagements. Gene Stoner, however, took a different approach on the most important component of an individual weapon that being the killing instrument, the projectile and the cartridge to launch it. We tend to focus too much attention on the weapon when in fact the projectile and cartridge contribute most to the overall effectiveness of the entire weapon’s system. Stoner went the way of a small-caliber high-velocity (SCHV) cartridge to save weight and reduce recoil in a handy relatively short-range weapon to meet the needs of USAF General LeMay. At its start, little consideration was given to the employment of the rifle beyond the needs of the air force security guards or beyond the engagement ranges for which it was intended, that being 300 yards. Thus the 5+ decade marriage of the AR-15/M16 platform and 5.56x45mm cartridge began with the first AR-15 fielding in Vietnam in January 1962 on little more than a handshake deal with a U.S. Air Force general. Hardly an inspiring first step.
Over the decades from 1960 through the 1980s, the M16 rifle and now M4 carbine changed very little in overall downrange performance being that the system performance is inseparably linked to the cartridge it fires and the projectile it launches. The adoption of the M855 round in 1980 brought with it extended range and improved hard-target penetration. However, its true terminal performance on the human target was not well tested through the peaceful end of the Cold War until events in the mid-1980s. In that decade reports began to surface, mostly from top tier U.S. Special Operations personnel engaged in counter-terrorism missions, that the M855 was severely lacking in its ability to rapidly and consistently incapacitate enemy personnel, even those struck multiple times in the torso. It was the higher profile failures in Somalia in 1993 that generated numerous new programs to improve or replace the round for military use.
The Band Aid Approach
The rifle itself however, has received a fairly substantial facelift during that same period as we have “accessorized” the platform for fighting at night and in close confines. We added rail systems to rifles to mount a wide assortment of targeting devices from visible light and infrared laser aimers to back-up iron rights and vertical foregrips. We have invested in sound suppressors and an endless assortment of ergonomic butt stocks and pistol grips. We have fielded hundreds of thousands of Aimpoint and EOTech HALO red dot reflex sights on rifles intended to engage troops at distances beyond
typical CQB ranges.
The introduction of the short 14.5 inch barreled M4 carbine with collapsible stock, originally intended for commanders and special operators, is currently in full “pure-fleeting” in most U.S. Army combat and combat support units. It’s shorter barrel and collapsible stock makes the carbine easier to carry and transport but the loss of 5½ inches of barrel length over that of the M16 reduced the effective range with the unaltered M855 round and ultimately reduced the terminal effects to ranges well under 100 meters. Issues were discovered with “fleet yaw” of the M855 projectile fired from various issue rifles and thus unpredictable effects on personnel targets, both unprotected and those behind assorted barriers and others of a malnourished stature as found in military actions in the Middle East and Africa. The M855 round was simply not effective at the slower velocities when fired from the M4 carbine. All of this ironically came to a head at nearly the same time we began to send U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2001 to participate in Operation Enduring Freedom. Historically well known for its long-range warfare and competent long-range enemy riflemen, the mountains of Afghanistan give advantage to the “stand-off shooter” who positions himself beyond the effective range of U.S. and NATO 5.56mm weapons. These enemy gunners rain .30 caliber projectiles from 800 meters and beyond upon nine of the ten squad members who cannot hope to respond with accurate, effective fire as they are armed with 5.56mm weapons with their maximum effective range of 500 meters tops, and far less with the commonly issued short-range red dot reflex sights. The Soviets learned this lesson the hard way when they armed their troops with the 5.45x39mm AK-74 rifle during the early years of their failed occupation in Afghanistan that ended in the retreat in 1989. Apparently the U.S. and NATO did not consider this lesson going into Afghanistan. The well-researched and prepared 2009 monograph entitled Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan; Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer (http://defensetech.org/2010/03/01/taking-back-the-infantry-half-kilometer/) by U.S. Army Major Thomas Ehrhart looks closely at this issue and provides reasonable and actionable steps to address this issue in the near term, not in 2025 as is currently planned.
The Enemy Gets a Vote
Current U.S. statistics reveal that 21% of small arms KIA’s and WIA’s in Afghanistan are from 7.62x54R caliber weapons. Imagery from Russian operations in the Crimea reveal conventional Russian infantry squads armed with up to four 7.62x54R rifles and light machines gun per squad. Insurgents in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are deploying more and more SVDs and PKMs and the newer PKP light machine guns as well as bolt-action rifles in calibers .300 Winchester, .300 WinMag and .338 Magnum. Do they know something we don’t? Have they turned the U.S. advantage of long-range precision rifle fire employed with great effect by U.S. and NATO snipers in Iraq and Afghanistan around and now are exploiting this capability against us? The Chinese too are making purposeful advances forward to overmatch the 5.56mm NATO weapons in U.S. and NATO hands to include U.S. M855A1 EPR. Their 5.8x42mm cartridge and Type 95 family of bull-pup weapons are being improved to provide a full 600 meter maximum effective range and are now issuing variable magnification optical sights to regular PLA soldiers intended for effective use at that range – 100 to 200 meters beyond what a U.S. trooper armed with an M4 and ACOG sight are effective at. They have also fielded and exported one-man portable 35mm shoulder-fired grenade launchers with an effective range of 600 meters against point targets, 1,000 meters on area targets, well beyond the 5.56mm rifle range of all members of the American infantry squad, save the one armed with the 7.62mm M14 EBR Squad Designated Marksman Rifle (SDMR). It is reported that the Russians, at the direction Vladimir Putin himself and with the top-down formation of “Concern Kalashnikov,” is developing a replacement to the AK family of weapons and may be dusting off the 6mm Unified intermediate cartridge for chambering in the innovative AK-107 assault rifle with its “shifted-balance” hyper burst capability. If these reports are accurate this will represent a serious advancement in range and hit probability for the Russian soldier so equipped.
Where to Now?
America has invested heavily in countless small arms Science and Technology (S&T) programs to improve the combat capability of the rifleman. Conservative estimates place the cost of these failed R&D initiatives at well over a billion dollars since the 1960s with not a single enemy soldier killed as a result. The U.S. Army has experimented with flechettes, duplex and triplex ammunition where multiple projectiles are fired from a single cartridge case, self-consuming caseless ammunition and hyper rates of fire in salvo and shotgun launch patterns, and the latest air-bursting initiatives that have been under seemingly endless development for 2+ decades. Four attempts to field a modern replacement to the M4 Carbine have failed just since 2004 to include the latest effort known as Individual Carbine. In this test seven commercial off-the-shelf 5.56mm NATO carbines were tested alongside the current issue U.S. M4 Carbine as baseline. All candidates failed to meet the Phase II reliability requirements with the new U.S. Army M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round (EPR). The M855A1 EPR round is plagued with countless unresolved technical problems being down-played by U.S. Army developers, problems related to chamber pressures in excess of 60,000 psi, severe damage to the M4 Carbine caused by the exposed hardened penetrator projectile tip and fouling generated at twice that of the M855 round it replaced. An appreciable mismatch of the round’s flight trajectory with the sights fielded with the M4 and M16 causes mean point-of-impact (MPI) shifts of 5 to 14 inches at 600 meters, easily enough to cause a clean miss even when the rifleman does his part in its correct launch. As a result, the U.S. Marine Corps and Special Operations Command have refused to field the M855A1 EPR round. Three plus iterations, 15 years and more than $150 million dollars spent and serious problems still remain in the U.S. Army’s primary 5.56mm rifle combat round.
The Army has been placing great hopes in air-bursting technology to allow targets behind cover, in the defilade, to be engaged via fragments launched from a “smart” warhead using a full-solution fire control system. Twenty years of effort and today the 14 plus pound, 4 shot XM25 “Punisher” Counter Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE) System has yet to be fielded or account for a single dead insurgent in its numerous limited combat assessments. The appearance of commercially-available add-on 40x46mm LV air-bursting kits and extended range and medium velocity grenades for already fielded under barrel and stand-alone 40mm grenade launchers meet and exceed the 500 meter point target capability of the XM25, making it obsolete even before first fielding and woefully unaffordable as a niche, single-purpose weapon in today’s constrained budgetary environment.
So one must ask the question: Where to now? With the existing and emerging small arms overmatch capabilities from Russia and China, how does America spend its diminishing defense dollars to regain its footing? Members of the U.S. Congress have been engaged in this issue since 2009 when the Army planned to purchase endless quantities of M4 Carbines being built to aged technical specifications at unit prices 40% higher even as far greater quantities were being ordered during wartime. Senator Coburn – Republican from Oklahoma and others have pressured the U.S. Army to consider weapons beyond just the M4 and ammunition better than the 5.56mm NATO round to keep up with threat developments. Their efforts have been met with some success.
Historic U.S. Army Caliber Study
As any experienced hunter knows, the working end of a hunting rifle is not the rifle itself but the cartridge; in particular the caliber and more specifically the projectile. Seasoned dangerous game hunters do not first select a rifle for an important hunting trip for its portability or for its light weight and handy nature but for the on-target effects required to dispatch the animal effectively. Any consideration of a future weapon system must begin with an assessment and selection of the correct and optimal caliber, projectile, and then finally the cartridge and its capacity for enough propellant sufficient to do the work to meet existing and future threats. While important, logistical and cost considerations must take a back seat to target effects, stand-off range and terminal effects on the complete threat target set. Three relatively recent alternate caliber assessments by the U.S. Marine Corps and Joint Services Wound Ballistics IPT in 2006, and by the U.S. Army RDECOM in 2010 all recommended consideration of a caliber and cartridge in performance, recoil and weight between 5.56mm and 7.62mm as a “common caliber” to replace both when fired from subcompact carbine through light machine gun. However, that infamous U.S. Army ingrained institutional resistance to change resulted in a failure to act on these pivotal studies and their recommendations that could have made a positive and substantial difference on the battlefield for all U.S. forces and those war fighters who engage the enemy at belt buckle distance with small arms. What can be described as a very recent and welcome paradigm shift in thinking, the U.S. Army, as part of its new “Soldier Weapons Strategy 2014” announced publically in late 2013 the launch of a two-year Small Arms Ammunition Configuration (SAAC) Study to assess U.S. conventional and SOF, commercial and law enforcement and threat rifle and machine gun caliber and ammunition alternatives to the 5.56mm and 7.62mm NATO cartridges. The final report and recommendations, due out in 2016, will define the basis for the development of the next generation of U.S. individual and crew-served small arms and ammunition in 2020 and beyond. Sadly, and much to the dismay of the small arms industry, this common sense approach of selecting the optimum caliber and cartridge to address current and future target sets and threats, before soliciting industry for proposals, is not being applied in the current search for the next U.S. armed services handgun. The U.S. Army is telling gun makers what color they want the new “Modular Handgun System” (MHS) to be delivered in but not which caliber. The phrase “predictable failure” comes to mind when one considers this illogical approach to systems performance that must begin with clearly defined target effects that come from the projectile, cartridge and caliber.
Enablers at the Ready
Those opposed to change, the “good enoughers,” usually those who have never fired a rifle in combat or know little about weapons other than the Government-issue models, say it is simply impossible, too costly to switch rifle calibers, yet we have done that many times recently in far less critical and less commonly issued weapons. We now field .300WinMag and .338 Lapua Magnum sniper rifles, .40 S&W handguns in the U.S. Coast Guard and select SOF units, plan to field 25mm grenades by way of the XM25 yet will not apply that efficient and effective intermediate caliber solution to the most important, most numerous and most deployed weapon in the infantry squad; the rifle or carbine. Why? Because too often the actual end users of that equipment are not directly involved in the decision making process. Acquisition Officers, Program Managers, General Officers and “Policy Wonks” make the final call and the end user gets what he or she is given be it good, bad or ugly. This is not the way things happen in America’s top tier SOF units, which is why their suite of small arms are vastly superior and overall less expensive to procure, field and sustain then USGI equivalents. The rifle used to kill Osama bin Laden, the HK416, was developed with no U.S. R&D dollars spent and it remains today the most capable carbine of its type ten years after its debut on the battlefield in 2004. Why? Because the end users control the selection process. The fifty million dollars spent on the failed U.S. Army XM8 rifle program could have fielded almost 50,000 HK416s in 2005. For less than what has been invested to date in the XM25 development program alone, HK416s could have been purchased for every one of the 140,000 front line American combatants, with tens of millions to spare.
A common perceived obstacle to a new rifle caliber has been cost. It has been said many times that it is simply too expensive to change calibers. However, new developments in cartridge case technology provides us with a historic opportunity to reduce ammunition combat load weights by up to 40% while at the same time getting appreciably greater down range performance with a larger caliber. A 2012 Battelle Study for the U.S. Army looked at the projected cost to change out production machinery at Lake City Army Ammunition Plant to switch from brass-cased ammunition to polymer-cased telescoped ammunition offering up to a 40% weight savings. The study’s author confirmed that there would be no additional cost in the purchase of the new production tooling to assemble a 6.5mm to 7mm polymer cartridge on the new machinery compared to a polymer-cased 5.56mm round of the same design. Fortunately there are more than a half dozen weapon platforms and sighting devices and accessories in these intermediate calibers that can exploit the advantages of these emerging lightweight cartridges and many more that would be developed as a new requirement becomes available. In fact, AAI Corporation, now Textron Systems, has been working on the LSAT (Lightweight Small Arms Technology) program with the U.S. Army for some years now focused on a light weight belt-fed light machinegun firing a polymer-cased telescoped cartridge offering impressive weight savings for the war fighter, but no increase in downrange performance being limited to 5.56mm. Recently Textron Systems announced the results of an internal caliber study that resulted in an Intermediate Caliber Cased Telescoped belt-fed light machine gun design firing a .264 caliber (6.5mm) cartridge with terminal effects equal to 7.62mm NATO out to 1,200 meters. Weighing 43% (21 pounds) less than a 7.62mm M240B medium machine gun with 400 rounds of M80 Ball ammunition, 10% (5 pounds) lighter than a 5.56mm M249 SAW with 1,000 rounds of M855 Ball ammunition, the Textron weapon would be 2.75 inches shorter than the M4 Carbine with the butt stock collapsed. That is a significant increase at overmatch levels in downrange performance with a comparable huge reduction in system weight, size and portability.
The U.S. Marine Corps has been working with the Mississippi-based company MAC LLC on the development of the MK323 MOD O .50 caliber BMG with two-part polymer case for use in existing, unmodified M2HB and high rate of fire .50 caliber machine guns. 26% lighter than the brass-cased M2 Ball round, the MK323 will soon be fielded in Marine and Special Operations forces. This same design and technology can easily be applied to smaller calibers, even 5.56mm with similar weight savings. The U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit (USAMU) recently announced their development of two brass-cased intermediate caliber combat cartridges they call the 264 USA and 277 USA. The USAMU has decades of experience winning 1,000 yard competitions with the excellent 6.5-284 cartridge that was the starting point for their intermediate combat round development. A MAC LLC polymer case would reduce the cartridge weight by nearly 26% and allow a soldier to carry 210 rounds for the same weight as 170 rounds of brass-cased 5.56mm M855A1 EPR ammunition. Loaded with a 108 grain projectile the 264 USA round when fired from a 16-inch barrel AR-12 Carbine provides retained energy of 475 ft. lbs. at 800 meters, on par with the 7.62mm 147 grain M80 Ball round and close to that of the 175 grain M118LR HPBT cartridge at 925 ft. lbs. Yet the 264 USA cartridge loaded even with the heavier 123 grain projectile has 30% less felt recoil than a 175 grain 7.62mm NATO M118LR round and appreciably less bullet drop and wind drift when compared to both 5.56mm NATO and 7.62mm NATO projectiles of the same projectile design. All of this from a lightweight cartridge that as a result could eliminate the need for and resupply issues of two different caliber rounds in the infantry squad.
British Army Suppression Study – Misses Count
Proficient hunters and rifleman are trained to make every shot count. They apply the correct fundamentals of marksmanship to deliver accurate fire to the target. “One Shot, One Kill” is their favorite motto. It is the perfection we train and strive for but seldom produce when faced with the factors of combat induced stress, moving targets and other factors beyond the control of even the best crack shot. The military for many decades has understood the important advantages of suppressive fire in modern maneuver warfare and have exploited that using volumes of fire, bounding small unit advances and “over watch” positioning with crew-served weapons suppressing the enemy troops. The British Army documented the tremendous advantages of modern small arms suppressive fire in a 2009 study entitled Infantry Direct Fire Suppression. This deep dive into this topic began with a review of historical reports on the topic and with interviews of British infantry personnel engaged then in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conclusions of this study revealed that effective suppression, the ability to keep the enemy’s head down and behind cover and not returning accurate fire, is based on three primary factors. Suppression is most effective when the incoming rounds are closest to the intended target (proximity). The greatest suppressive effects came from the larger kinetic energy (velocity and mass) produced by the projectile when compared to smaller calibers. And finally the volume of fire accurately directed on the point or individual target has a considerable effect on the outcome of a firefight. One quote from a British combat infantryman interviewed for this study stated, “5.56mm Taliban ignore, 7.62mm worries them and .05-inch scares them.” Thus, according to this comprehensive study, the larger the projectile is, the speed at which it is traveling and the closer it misses its target the greater suppressive effect it has on the enemy. While it is sometimes said that suppression is “the runner up prize” in combat it is an important tactic that is employed by even the least sophisticated combatants in battle to overwhelm and overrun their opponent’s positions. Stand-off shooters in Afghanistan employ the suppressive merits of 7.62x54R weapons by raining down .30 caliber projectiles onto troops armed mostly with 5.56mm rifles incapable of returning effective fire. A lightweight polymer-cased intermediate caliber cartridge and projectile would thus improve the probability of hit, incapacitation and suppression for all members of the squad without the weight and recoil penalties associated with 7.62mm NATO ammunition and weapons.
Training and Sights – Using the Technical Advantages of Superior Ammunition and Weapons
America and NATO are to a great degree at an important decisional point in deciding how to proceed with the next generation of military small arms. Current events and threat efforts to overmatch troops armed almost exclusively with 5.56mm weapons challenges developers and decisions makers to decide to soldier on with decades old capabilities and materials or “pony up” for achieving parity or even overmatch with known enemies and “near-peer” threats. If we opt to field a better, more effective, longer-range intermediate caliber cartridge, then we are obligated to modernize our training to exploit the technical advantages of that cartridge’s capabilities. At the same time, to properly gain from the merits of a larger caliber we must provide a means to see, identify, engage and assess the effects of the new intermediate caliber rifle cartridge on target. It would be illogical and foolhardy to arm a soldier with a rifle and cartridge capable of effective fire at 600 and even 800 meters and hamstring him with a sight designed for engagements at CQB distances or ranges under 300 meters. We must train our personnel, especially those 140,000 front line warfighters, to shoot like rifleman and not just on mechanical Cold War-era pop-up targets at 300 meters and closer in.
There are many proven affordable ways to teach rifle marksmanship and even far more people doing this now. Advanced Marksmanship Classes are being conducted across America that teach the basic fundamentals to deliver effective fire on individual targets at ranges never before considered possible for the average rifleman, and in days not weeks. Employing the new breed of compact optic sights with first focal plane ranging reticles, like the Leupold 3-18x44mm Mark 6 sight recently fielded to USSOCOM troops as ECOS-O (Enhanced Combat Optical Sight – Optimized), even untrained shooters are able to score hits on targets at ranges well past accepted assault rifle ranges even out to and beyond 800 meters. A piggybacked mini-CQB sight provides the immediate response for CQB targets. U.S. Army SDMR gunners armed with accurized 7.62mm NATO M14 EBR rifles, troops who receive little or no formal training in many cases, score well on longer range targets in combat, due to the ballistic advantages of the longer range 7.62mm cartridge and enhanced abilities of a variable power magnified optic, providing a much needed capability organic to the infantry squad. Imagine the combat multiplier effect on a small unit if every member of the squad had that capability inherent in the SDM rifle. To this end the U.S. Army is working on a Squad Common Optic (SCO) program to provide a variable power magnified optic with ranging capability, to every member of the squad to include M249 SAW and M240B machine gunners.
Downstream right of 2015, a “Family of Weapon Sights” (FWS) effort will look at full-solution fire control systems (FS/FCS) that will generate firing solutions to the operator via a disturbed reticle, a changing aiming point that has a pre-calculated adjustment for range, bullet drop and drift, angle, altitude, atmospheric variables and eventually even the effects of wind. Early and unrelated efforts in this area include a DARPA program called “DinGO (Dynamic Image Gunsight Optic) where its contractor, Lockheed Martin, has been working to develop a carbine-sized FS/FCS that will provide a point and shoot capability for accurate engagements out to 800 meters. The highly publicized “TrackingPoint” integrated rifle and sighting system is already available commercially and is delivering first round hits on targets at 900 meters and beyond with completely untrained shooters. While still in an early stage of development as far as its applicability for true combat use, a newer variant for use on carbines is expected out about the time of this writing. When this happens, be it a direct view optic like the USSOCOM ECOS-O, or the digital alternative like the DinGO, Tracking Point or other emerging offerings, the time will come for a needed step up in cartridge and rifle capability to exploit the new found advantages of the modern sighting device.
Modular Weapon Systems – The Soldier’s “Combat Lego Set”
In the conventional military, a soldier is issued his or her rifle and generally they serve with that same weapon wherever the country decides to deploy them. In unconventional or special operations units the operators have a far greater choice of tools from the small arms tool box to choose from based on the mission and the operational environment. They can select the best weapon, caliber and capability to give them an advantage against the enemy in almost any region or environment on the globe. In most cases there is no similarity between these different weapons and therefore additional time is required for training on a host of assorted platforms, a costly obstacle for the much larger conventional force.
What if the basic weapon could be changed; reconfigured at the unit or even operator level based on changing operational roles and responsibilities? What if those troops assigned to duties requiring compact weapons for use in confined spaces (vehicles, buildings) could exchange the barrel and caliber components of their same issue weapon when they are deployed into the mountains of Afghanistan? Today they bring with them what Uncle Sam issues with little to no chance of upgrade. As a result their abilities and survivability is seriously degraded. Today there are numerous Armies who have fielded, and manufacturers that are producing, caliber convertible modular weapons systems that allow the soldier to optimize their individual weapon to suit the changing operational needs of war. The Armies of Italy and the Czech Republic both have fielded assault rifles capable of caliber and barrel conversion by the operator with few if any tools. Recent reports from the Ukraine say the Russians are fielding the AK-12 assault rifle in 7.62mm NATO caliber with alternate caliber conversion kits available to tailor the weapon to changing operational requirements. The USSOCOM has a SCAR Heavy combat rifle variant that can be converted between calibers 5.56x45mm, 7.62x51mm or other intermediate calibers as needed. The new U.S. Army Precision Sniper Rifle (PSR) is a modular weapon that provides the sniper with the means to convert the rifle back and forth between 7.62x51mm, .300 WinMag and even .338 Magnum calibers and in the field. The proposed new U.S. service pistol, the Modular Handgun System (MHS), due to begin its procurement process in FY15, will be a modular weapons system allowing it to meet various and often conflicting user requirements ranging from concealment for personal protection roles to offensive tactical use. Why not apply these advantages of modularity and caliber conversion to our most deployed, most numerous and arguably most important military weapon; the rifle?
True modular weapon systems exist today in many forms. They allow simple barrel changes with tools (as in the FN SCAR) with an almost unlimited exchangeable assortment of barrels, calibers, feed systems, butt stocks, forearms and accessories without tools as exhibited in the HALO or MCX rifle system created by SIG Sauer in 2012 for a U.S. DoD program. The SIG MCX is an impressive example of “plug-n-play” small arms technology that can be converted by the operator in the field using no tools whatsoever. Within minutes the user can go from a subcompact 5.56mm assault rifle with 8 inch barrel for use in a confined spaces role to a modern 7.62x39mm Russian caliber M4-style assault rifle to employ readily available indigenous AK ammunition and magazines. It can be converted into a long 20 inch barrel DMR fitted with a sniper stock and trigger with no change in the weapon’s receiver or serial number. The Colt CM901 can be easily converted from 5.56mm to 7.62mm and back as the needs of the operator change. There is even the Ares-16, a 5.56mm carbine that, like the 1960-era Stoner 63 system, can be converted by the operator from compact carbine to belt-fed light machine gun using the same common receiver. Their sales motto “One Weapon, Any Mission” speaks specifically to the tailorable nature and trend we are seeing in more and more of the modern small arms offerings.
The operational and logistical advantages of this modular approach are limitless. Under the current nearly impenetrable obstacles of the U.S. DoD small arms acquisition system it can and usually does take years (5 or more) before a new weapon is fielded after the process begins at the requirements writing first step. The U.S. Army has had urgent needs for a short 5.56mm NATO Sub Compact Weapon (SCW) from the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom yet more than a decade later no such general-issue U.S. Army weapon exists. Troops have had to “make due” simply because the procurement process is, well frankly, broken. That operation is over and those vehicle crewmen who needed that SCW in 2003 are still waiting. Properly thought through, a new contract for the next individual weapon could and should solicit for a family of modular weapons and include a common receiver with a selection of various interchangeable components like various length and caliber barrels, butt stocks and accessories that could be purchased as needed without the lengthy and costly need to recompete for those optional components. Have it all on a single contract as optional line items and then simply exercise (order) those optional assemblies as needed. This would get what the troops need to the field faster, with less delay and at appreciable and predictable cost savings to the taxpayer. A Lego set in a box ready for combat anywhere, anytime and with no drama.
Recapturing What Has Been Lost
In closing, all of the pieces are here for American and NATO ground troops to recapture their superiority in ground combat using small arms and ammunition, and to be feared again by our enemies. Intermediate caliber cartridges, modular weapon systems, enhanced sighting systems and next generation signature suppression, high performance projectile designs that are Hague compliant and yet “barrier blind,” modern and effective rifle marksmanship training and a host of enablers from fused night vision devices and medium and extended range 40mm low velocity grenades. The end users are waiting, in many ways unaware of the technical and operational superiority of these new evolutionary technologies, for these system components to be combined into a well thought out and executed family of modern weapons and ammunition. This requires decisive and courageous action by military developers and senior decision makers, to earn their pay finding and fielding the 90% solution versus spending our shrinking defense dollars on more accessorized but decades old small arms technology or maybe worse yet on costly, wasteful follies into so-called “leap ahead” technologies that never kill even a single bad guy. All the while our good guys are killed with threat rifles and ammunition from the last century as the threat bounds even farther forward to new levels of small arms overmatch. Surely we can and must do better.