Do We Need a New Service Rifle Cartridge?

A soldier with the Indian army shows U.S. Army Sgt. Luke Hoffman, with 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, the 5.56 Insas sniper rifle during the static display portion of the opening ceremony for exercise Yudh Abhyas 2009 at Camp Bundela, India, Oct. 12, 2009. Yudh Abhyas is a bilateral exercise involving the armies of India and the United States. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Crista Yazzie/Released)

25.  At the 2010 NDIA Joint Armaments Conference in Dallas U.S. Army PM-Soldier Weapons Majors Shawn Murray and Elliot Caggins briefed the results of a survey conducted during 2 weeks in Afghanistan in 2010 wherein combat troops stated, “One of 8 key focus areas the troops stated needed urgent effort on was 5 – increased firepower (caliber) at extended ranges,” and wanted more 7.62x51mm MK48 LMG’s to replace 5.56x45mm M249 SAWs to deal with both protected and long range targets.

26.  At this same May 2010 NDIA conference the U.S. Army ARDEC (Armaments Research, Development and Engineering Center headquartered at Picatinny Arsenal, NJ) Program Manager for the LSAT (Lightweight Small Arms Technologies) program once again briefed that the current LSAT ammunition, LMG and new LSAT Carbine system architecture was a “scalable design” and open to and had been modeled for a “larger caliber” alternative to the current 5.56x45mm prototypes (6.5mm had been discussed in public the forum previously).

27.  A confidential unreleased study and test report prepared by the U.S. Army ARDEC on an optimum assault rifle cartridge identified not 5.56x45mm as the optimum assault rifle cartridge but one within the 6.5mm-6.8mm range.

28.  The majority of states in America do not allow cartridges under .25 caliber to be used for deer hunting, to include .223 Remington and 5.56x45mm rounds even with enhanced non-Hague compliant hunting-style (deforming) projectiles.

29.  The Communist Chinese developed and have since fielded an entire family of 5.8mm ammunition (specifically to outperform the 5.56x45mm NATO round) and weapons versus the traditional Chinese Communist practice of fielding the service rifle cartridge of Russia, e.g. the inferior 5.45x39mm round.  The Chinese consider the 5.8mm caliber family of weapons to be so effective and superior to the weapons chambered in the 5.56x45mm NATO round that they do not export this technology to other customer states.

30.  One of the prime conclusions of the December 2009 NSWC Crane-compiled test report entitled Comparison of Terminal Ballistic Performance of M855, MK318, 115 gr. 6.8 SPC and MK319 concluded that the M855 in its current NATO SS109-style loading was inferior in many important regards to include accuracy, short range (CQC) and 100 yard terminal effects, a tendency for through and through over penetration and inferior barrier penetration.  It is worth noting that the medium-caliber 6.8x43mm Rem. SPC round included in this test report was tested not with the BTB (Blind to Barrier) SOST projectiles used in the MK318 and MK319 SOST rounds tested but with a conventional OTM (Open Tip Match) bullet and thus would likely have performed far better with the SOST projectile when compared to the 5.56x45mm SOST and M855 rounds tested.

31.  The factual contents of the excellent monograph written by U.S. Army Major Thomas P. Ehrhart entitled Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan; Taking back the Infantry Half-Kilometer discusses the unsuitability of the SS109-style 5.56x45mm cartridge in modern warfare, in particular in the long-range war in Afghanistan.  Key observations and conclusions in this excellent study include, “Small caliber high velocity rounds are especially dependent on this instability (yawing) for their lethality.  For the M855 cartridge, maximum stability is from 150 meters out to 350 meters and it is therefore potentially less lethal between these two ranges.”  Major Ehrhart goes on to state, “With the recent halt in production of the M855A1 cartridge (2nd iteration M855A1 ‘Lead Free Slug’ {LFS} variant), which designers promised would deliver this effectiveness (enhanced terminal effectiveness), it appears all options within this caliber have been exhausted.”  On the subject of training as it relates to hit probability of the rifleman, Major Ehrhart states that, “The limited capability of the current M855 cartridge combined with the extended distances of engagements in Afghanistan requires that shot placement on target is more critical than ever before.”  And on page 28 of this document Major Ehrhart recounts the factual report about when, “Lieutenant Colonel David H. Petraeus (then current 4-star Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan) was shot in the chest by an M855 round from an M249 squad automatic weapon.  He walked out of the hospital several days after the accident.”  Major Ehrhart also provides more than 100 references and documents, official and otherwise to support of the conclusions and statements on this subject as contained in this monograph.

32.  From December 2006 through May 2007 the U.S. DoD Technical Support Working Group (TSWG) conducted an interagency/international assessment of various medium-caliber MURG upper receivers to improve the terminal effects of 5.56x45mm M4-style platforms.  These extensive user tests documented that such a drop-on medium-caliber conversion was feasible and effective in nearly doubling the terminal effects of the short-barrel 10-14.5 inch barreled carbine.  It was also discovered that operators were able to engage targets with equal or better accuracy when compared with 5.56x45mm platforms.  The additional recoil impulse of the more powerful 6.8x43mm Rem. SPC cartridge when compared to identical platforms in 5.56x45mm did not degrade the ability of the test personnel to rapidly engage multiple targets – in practice both calibers were identical contrary to common myth.  From a compact carbine a medium-caliber COTS MURG option delivers 56-77% heavier and 24% larger frontal surface area projectiles and two times the projectile mass to the target, as well as a 33% increase in muzzle energy when compared to even the very best 5.56x45mm cartridges, and at no degradation of hit probability even in rapid fire.  To no ones surprise ballistic gelatin testing performed by the FBI, the USMC, and other agencies within the U.S. DoD with both calibers employing similar projectile designs reveal far greater permanent and temporary wound cavities for the larger, heavier projectiles.

33.  Recommendations to the troops from the U.S. Army Infantry Center and School at Fort Benning (recently combined with the Armor Center from Fort Knox as the “Maneuver Center of Excellence”), as taken from the September/ October 2006 article in Infantry magazine, addresses the reports and causes of combat failures of 5.56x45mm NATO ammunition and the results of the 2006 JSWB-IPT study into the issue, and offers this advice below to the troops fighting with 5.56x45mm NATO caliber weapons.

4.  “There are doctrinal and training techniques that can increase Soldier effectiveness.  The analysis tools used in this study were used to evaluate some alternative engagement techniques.  The technique of engaging CQB targets with controlled pairs — two aimed, rapid shots as described in Chapter 7 of FM 3-22.9 — was shown to be significantly better than single aimed shots.  While that should certainly not be surprising to those who have been using this technique for some time, we now know why.  Not only are two hits better than one, but controlled pairs help to average out striking yaw; on average, the Soldier is more likely to see a hit where the bullet’s yaw behavior works in his favor.” 

Is this not a direct admission by the U.S. Army organization responsible for developing new infantry and close quarters combat material requirements and training methods our soldiers in close combat and marksmanship that the terminal effectiveness of a single 5.56x45mm NATO round and the ability of even our well trained rifleman to accurate engage the target is questionable under realistic combat scenarios?  Then certainly the 3rd such Finding in this same report is very telling and acknowledges the shortcomings of the U.S. M855 5.56x45mm NATO round.

3. “Field reports are accurate and can be explained by the phenomenon of bullet yaw.  Shot placement aside, why is it that some Soldiers report “through-and-through” hits while others report no such problems, despite using the same weapons and ammunition?”

34.  The 2005 USSOCOM Joint Operational Requirements Document (JORD) for the SCAR family of modular weapons included a family of “Enhanced Ammunition” required directly as a result of various “post 9/11 failures of the M4A1 and M855 round.”  Millions have been spent on this program to both improve the performance of the weapon system and the ammunition fired from it.  It is indeed interesting to note that recently USSOCOM announced that the command no longer planned to purchase 5.56x45mm NATO caliber SCAR Light (MK16 MOD 0) rifles due to lackluster reports from the SOF operators, even when employing the vastly improved 5.56x45mm MK318 MOD 0 Barrier (SOST) round.  However, USSOCOM still plans to procure and field multiple variants of the 7.62x51mm NATO SCAR Heavy (MK17 MOD 0) rifle based on positive field reports of its superior performance against both short range and long range unprotected and protected threat targets to include one account of two insurgents killed with a single 7.62x51mm SOST round fired from a MK17 MOD 0 rifle after penetrating both the exterior and seat of a passenger vehicle.

35.  In a May 2010 briefing on development and fielding status of the U.S. M855A1 EPR round the U.S. Army reports that in “Baselining surveys initiated (current Soldier/Public perception of the M855A1) 2/3 of 2,200 Soldiers do not think the Army is providing the best 5.56mm ammunition.”   

Some of America’s very best trained and most combat hardened SOF warriors elect to carry the additional weight of a 7.62x51mm rifle and ammunition in the brutal mountainous terrain of Afghanistan.  Could it be they know something we don’t?  Maybe we should listen to them.

Having considered the above situations and accounts, and all the money and effort that has been expended in recent years to improve or outright replace the 5.56x45mm NATO round throughout the U.S. and NATO, this author is led to conclude that without a doubt, “Yes, there is a problem with the current rifle caliber and cartridge in service today.”

Don’t Allow the “Logistical Tail to Wag the Dog”
It’s not just from the above situations and reports that we should consider the need for a new system and caliber.  There are many factors to be weighed into these decisions.  It’s expensive and time consuming to change out a caliber and related weapon systems with all of the incumbent training issues, logistical concerns, etc.  Frequently we hear social issue solutions of great financial magnitude being touted because, “If it saves one child’s life, it’s worth it.”  In the case of weapon systems, we should not be looking at only the expense, we should be looking at whether it will consistently save the lives of our soldiers and enhance their ability to incapacitate and kill our enemies.  Many of the symptoms we can see in the above list indicate that lives are being lost, enemies not being effectively countered in the current theatres of operation due to the rifle caliber currently in use.  The symptoms are not only the requests for a new or enhanced cartridge but the massive removal of other legacy systems like the M14 from mothballs in order to address the current environment.

A Simple Scientific Approach is Needed
There is a relatively small cost to develop or procure various cartridges and platforms and conduct a detailed assessment of the trade-offs on medium-caliber, intermediate calibers or non-traditional small caliber projectiles.  The success of rounds such as the USSOCOM SOST ammunition are excellent examples of how this can be done cheaply for the overall good of our war fighters.  We can only know where we stand as far as the true effectiveness of our current issue rifle ammunition if we are wiling to openly and fairly assess it against more modern alternatives.  Then once developed, tested and safety certified we should field small batches in combat and let the troops report back on their effectiveness.  Let the troops decide for a change what works best – they are the ones fighting and in some cases sadly dying with what the supply system issues them.  Keep the enemy off guard by fielding incremental improvements in small arms and ammunition more often.  Spend some money, do the assessment, don’t limit the choices and give the troops an equal seat at the decision making table.

The fact that these boots-on-the-ground warriors are choosing (or would choose if given an option) other than the current issue 5.56x45mm NATO caliber weapons for their current combat needs is not an indictment of how that family of weapons has served in other conflicts, other environments, but it does clearly show that the people who have their lives at risk and a job to do would choose something different if the option is open.

The U.S. should lead this effort if NATO will not.  If the U.S. Army will not then call in the Marines to do it – they’ll get it done.  If they will not then we can rely on our special operators as they have already addressed this capability gap with new weapons and more effective ammunition.  What are we afraid of?  That we might put the fear of the American rifleman back in our adversaries?

About the author
Jim Schatz is a life long student of military and modern small arms and ammunition and their use.  A former U.S. Army Airborne infantryman with the famed 82nd Airborne Division and advanced marksmanship instructor/shooter with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, Jim has spent more than 3 decades performing in the field of small arms use and training, development, testing and user support.  Presently he is an independent consultant in the field of modern small arms and ammunition and has been a strong proponent for the rapid fielding of incrementally superior enhanced small arms and ammunition to better serve our dedicated frontline war fighters through the regular assessment of proven new and off-the-shelf technologies and materials.

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