The first five battalions from the evaluations got to keep their IARs and the rest of the Corps started getting theirs in January 2012. “Initially to our schoolhouses,” Clark said, “the Infantry Officers Course, School of Infantry East and West, and Maintainers Course. Then we start pushing them out to all the other battalions. It’s about an eighteen month process to get all the guns fielded.”
Grunts Get Their Say
We asked what ‘lessons learned‘ had come out of the formal tests, field evaluations and combat experience. Clark noted that the Grip Pod (a vertical handgrip with small bipod inside) had been replaced by a simple ‘broomstick’ type grip, along with a real bipod like those found on the Corps’ M40 series sniper rifles.
Also, he said, “We’ve got a new two-point sling … that’s also probably going to be a common sling across the Marine Corps.” This, we learned, is Blue Force Gear’s Vickers Combat Applications Sling and rail sling mount.
Soft and flexible Manta rail covers are another user recommendation that found official favor. “Not only does the Manta rail cover give you a good heat shield, but you can also integrate things like touch pads,” Clark said.
IARs sent to battalions for issue come with everything but ammo. The package includes an operator’s manual, cleaning kit, SDO, backup iron sights, soft rail covers, bipod, two-point sling, and twenty two 30-round service rifle magazines (basic load of 660 rounds per IAR).
This last component comes because feeding the beast was another thing that changed along the way. The original RFI had an objective of a hundred round magazine. But, Clark said, at the time testing began the available hundred round magazines weren’t sufficiently reliable.
“I think that potentially we could go to higher capacity magazines than we have but there’s not a strong demand signal from the operating forces to do that. We’ve had very positive feedback with the thirty-round magazines both during pre-deployment training and through the current limited fielding.”
Reliability of standard GI issue aluminum wall mags has improved considerably, Clark noted, since a joint services development of a new follower that is characterized by its tan color.
Squad Day Optic
It was the Marine Corps’ decision to put Trijicon’s tough and versatile TA11SDO-CP, already serving on the M249 as the SU-258/PVQ Squad Day Optic, on the M27. Clark explained how this came about. “We only tested optics within our inventory… because we wanted commonality, an optic that the Marines were familiar with,” he said. “We tested the RCO (Rifle Combat Optic), a 4 power day optic that we field on the M16A4 and the M4. We tested that and the SDO. The SDO was just a little more durable in automatic fire. We‘ve also fielded backup iron sights; not just on the M27, but also on the M16A4 and the M4.”
Clark also pointed out advantages to the SDO’s piggyback reflex sight. “That gives you more flexibility in a closer operating environment where you’re doing CQB or you’ve got popup targets close to you. One thing we’ve really seen is that the automatic rifleman brings a lot to the fight. And now, because he’s got a more portable, more compact weapon, he’s able to remain in the rifle squad, in the ‘stack’ in a MOUT environment. So giving him that reflex sight is a lot of capability too.”
In with the new
It makes sense that similarities between current M16A4 rifles and the M27 have made it relatively easy to integrate as far as logistical support and training of operators and armorers. As is customary in the Corps, Systems Command sends out NETTs (New Equipment Training Teams) with the IARs. These include both active duty and contract personnel, many of whom are former Marines, all dedicated to ensuring seamless transition from old to new.
But changes in tactical doctrine are quite a different matter. We offered the long held belief that belt fed machine guns delivering a ‘wall of lead’ with supersonic ballistic cracks and uncomfortably close impacts of incoming rounds, are essential to suppression of the enemy. This, it is said, is a big part of where fire superiority comes from; allowing attacking infantry to advance or outnumbered defenders to prevail.
The response we got from this battle-hardened infantry leader was strongly stated. “I totally disagree,” Clark said. “Fire superiority is based on both accuracy and volume of fire. The greater your accuracy the less volume of fire you need.” Current doctrine, he added, is based on the belief that there’s no effective ‘acoustic suppression’ below the sound of a ‘fifty cal.’ With the M27 we’re increasing the accuracy and because of that we can reduce the volume and maintain the same or better effects.”
He also pointed out tangible advantages of aimed fire from IARs in COIN (Counter-Insurgency) environment where every single projectile going downrange has potentially a strategic effect. In major combat operations volume of fire in putting out a wall of lead can be a good thing, he said, but in a COIN environment it’s important to avoid non-combatant casualties.
Then, with ease arising, no doubt, from more than a bit of repetition in a variety of settings, Clark summarized the M27 IAR’s practical and tactical virtues. “By being far more accurate and more portable we are achieving better effects and having to expend fewer rounds. Particularly in the defense, we use about half the ammunition with an M27 equipped squad to achieve the same effects on target,” he noted. “In the offense, in a squad attack in a MOUT environment, you’re keeping your automatic rifleman in the fight longer. His immediate and remedial action is faster, his time to reload is faster, he’s got a more portable and more accurate weapon system. The impacts are pretty significant in the attack and in defense in our testing as well as combat ‘lessons learned’ have demonstrated that.”
We repeated something we’d heard along the way in support of the M27 concept; other weapons in the Marine infantry company – M240 and M249 in particular – provide the belt-fed, sustained and suppressive fire effect that some might find desirable. They all work together. When the Marine rifle company is in the attack or in the defense there are six M249s and other weapons that are in the game.
Clark agreed, adding, “So that company commander does his mission analysis based on the task that he’s assigned by his higher. He has the flexibility to keep a light machine gun in his plan. Weapons platoon is still going to have M240s and you’ve got weapons company that the battalion commander can task organize to provide additional machine guns down to the company level and below.”
BAR vs. IAR
There was an ‘optional question’ in what we had sent in advance of the interview and it seemed like this was the time to bring it up: What do you want to tell those proud old warriors from WWII, Korea, and maybe a few right up to Vietnam who were humpin’ the big BARs?
To many of them, their way of thinking is you‘ve got to have .30-06 caliber BAR to have a real Infantry Automatic Rifle. And now their beloved Marine Corps has gone to that pipsqueak 5.56 and the world is goin’ to hell.
Clark’s polite response was a well measured combination of appreciation and official findings. “We’ll always respect the Marines who have gone before us so I would not tell them their opinions are wrong. They’ve earned the right to have those opinions….” He patiently repeated the essential points; that it has been shown through testing, evaluation and combat experience with the M27 that accuracy and shot placement are more important to target incapacitation than caliber. “If you‘re engaging a target and you‘re hitting where you‘re aiming, you‘re more likely to incapacitate the target.”
We gave it another try, quoting part of a conversation with a salty old Marine combat vet who had told us, “When I was layin’ on my belly in the mud in Korea, I could hit a ChiCom at 500-600 yards with my BAR, single-shot.” Would you tell him he was carrying something too heavy, too long, too cumbersome? And if he wasn’t laying on his belly and had to pick it up and run with it would he rather be running with an M27 or a BAR? Clark’s answer was befitting of an officer and a gentleman. “I would say to our Marine brothers who carried the BAR; if they had an opportunity to carry the M27, I think a lot of them would take that opportunity to carry it in combat.”
Nearly a Decade
Our last question – likely the most controversial – was only implied among those on the list we had sent. But Clark was clearly well prepared to answer. Quoting more than one source familiar with the process, we asked, “Why the hell did it take the Corps ten years to buy an off-the-shelf rifle?”
“I would argue that it didn’t take ten years,” he firmly stated, “It took three. Because we had an approved Milestone B in 2007 and we fielded guns in 2010. There was a lot of experimentation that went into refining the Infantry Automatic Rifle concept. But from the time we initiated a program to fielding took three years.”
Again echoing credible observers, we cited the Universal Need Statement from back in 1999-2001. Clark acknowledged that the call for an infantry automatic rifle was more than a decade old, but noted that the Corps is constantly doing experimentation in small arms and every other aspect of its capabilities. “Not every concept is fielded,” he said, “we have to go through a deliberate process to assess new concepts. (With) these types of developmental efforts, it’s not uncommon for them to take ten years. I would argue that the M27 took three years.”
Cradle to Grave
That was then and this is now. Having successfully shepherded the IAR through the last critical stages leading to fielding, Clark’s Infantry Weapons Capabilities Integration team is responsible for “life cycle management” of the M27 and most every other weapon in the Devil Dogs’ arsenal. “I’m responsible for where every gun – everything that shoots something – is located in the Marine Corps. We have tracking systems to do that,” he said. “If units are having ‘washouts’ – in the last ten years we’ve had combat replacements, combat washouts, combat losses – I have to know where those are to program funding to replace those. We never really lose visibility of weapons throughout the life cycle.” And, we asked, what about the M27? “Maybe a twenty year life cycle, maybe more,” Clark speculated.
Unless, we speculate in turn, something ‘new and improved’ comes along in the meantime. Like the increasingly promising developments in JSSAP’s Lightweight Small Arms Technologies Program. And don’t forget that tantalizing tidbit from General Amos, today’s Commandant: “…it [IAR] could also take the place, possibly, of our service weapon. So yet to be seen.”