With fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan placing increased emphasis on precise marksmanship, the Marine Corps is investing heavily in small-arms optical systems.
Since the invasion of Iraq, the Corps has quadrupled the number of such systems — from 155,000 in 2003 to 500,000 in 2005 — and is buying still more. The total number soon will surpass 600,000, Jean Beal, program manager for optics and non-lethal systems at Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va., told a recent industry briefing.
Traditionally, only snipers and designated marksmen have been issued small-arms optical systems, including scopes that are similar to the telescopic sights long used by big-game hunters, night-vision equipment and observation devices.
Most infantrymen have trained and fought with simple “iron sights,” an open, unmagnified aiming system consisting of some sort of post on the weapon’s barrel and a notch in the rear. Often, especially on military weapons, the rear sight is adjustable for windage and elevation. This can improve accuracy, but it takes training and experience, said Lt. Col. Steve Grass, product lead for optics.
“That’s why all Marines spend time every year on the rifle range, maintaining their shooting skills,” Grass said.
The Corps began putting telescopes on rifles in 1942 when it first issued M1903 Springfield rifles equipped with a military version of the 8X Unertl target sight to its snipers.
Now, the Corps wants to spread more modern versions of such optics more widely through its combat units. The goal, Grass said, is for every rifleman in fighting units, for the first time, to have a weapon equipped with a rifle combat optic that magnifies targets four times what the unaided human eye can see.
In 2005, the Marines awarded a $660 million contract to Trijicon Inc., of Wixcom, Mich., to provide up to 800,000 of these optics over a five-year period. The initial order was for 104,000 scopes at $610 each at a price of $63.4 million.
The rifle combat optic — designed for use with the M-16 rifle and M-4 carbine — dramatically increases lethality at greater ranges, Grass said. “The idea is simple. If I can see my enemy before he sees me, I can eliminate him before he eliminates me.”
A well-trained and experienced infantryman, armed with a standard M-16 with iron sights, can hit a specific target up to 550 meters way. With a rifle combat optic — also known as the Trijicon advanced combat optical gun sight, or ACOG — a shooter can fire accurately upon targets up to 800 meters away.
The new gun sight incorporates a dual-illuminated red chevron-shaped reticle for low-light situations. In low light or at night, the chevron is lit up by tritium, a radioactive gas. During daylight, a fiber optic system collects ambient light to ensure brightness and contrast.
An optical breakthrough called the Bindon aiming concept permits a both-eyes-open shooting method that greatly increases hit ratios in fast-moving close-quarter battle. The system, which mounts to a Picatinny rail on the top of the rifle barrel, is battery-free.
“The ACOG mounted on the M-16 service rifle has proven to be the biggest improvement in lethality for the Marine infantryman since the introduction of the M1 Garand in World War II,” said Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis in a document published by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. Mattis heads the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, which includes the laboratory. Both are in Quantico.
Most versions of the M1 — the standard rifle for U.S. troops during World War II — were not equipped with any kind of scope. But the M1 — the world’s first widely used semi-automatic infantry weapon - -was much faster and accurate than the bolt-action rifles issued to most enemy soldiers during that conflict.
Issuing a scope to every combat rifleman will increase that accuracy even higher, Grass said. Currently, Marines qualify as shooters every year, using only their iron sights. Eventually, Grass said, they will qualify using their scopes.
Meanwhile, the Marines also are upgrading the optics for scout snipers. In 2005, the Corps awarded a $15 million contract to Premiere Reticles, of Winchester, Va., for scout sniper day scopes to replace the service’s aging and failing Unertl sniper scopes. Premiere Reticles is the U.S. distributor for the German-made Schmidt & Bender 3x12x50 combat telescope.
The new scopes will become standard equipment for all Marine 7.62 mm M40A1, M40A2 and M40A3, and .50 caliber M82A1, M82A2 and M82A3 sniper rifles. The Barrett Firearms Company, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., manufactures the .50 caliber rifles. The 7.62 mm weapons are handmade by Marine armorers at Quantico. The service initially purchased 575 scopes at $1,749 each. The contract allows the Corps to buy a total of 7,500 by 2010.
The Schmidt & Bender scope replaces the venerable Unertl. It features an illuminated, state-of-the-art reticle that allows for more precise range finding at greater distances and on a wider variety of target sizes.
Marines have reported that the new sight is more durable than its predecessor. It holds its sight alignment during rough and ready combat conditions.
One complaint about the Schmidt & Bender scope is that it measures in meters, rather than yards, but snipers apparently are adjusting to that. Those of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment scored the first recorded combat kill using the new optic in January. They killed an insurgent planting improvised explosive devices near Tallulah, Iraq.
In addition, the Corps this year plans to procure:
• A new scout sniper observation telescope to take the place of the 20-power daytime M49 spotting scope. The M49 has seen several decades of use observing potential targets for snipers and artillery.
• A scout sniper medium-range night sight. This scope is a lightweight, weapon-mounted, battery-operated device for engaging targets at ranges between 400 and 800 yards during nighttime and other low-light conditions.
• A scout sniper observer night device to detect, identify and range main-size targets up to 400 yards away and vehicle-size objects up to 800 yards distant in reduced lighting or obscured conditions.
• A tactical weapons light to attach to rifle barrels, enabling Marine to illuminate potential nighttime targets without having to fumble with a separate, handheld flashlight.
Between 2008 and 2011, the Marines plan to conduct research and development into the next generation of optics and begin fielding them to operating forces, starting with infantry units, Beal said.
The Marines are eager to replenish their inventory of obsolete optical systems with modern technology. The Corps has “tens of thousands of items that I will not be able to maintain,” Beal said. Some of them predate the Korean War.
“I want to replace multiple systems with one item — a family line of optical systems,” she said. “I want a small, light, low-powered package with day and night capability, global positioning system technology, precision targeting and — this being the Marine Corps — I want it for free.”
Beal was not serious about the price, of course, but funding is a concern, she noted. Spending has fluctuated from $82 million in 2006 to $22 million requested for 2007. However, the 2006 emergency funding bill to pay for wartime and Katrina expenses, signed into law in June by President Bush, contained $271.5 million for Marine optics.
Acquiring the latest in combat optics is important on the battlefield, Grass emphasized. He noted that U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have encountered enemy snipers equipped with telescopes and night-vision equipment.
Most of the enemy gear was old, often from the Soviet era. But it can be effective, he said. “If we’re going to win battles, we have to maintain our technological advantage.”
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