The 2009 NDIA Small Arms Symposium, Exhibition & Firing Demo

The Colt Defense IAR peers toward the desert during a pause in the firing.

The 2009 NDIA Small Arms Systems Symposium, Exhibition, and Firing Demonstration was as busy as its host city of Las Vegas.  For three days, May 19-21, participants from all aspects of the small arms defense community, sharing the common goal of servicing the warfighter, met to exchange ideas, view vendor products, and go hands-on with the latest and greatest hardware.  The 2009 symposium was truly notable due to its tremendous size, with over 700 attendees, yet the exceptional organization throughout the event is a reminder of the hard work of the NDIA small arms committee and operations team that for months prior made arrangements, checked schedules, organized papers, and then consistently stood ready to respond to any changes.

The hosting hotel, Bally’s of Las Vegas, proved to be an ample facility with a large display floor and conference room for the myriad of exhibits and briefings presented.  With a preview reception on the evening of the 18th, it did not take long to realize why the NDIA event is a choice symposium for the domestic and international small arms defense community.  The combination of vendor exhibits, intensive topic papers, and excellent live fire demonstration effectively combine the hands-on and academic aspect of equipment and technology assessment like few other events can.  As the event opened, Sam Campagna of NDIA initiated the symposium sessions by relaying the words of NDIA CEO, LTG (ret) Lawrence Farrell: “We’re here to support the troops.  It’s all about the troops.”  With that humbling beacon to focus in thoughts, so the event began.

A Notable Keynote
The morning of the 19th saw a routine that occurs annually at the NDIA Small Arms Symposium; a keynote speaker addressed the crowd and set the tone for the event.  This year was unique in that Mr. Anthony Melita, Acquisition Technology and Logistics, Land Warfare & Munitions, from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (OUSD), held the keynote title not to reminisce as some speakers have in the past, but to update attendees on a current small arms effort within the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) known as the JAT, or Small Arms and Ammunition Joint Assessment Team.

The JAT was formed in response to a topic that had heated the 2008 symposium; the aging fleet age and technical limitations of the current U.S. Military small arms fleet in comparison to available emerging technologies in both friendly and threat countries.  Mr. Melita’s meticulous explanation of the effort was given with every caution reminding the crowd that a mere four months had past since the change of administration within the U.S. Government and that there are many aspects regarding the future that have yet to be mapped.  What was certain however, is the work the JAT has already accomplished to include developing a working group to implement the JAT effort with Mr. Melita emphasizing the goal, “Ultimately to look objectively at small arms and determine if we are doing the right thing.”  With that concept of unbiased objectivity in mind a guiding formula was established:

– Collect all relevant documents and requirements
– Identify common capability gaps
– Assess material and non-material solutions for the identified gaps
– Compile quad charts for each identified area
– Compile industry input
– Establish conclusions

Notably, industry too was invited to participate and offer insight through NDIA with over ninety companies and individuals responding to the call.  With such an intense effort, the JAT effort produced eighty-five findings with six major conclusions.  Though identified capability gaps, findings, and conclusions were not fully detailed for obvious national security reasons, some major themes arose regarding how to analyze the conclusions and develop future courses of action:

– Develop measurable standards to support requirement documents
– Apply the new standards to the factors and challenges that impact system optimization and decisions regarding potential material and non-material solutions
– Assess the impact of training on small-arms effectiveness
– Identify available Commercial-off-the-Shelf (CotS) and National Defense Industry (NDI) material solutions

Clearly the JAT effort has just begun and though some aspects of the effort and its future are unclear, it is reassuring to see such an effort underway and making substantial progress.  It is a compliment to those involved that the effort has encompassed such a wide group and signals that some of the previous days of keeping industry in the dark may be passed.  The JAT effort is truly collective and has the potential to vitalize numerous industry efforts; well worth watching in the months to come.

Ashbury International’s Asymmetric Warrior’s most notable design change since 2008 is the addition of a rail bearing carbon-fiber heat shield.

PEO Soldier, U.S. Army
Following Mr. Melita, BG Peter Fuller, Program Executive Officer, Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier, took the podium to address the current state of PEO Soldier, which has changed commanders since the 2008 symposium when BG Brown served as PEO.  As with last year, the Soldier-as-a-System (SaaS) concept has rightfully remained a guiding principle in development of all soldier systems.  The SaaS principle simply views the Soldier integrated with his/her weapon, ammunition, sensors/lasers, and training, as a single system achieving a combined effect.  In the big picture, PEO Soldier uses SaaS as an overarching concept to achieve the goals of increasing Soldier combat effectiveness, saving Soldier lives, and improving Soldier quality of life.  In regards to small arms Fuller emphasized, “There’s lots of ambiguity out there… (But) the Army recognizes the Soldier is the center piece of our organization”.  Fuller reiterated that PM Soldier Weapons uses the SaaS model, working with the U.S. Army Infantry Center (USAIC), when determining the nature of small arms development.  As often is the case with Army briefings, training was emphasized as one of the most significant force multipliers in the model regarding combat application of small arms.  Despite this, some end-users in the military infrastructure and various industry personnel have cautioned that training is not capable of addressing material failures and have warned against any entrenching mindset that may cause stagnation fielding material solutions.

Of particular interest in the previous 2008 symposium was the now infamous “carbine controversy” brewing between advocates and critics of the small arms development and procurement process/system in which the operational performance of the M4 Carbine became a spotlight issue.  Despite the intentions presented by COL Robert Radcliffe of the USAIC at last year’s symposium to continue with M4 procurement and “pure fleet” the Army with the system, radical changes over the past twelve months were reinforced by BG Fuller proclaiming that the Future Carbine Competition, which was preceded by an Industry RFI in November, 2008, is still the focus of future plans.  In the meantime, the Army plan is to service the fleet of nearly 1.3 million M4s in the inventory to sustain continuing combat operations as well as push to fielding the new “green ammo” optimized to the M4 operating system as a replacement to the current issue M855 (SS109).

Fuller commented on the milestones already reached by PEO Soldier since last year’s symposium to include general fielding of the M320 Grenade Launcher, formerly the XM320, after several years of hold ups and changes.  Wayne Webber, president of Heckler & Koch Inc., speaking from the H&K exhibition booth acknowledged that significant shipments of M320s were delivered in the month of May and many more are forthcoming.  The first receiving units will be in the 82nd Airborne Division.

Another notable development elaborated by Fuller is a soon to occur user assessment of the XM25 25mm grenade launcher.  Meant to be an individual, user programmable airburst, precision anti-personnel weapon, the XM25 is an offshoot of the original airburst module of the OICW program prominent several years ago.  The premise behind the XM25 concept is to deprive the enemy of covered positions, whether material barriers or defilade, by circumventing the requirement of overcoming the barrier with direct-fire, line-of-sight, weapons.  Unlike current issue 40mm HE and HEDP munitions which require an impact to detonate, the XM25 ordinance allows the user to range his target (or the cover obscuring the target) and exploit the vulnerable areas through pin-pointed airburst detonations.

LTC Chris Lehner, manning the PEO Soldier exhibit took the time to explain the perceived battlefield advantages of the XM25 and nature of the coming user assessment.  “Ever since men have used direct fire weapons, whoever was getting shot at has learned very quickly to use cover… We’re taking away that concept (with airburst munitions) forever.  Every time an enemy goes to cover they give us an opening because they had to get into that position to begin with.  XM25 will exploit that opening.”  The user assessment will be focused on stateside (CONUS) use with a limited safety release that allows shoulder firing, as the current firing sequence of XM25 is limited to stand firing.  The limited end-user assessment will be used by PEO Soldier to evaluate the system’s advantages and limitations while gauging the perceived effectiveness by the user.  LTC Lehner and PEO Soldier are optimistic that Soldiers, once exposed to the XM25’s capabilities, will want to add those capabilities to their organizations and will offer valuable insight regarding the current configuration.

Progressions in individual weapons were not the only gains showcased by the Army; crew served weapons have seen several advancements make their way towards combat fielding in both the performance and weight reduction arena.  Having seen use for a number of years by SOCOM, the MK 48 7.62 mm light machine gun has found its way into the Regular Army (RA) as part of the ongoing effort to reduce weight burdens on troops bound for the relentless terrain of Afghanistan.  Resembling a “beefy” M249, the MK 48 is a stop gap measure providing light weight 7.62 fire power until another PEO Soldier program, the M240L, comes to maturity.  The M240L appears at first glance to be a standard issue M240B configuration, but upon picking up the weapon one quickly appreciates that at the heart of the system is a light weight titanium alloy receiver which sheds nearly six pounds of total weight.  The M240L can also be coupled, in M240E6 configuration, with a light weight folding tripod in place of the venerable but hefty M122 series.  Heavier crew served weapons also continue to see improvements with the continuation of programs such as the XM806 light weight .50 BMG machine gun and the near fielding of the M2A1 enhanced “Ma Deuce” with fixed head-space and a quick change barrel features, as well as further development and implementation of the CROWS (Common Remotely Operated Weapon System) as a tool to remove gunners from the IED vulnerable positions on in-theatre vehicles.

Joint Services Small Arms Synchronization Team (JSSAST)
Chaired by the Army’s COL Carl Flynn, the JSSAST Session routinely serves as a quick reference to the various services small arms paths; a useful tool for industry personnel to reference the current trends among the force.  Preceding the various speakers representing the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and SOCOM, as well as non-lethal developments, Flynn took time to reiterate some of the common goals the JSSAST has been pursuing.  As with several years past, LSAT (Lightweight Small Arms Technology) continues to occupy a prominent place among JSSAST ventures.  Alternative material casings as well as caseless ammunition are still being developed and tested with some degree of success and coincidently relate nicely to the trend of the past six months of making rapid adjustments in order lighten the weight burden of military personnel in theatre.  There has been some criticism in the LSAT arena particularly focused on the feasibility of caseless ammunition, with its associated complexities, as born out during the ACR program of the 1990s, but polymer and metal alloy casings have seen praiseworthy progress which could reduce the weight ratio for the number or rounds carried by an approximate twenty percent.  Though there are some material challenges ensuring LSAT alternative materials are capable of handling the extreme pressure of firearms discharge without rupture or case head separation, the program is an effort that, if successful, could radically benefit light infantry, airborne, and special operations warfighters.  Other current focuses of the JSSAST include advanced fire control systems to increase the “lethality” of legacy and developmental weapon systems.

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