Do we need a new service rifle cartridge? Another way of asking this question is “Is there a problem with the lethality of the 5.56mm NATO caliber?” These questions are two of the most controversial in the military/defense industry today. It pervades the trade shows and is constantly discussed by the end users as well as those on the sidelines. The current wars are giving a lot of feedback to the suppliers and designers, and perhaps the best way to address this is to look at the evidence we can see from recent developments and new programs and trends in the U.S., within the NATO alliance and in threat countries.
There are various key caliber-related topics that we should consider before trying to gain an answer to this question, such as:
The 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge was developed in 1959 from the commercial .222 Remington cartridge for hunting varmints (weighing up to 40 pounds) out to 200-250 yards. The current U.S. 5.56x45mm NATO SS109-style M855 round loaded with a 62 grain “penetrator” projectile was developed not for improved terminal performance on soft tissue but for long range helmet penetration from machine guns (the FN Minimi), NOT specifically for rifles or carbines. Its effect on soft tissue and the human target is greatly dependent upon bullet fragmentation and/or yawing at striking velocities above 2,500 feet per second (fps) and was developed to be fired from 18-20 inch barreled weapons like the M16 rifle and M249 SAW. The “lethality” (more accurately described as “terminal effectiveness” as there are no varying degrees of lethality. If an opponent is fatally shot, but manages to wipe out an entire squad of friendly personnel before succumbing to the wound, the projectile demonstrated 100% lethality but was utterly ineffective at stopping the enemy from continuing the attack) of the M855 round is severely degraded beyond 150 meters when fired from a 14.5 inch barreled M4 Carbine or at any range (0 meters and out) from the 10 inch barreled MK18 CQBR due to the insufficient striking velocities at these ranges. The unique physical stature (narrow torso) of many of the malnourished Middle Eastern combatants when struck by the M855 projectile often produces insignificant wounds similar to those produced by .22 Long Rifle ammunition. Unless the M855 projectile yaws in the target, through and through shots is the norm and yaw from weapon to weapon (fleet yaw) and round to round is unpredictable at best. This is fact based on numerous official U.S. wound ballistic studies conducted and user accounts collected, some of which are presented below as evidence to the point.
Wound Ballistics Experts Support End User Accounts
The disturbing failure of the 5.56x45mm caliber to consistently offer adequate incapacitation has been known for nearly 20 years. Dr. Martin Fackler’s seminal research at the Letterman Army Institute of Research Wound Ballistic Laboratory during the 1980s illuminated the yaw and fragmentation mechanism by which 5.56x45mm FMJ bullets create wounds in tissue. “If 5.56mm bullets fail to upset (yaw, fragment, or deform) within tissue, the results are relatively insignificant wounds, similar to those produced by .22 long rifle bullets – this is true for all 5.56x45mm bullets, including both military FMJ and OTM (open tip match) and civilian JHP/JSP designs used in law enforcement. As expected, with decreased wounding effects, rapid incapacitation is unlikely: enemy soldiers may continue to pose a threat to friendly forces and violent suspects can remain a danger to law enforcement personnel and the public. This failure of 5.56x45mm bullets to yaw and fragment can be caused by reduced impact velocities as when fired from short-barreled weapons or when the range to the target increases. Failure to yaw and fragment can also occur when the bullets pass through only minimal tissue, such as a limb or the chest of a thin, small statured individual, as the bullet may exit the body before it has a chance to yaw and fragment. Two other yaw issues: Angle-of-Attack (AOA) variations between different projectiles, even within the same lot of ammo, as well as Fleet Yaw variations between different rifles, were elucidated in 2006 by the Joint Service Wound Ballistic Integrated Product Team (JSWB-IPT), which included experts from the military law enforcement user community, trauma surgeons, aero ballisticians, weapon and munitions engineers, and other scientific specialists. These yaw issues were most noticeable at close ranges and were more prevalent with certain calibers and bullet styles — the most susceptible being 5.56x45mm FMJ ammunition like M855 and M193.”
Terminal Performance, Wound Ballistics and Ballistic Gelatin Test Comparison Data
We need to compare the various calibers using more than just exterior ballistics data such as muzzle velocity, muzzle energy, and time of flight. Any comparison or assessment of ammunition effectiveness is incomplete without a detailed measure of the projectile’s effect on target and through intermediate barriers common in modern shooting encounters. The effects of the projectile on the human target cannot be measured by exterior ballistics alone and any comparison or claims made without terminal performance data are both inconclusive and perplexing to the uninformed.
There was a very thoughtful “Suppression Study” briefing conducted by the UK MoD at the 2009 European Small Arms and Cannons Symposium in Shrivenham, England, which clearly showed the vast differences in the effectiveness of personnel target suppression between 5.56x45mm, 7.62x51mm and .50 BMG. The U.S. experience has echoed this as well. Clearly larger is better in this case. The Taliban, it has been said, “Ignore 5.56mm, respect 7.62mm and fear .50 BMG.” Our enemies today practice the art of standoff shooting, staying just outside the effective range of our 5.56x45mm weapon systems and in turn engage the friendlies with 7.62x54mm Russian caliber weapons like the SVD and PKM. This is why there is a resurgence of many more 7.62x51mm weapons within the maneuvering frontline units with those NATO countries still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our troops on the receiving end have learned this lesson well, and often at a tremendous cost.
Training is an undeniable factor in weapon and ammunition effectiveness in battle. That goes without saying. However even the very best and most realistic marksmanship training cannot make up for the many factors outside the control of the riflemen. Even the very best trained marksman cannot achieve well placed hits on fleeting or partially exposed targets, those at long range or protected by intermediate barriers, especially when firing under poorly supported field conditions and while taking incoming fire. Thus we must demand that the effectiveness of the rifle cartridge, more specifically the projectile, deliver the greatest possible terminal effects even when the small, hard to hit vital areas on the tough human target like the central nervous system (brain and brain stem) are not struck. Kinetic energy projectiles (bullets, fragments) kill in only two ways – through hits on the central nervous system resulting in near instantaneous death or through tissue destruction and the resulting loss of blood which can take a significant amount of time, up to 50 seconds in fact, an absolute lifetime in the life and death millisecond world of armed combat. Hits to the head and brain stem are nearly impossible to obtain in anything but the very best circumstances and those conditions seldom exist on the battlefield.
Engaging targets at high or low angles as is the case in a mountainous environment like Afghanistan, as any good sniper or marksman can tell you, is a great determining factor on accurate target engagement based on the effects of gravity and drag on rifle projectiles.
The End User Experience
Then, we should carefully consider the actions of the end user community and the effects of their requests on their chain of supply. Perhaps the best indication of whether the current weapons and calibers are doing the job in the eyes of the people out front doing the fighting is the feedback from those people. Sort of looking for columns of smoke, to find where there is fire. We should consider what those nations and units who are carrying the heavy load and doing most of the hard fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and other hot spots in the world are carrying, developing and fielding. The U.S. has clearly carried the ball for more than a decade having as of June 2010 in excess of 78,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan alone with ISAF, 66% of the total troop numbers there. America has also lost nearly 1,100 brave souls there to war and the numbers are rising. Other countries like the UK have real hands on experience outside the wire and as such deserve our respect and examination of their lessons learned and resulting new material developments. We must watch what they do and not be distracted by the claims and actions of those who are not making the same contributions and sacrifices in the ongoing Global War on Terror (GWOT). One must look at what the major combatants are doing in terms of small arms and ammunition programs, especially within their special operations units as their experiences result in rather rapid changes in tactics and equipment. These choices are often emulated by larger, conventional military and other government organization (OGAs) but as in the case with SS109-style 5.56x45mm cartridge improvements or replacement, the larger the organization it seems the slower it embraces change, if things there ever change at all.
Evidence All Around Us Through Lessons Learned
The following are just a few recent and/or ongoing official examples of serious moves to improve or outright replace 5.56x45mm as both assault rifle and light machine gun cartridge that are happening today. These initiatives and trends in most cases are a direct result of the urgent user requests coming back from the various combat theaters the U.S. and NATO as well as our non-NATO allies are engaged in when the repeated and documented failures of 5.56x45mm SS109-style ammunition results in lives lost and missions jeopardized. The fact is that many countries in NATO have found the 5.56x45mm round seriously lacking in modern combat, both at short range and long range. Thus is the reason why:
1. The UK, the U.S., and now Germany and most recently the French military are urgently fielding thousands of 7.62x51mm NATO rifles for troop use Afghanistan.
2. By choice and based on extensive combat experience and independent comparative testing, U.S. Special Mission Units for the most part do not use standard 5.56x45mm M855/SS109-type ammo and instead use the 70 grain Optimal “Brown Tip,” 77 grain MK262 MOD 1, 62 grain MK255 MOD 1 R2LP, and 62 grain MK318 MOD 0 SOST ammunition because of their vastly improved terminal performance against both unprotected and protected human targets and continue to develop and field compact 7.62x51mm carbines (HK417, KAC SR-25K Carbine, LMT MRP/L129A1, LaRue OBR or FN SCAR Heavies).
3. The U.S. Army has spent 15+ years and over $120M developing NLT three iterations of an improved 5.56x45mm M855A1 round to address numerous terminal effectiveness complaints and combat failure reports (at all engagement ranges from CQB to over 500 meters) from at least as far back as U.S. combat operations in Somalia in the early 1990s and certainly post 9/11. The U.S. Army fired more than 1M rounds during the development of the radically new M855A1 round as part of a concerted and focused major effort to replace the SS109-type M855 “penetrator” round deemed ineffective in modern combat. The projectile design of the M855A1 is radically different that that of all other SS109-type ammunition used throughout NATO, and for very good reason.
4. USSOCOM/NSWC Crane/ATK-Federal jointly developed the highly effective 5.56x45mm MK318 MOD 0 SOST round to specifically replace the M855 round based on documented combat failures and its larger SOST cousin the 7.62x51mm MK319 MOD 0 round. These rounds have been fielded within USSOCOM and the USMC (5.56x45mm) with excellent results to date, and are highly sought after by other NATO SOF units and federal law enforcement agencies.
5. BAE Systems is developing and the UK MoD is testing a new 5.56x45mm “High Performance” projectile/round to improve long range performance and lethality on unprotected and light skinned vehicle targets as a possible replacement to the current 5.56x45mm L2A2 Ball round sometime after planned 2011 trials are completed. There is also an independent ongoing effort in the UK in 2010 to revisit and evaluate the medium-caliber .280 British round (and other medium-caliber options) as a possible replacement to the 5.56x45mm and possibly 7.62x51mm cartridge(s) in a modern assault rifle platform.
6. At time of writing at least one NATO SOF unit is still developing a medium-caliber cartridge/platform to increase the terminal performance of a compact M4-style platform based upon combat failures of 5.56x45mm SS109-style ammunition during combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
7. The German Bundeswehr has written a classified report detailing the repeated combat failures of their SS109-style 5.56x45mm NATO DM11 round and have as a result (like the UK) issued an Urgent Requirement for 7.62x51mm semiautomatic rifles for use by German troops in Afghanistan. They have also initiated the design of a new modular, non-caliber specific assault rifle and will soon field a lightweight 7.62x51mm general-purpose machine gun (GPMG) to replace the MG3 GPMG and some 5.56x45mm MG4 light machine guns to deal with long range and protected targets that the 5.56x45mm round is not defeating.