Faced with the possibility of continuing ground combat in coming
years, the U.S. Army and Marines are stepping up their efforts to
improve the small arms used by their infantry.
In recent months, many of the combat operations in Afghanistan
have been conducted by elements of the U.S. 101st Airborne and 10th
Mountain Divisions, using small arms, such as M-4 carbines, 7.62
mm sniper rifles and squad automatic weapons. During Operation Anaconda,
“I actually witnessed some of my guys taking out al Qaeda
targets out to ranges of 500 meters,” Sgt. Maj. Frank Grippe,
from the 10th, told a telephone press conference.
Driving the remaining al Qaeda out of their caves and fortified
positions is “a light infantry fight,” Grippe said.
With this in mind, the Army and Marines are speeding up their work
to give the infantry better weapons. “We want to reduce the
size and weight and increase the lethality and survivability of
all weapons,” said Lt. Col. Gilbert Z. Brown, small arms program
manager at the Army’s Armament Research and Development Center
(ARDEC), at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.
Many light infantry units in the two services are exchanging M-16A2
rifles for M-4 carbines, said Lt. Col. A.J. Diehl, program manager
for infantry weapons at the Marine Corps Systems Command, in Quantico,
The M-4s, made by Colt’s Manufacturing Company Inc., of Hartford,
Conn., fire the same 5.56 mm rounds as the M-16s, built by FN Manufacturing,
of Columbia, S.C. But the M-4s are 5 1/2 inches shorter than the
M-16s, Diehl said. The carbines have a collapsible buttstock, and,
at 5.65 pounds, the M-4s are almost two pounds lighter than the
Those attributes are particularly attractive for light infantry
troops, such as Rangers and Marine reconnaissance units, who are
“always jumping out of C-130s and helicopters and climbing
through building windows during urban combat,” Diehl said.
Both the M-4 and the M-16—which remains the rifle of choice
for many standard military units—can be outfitted with a system
of rails, Diehl explained. This modular system allows the two weapons
to accept a wide array of auxiliary devices, such as a day or night
sight, laser target designator, flashlight and even an M-203 40
mm grenade launcher.
“Right now, I’m buying thermal sights,” said
Diehl. “For the first time, we’re giving our infantry
the ability to see through dust, smoke, all the fog of war. This
is a great capability that we need to be pushing through, and we
The Army, meanwhile, is trying to pick up the pace of development
for its futuristic, but problem-plagued objective individual combat
weapon, which eventually is scheduled to replace many of the rifles,
carbines and grenade launchers carried by soldiers and Marines.
The OICW is being developed by a team headed by ATK Integrated
Defense Company, of Plymouth, Minn., which has a $105 million contract
from ARDEC. The team includes Brashear Ltd., of Pittsburgh; Heckler
& Koch GmbH, of Oberndorf, Germany; Octec, of Bracknell, in
the United Kingdom, and Dynamit Nobel AG, of Cologne, Germany.
Like the M-16 and the M-4 with an attached M-203, the OICW can
both fire 5.56 mm rifle bullets and launch grenades. A major difference
between the two systems is the nature of their grenades. The M-203
shoots a traditional 40 mm grenade, which explodes on impact. The
OICW launches a newer, 20 mm version, which can be timed to explode
in the air above a target, spraying lethal fragments into an enemy
hidden behind a wall.
Originally, the OICW had been scheduled to begin production in
2005. That date was pushed back to 2009 after tests at the Army’s
Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in Maryland, turned up design problems.
During one of the tests, a 20 mm round detonated in an OICW chamber,
injuring two testers.
Since then, the ATK team has made changes in the weapon’s
design to prevent a reoccurrence, officials said. In January, ATK
completed a new series of test firings of the 20 mm rounds. More
than 60 were fired successfully, said Randy Strobush, ATK’s
OICW program director. There were no misfires.
Furthermore, the weapon’s accuracy “far exceeded customer
expectations,” he said. “We tested at ranges out to
500 meters, and the OICW consistently delivered airbursts within
a very tight pattern.” The successful test results demonstrate
the OICW’s readiness to proceed to the next step of development,
The Army apparently agreed. In March, the service’s small
arms program officials decided to accelerate the OICW’s schedule
by two years and begin production of block I of the weapon in 2007,
rather than 2009, according to Barbara Muldowney, acting OICW product
manager at Picatinny.
Meanwhile, efforts to reduce the weapon’s weight would continue,
she said. The original prototype of the OICW weighed 18 pounds,
which the Army said was too heavy for an infantryman’s personal
weapon, she noted.
Currently, plans call for the weapon to weigh “no more than
17.5 pounds” when production of block I begins in 2007, she
said. In block II, scheduled for 2010, the OICW’s weight is
scheduled to drop to 15.5 pounds.
Contractors plan to achieve this reduction by taking advantage
of technical advances in electronic and power-source miniaturization,
lighter composite materials and plastic, rather than glass optics,
Contractors defended the OICW’s weight, claiming that it
already is comparable to that of the M-4 or M-16, equipped with
the grenade launcher and a full package of optics. They noted that
the OICW’s 20 mm round weighs only one quarter of a pound,
compared to half a pound for the M-203’s 40 mm round.
The current M-4/M-16 system is modular, allowing soldiers to attach
only those accessories that they need at the moment, Muldowney said.
The OICW, by comparison, operates as a single piece in its present
design. Eventually, the Army plans to redesign the OICW to allow
the rifle and grenade launcher portions to be detached and operated
separately, Muldowney explained. But that won’t happen until
block III, “sometime after 2010,” she said.
The OICW’s estimated cost—perhaps as high as $18,000
apiece—is disturbing to many who cite a unit price of $586
for the M-16. But contractors assert that when the grenade launcher
and all the other add-ons are included, the M-16/M-4 systems cost
more than $35,000 each. OICW critics challenge that claim.
Still, Muldowney points out, the Army doesn’t plan to issue
an OICW to every soldier. Only four members of every nine-member
infantry squad will get one. The others will retain their M-4s or
M-16s, she said.
At present, the Marine Corps has no plans to adopt the OICW, said
Diehl. “We’re pretty much taking a wait and see attitude,”
he told National Defense.
“My personal opinion is that the Army needs to focus more
on the ergonomics of the weapon,” he said. “You need
to be able to handle that thing with one hand, and you can’t
now. I’m convinced until they address that issue, they’re
not going to get the interest of the Marine Corps.”
The Corps is slowly replacing its M-40A1 sniper rifles with the
newer M-40A3 version, Diehl said. The A1 was put into service during
the 1970s as the Marines’ primary long-range sniper weapon,
Diehl explained. As the old rifles come in for reconditioning, they
are being retired in favor of the A3s.
Each of the weapons is hand-built by craftsmen at the Marine Corps
Marksmanship Training Unit at Quantico, Diehl said. The A3 stock
has been modified to accommodate a wider variety of body sizes and
proportions, Diehl said. A bipod and accessory rail now is fitted,
The M-40 series is essentially a Remington 700 with a fiberglass
stock and day and night scopes specially built for the Marines.
It fires a 7.62 mm NATO round, which “has more staying power
than the 5.56 mm,” Diehl said. It is a bolt-action rifle,
rather than automatic, which locks the round in place better and
provides more consistent accuracy.
“In some situations—such as hostage situations—accuracy
is more important than numbers of rounds,” Diehl said.