U.S. Military Losing Edge in Small Arms

By Jim Schatz
Since the end of World War II, only 10 U.S tank crew members have been killed in warfare. This is an amazing testament to fighting vehicle technology and the money spent to develop and sustain that tactical edge over our enemies. 

In that same period, the United States has lost some 60,000 soldiers in small arms engagements, an approximate one for one exchange.

Few foes on the planet could hope to dominate America in a tank, air or naval battle. Yet every bad actor with an AK-47 takes on U.S. and NATO ground forces in a small arms fight. We are no longer suitably armed to prevent it.

This happens because the current U.S. Army small arms development and acquisition system is dysfunctional and virtually unworkable, even for those within the system. It has not brought troops substantial evolutionary small arms and ammunition capabilities in years, or even decades, and too often not at all, and almost never on or under budget. Lives are often lost as a result. 

Case in point is the Battle of Wanat in 2008 at Combat Outpost Kahler in Afghanistan. Nine soldiers of the 173rd Brigade Combat Team — in a valiant attempt to prevent enemy insurgents from overrunning their positions — were killed and 27 others injured when numerous squad weapons to include M4s, M249s and MK19s stopped firing due to overheating.

The failures of the M4 carbines, caused by excessive sustained fire rates, were predictable and well known by experts. Army tests in 1990, and a 2001 report by U.S. Special Operations Command, documented this serious shortcoming and yet nothing was done to address it until after the avoidable deaths at Wanat.

Equal blame can be laid at the feet of those in Congress and our military leadership who support small arms programs at best as an afterthought. Small arms are funded with the crumbs leftover from the big ticket programs that eat up billions upon billions of dollars developing high-tech weapons that too often are never used in modern warfare.

Small arms are the most deployed weapon systems in our arsenal, yet the age of America’s eight most numerous conventional military small arms are on average more than 35 years old. While we have replaced uniforms, helmets, body armor, radios, rations and footwear countless times in three decades, the weapons and ammunition we use in 2015 are little more than variants of Vietnam-era technology possessing the antiquated capabilities of a bygone era. 

The Army continues to procure weapons with old performance specifications that have been repeatedly eclipsed by superior commercial small arms used by our allies, our top-tier special operations forces and sometimes by our enemies. Elite units — with a few exceptions — do not use the standard-issue U.S. Army small arms or ammunition. Why? Because they are inferior to the more advanced weapons selected by these units. There is a fundamental difference between their acquisition process and that of the “Big Army,” where there are hundreds of decisions makers and countless agencies and offices involved. 

While some might argue that SOF units fight differently than conventional ones, in the act of aiming at and engaging the enemy with small arms the fundamentals are the same, as are the penalties for failure.

The rifle used to kill Osama bin Laden was not the standard-issue M4 carbine. In the military’s top-tier SOF units, the M4 has all but been replaced by the commercial HK416 rifle, developed on a handshake by industry with no U.S. research-and-development dollars back in 2004. This rifle outperformed the M4 carbine in no less than four government comparison tests, multiple Army “dust tests” and the “individual carbine” program assessment at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. 

No less than five attempts have been made by the Army to replace the current M16 and M4 family of weapons since 2005, yet still today troops serve with a rifle and cartridge that was, in its earlier form, first fielded in the early 1960s. 

While the current Army standard-issue M4 carbine has received a series of upgrades over time, not one of these improvements have made the weapon more effective where it really counts — in its effects on target and stand-off range beyond that of U.S. enemies. Yet, today we plan to procure tens of thousands of M4s with “new” improvements — standard and proven features that existed in the HK416 when it was first fielded a decade ago.

The 9mm M9 pistol is all but absent from tier-one unit arms rooms. It was replaced by inexpensive, more capable commercial handguns like the 9mm Glock 19. Rather than simply adopt what the “professionals” use, the military continues to buy endless quantities of new M9s and is now planning to spend upwards of $40 million to “find” a modern replacement. That $40 million would buy 114,000 Glock 19s, nearly enough for every one of the 140,000 U.S. front-line combatants.

The Army is still procuring thousands of 1960s-era MK19 automatic grenade launchers without ever considering far superior guns like the Heckler & Koch grenade machine gun that has replaced the MK19 in all top-tier SOF units in the United States and with many allies. It is superior in terms of accuracy, reliability, maintainability, weight, ease of use and safety, and is comparable in procurement cost in quantity to the MK19. 

All but one of the current eight standard-issue conventional weapons and all those fielded in tier-one SOF units are industry-funded creations. Only one, the MK19, was developed by the military and it is far from state-of-the-art. Ordnance manufacturers are the experts in development and production of small arms and ammunition. However, the acquisition system has to provide well-conceived and realistic new requirement documents and specifications based on actual “real” and current end-user needs.

These specifications must consider what is available and state of the art, and not reach for some pie in the sky dream of Star Wars technology that exists only in Hollywood. The Army has invested upwards of $1 billion in failed small arms science-and-technology projects since the 1960s. 

In Afghanistan, U.S. and coalition troops armed with 5.56x45mm NATO weapons were decidedly overmatched by enemy insurgents employing 7.62x54mm Russian caliber weapons and ammunition developed 55 and 100 years earlier, respectively. 

Urgent fielding of additional 7.62x51mm NATO weapons in small units helped even the odds in Afghanistan, but brought with it additional weight, recoil and cost penalties. The enemy has learned that it is easy to overmatch U.S. troops using standoff tactics by engaging its opponents from ranges beyond that of 5.56x45mm NATO weapons. 

Islamic State fighters also are fielding more and more 7.62x54mm Russian caliber weapons to counter the U.S. and NATO’s endless love affair with the small-caliber high-velocity 5.56x45mm cartridge.

It is simply not capable of competing at ranges beyond 500 meters due to cartridge limitations in propellant and projectile mass. No less than 40 U.S. and NATO programs and studies have been conducted since 2001 to either outright replace or improve the performance of 5.56mm ammunition, yet far more work needs to be done in this area if the U.S. military is to compete in the small arms battle space. 

It is known within industry circles that the Chinese have improved their 5.8x42mm ammunition fired from their family of Type 95 small arms to outrange the latest iteration of the U.S. 5.56x45mm NATO round known as M855A1 enhanced performance round. 

The People’s Liberation Army is now fielding optical sights and enhanced rifle ammunition with an effective range greater than the best-case scenario 500 meter maximum effective range of U.S. equivalents. The Russians have fielded an entirely new soldier ensemble called “RATNICK,” which is still lacking a new assault rifle to complete the package. Reports point to renewed interest in Russia and work on an “intermediate” 6mm cartridge that would easily outperform the 5.56mm NATO round, to include the highly touted but problem-plagued new M855A1 EPR round, and compete quite handily with 7.62x51mm NATO weapons out to 800 meters and beyond, while exhibiting lower weight and reduced weapon felt recoil.

The U.S. Army, meanwhile, is in the study phase with no prospects before 2025 at the earliest to field a new family of squad weapons, or a more effective intermediate caliber “squad common” cartridge.

An examination of the first ever U.S. Army “Soldier Weapons Strategy 2014,” released in December 2013, acknowledges that the United States no longer has overmatch in a small arms fight beyond 300 meters. In addition, the strategy admits that “technology maturation does not support a revolutionary weapons development in the near term” and that “near-peer threats are moving towards a common, intermediate caliber to maximize fire-power and efficiencies for the squad in an attempt to increase lethality at close ranges and accuracy at long-range.”  

This well-written strategy also states that “weapon system modernization efforts must focus first on target effects.” 

The Small Arms Ammunition Configuration study team is looking at all aspects of a possible caliber change and is due to release its final report before the end of fiscal year 2016. Its findings will be considered by Army leadership to determine the path forward in 2018. Hardware from any resulting decision would not show up in a soldier’s hands before 2025. 

Caliber changes can be expensive endeavors and must provide substantial advantages to not only the shooters but also the logisticians and budget managers. Sadly too often the bean counters and logisticians have the final say and the end user is all but forgotten in the final selection process. Case in point is the planned replacement to the 1982-era 9mm M9 pistol. 

Troops have been calling for pistols to be issued down to the infantry team leader level to be used as back-ups when their primary weapons fail in combat. This sobering fact makes one wonder why it is the handgun that is being replaced and not the carbine. The final request for proposals for the “modular handgun system” was released in September. This commercial procurement looks to find a modern replacement for the 9mm M9 and M11 pistols by acquiring a family of handguns and a new, more effective caliber and/or cartridge to go with it. 

One might think that Army developers would have determined, based on classified current and projected threat target assessments, what the right or optimum caliber and cartridge needs to be for the system. However, the Army has left the caliber choice up to industry to guess at. The Army states it is to “be fair” to industry but in truth the “non-caliber specific” specification — a major reason for failure of the individual carbine competition just two years ago — was a core requirement contained in an earlier Air Force requirements document that the Army does not want to change. 

This is a classic example of a failed process, of paperwork driving the development of new weapon systems off the proverbial cliff. The most important performance attribute of the weapon — that of its target effects, range, penetration, recoil — is being left up to industry to ponder. This is the same industry that unsuccessfully invested millions to respond to as many as four rifle replacement programs since 2004, each one unceremoniously canceled by Army developers at the 11th hour. 

To say that the potential bidders are “gun shy” is for good reason. The ugly head of the dysfunctional small arms acquisition system is on full display in this latest fundamentally flawed procurement, with no true fairness to industry to be found in the request for proposals’ endless pages.

The draft modular handgun system RFP for a commercial off-the-shelf, non-developmental handgun is 313 pages long, not including the 21 attachments. The prospective vendors must offer unit pricing for a 10-year period on up to 550,000 full-size handguns, 150,000 compact handguns, sound suppressors, as well as blank and force-on-force conversion kits. In addition, 10 years of prices are required with up to five order quantities per item per year, or as many as 1,470 unit prices. 

What industry can predict the cost and availability of raw materials — to include energetics and high-strength metals — 10 years out? Add to that 80 million to 115 million rounds of ammunition and a host of accessories, tooling and gauges, as well as government-purpose rights so that the winning bidder’s independently funded technology can be recompeted to other manufacturers for additional or replacement sources. 

The total estimated contract value for all this is more than $1.2 billion over the life of the contract. All this for a weapon that almost never plays a key role in the outcome of a firefight or battle. Arguably the least important weapon in the small arms suite, this misguided procurement will have no effect in offsetting the overmatch America’s enemies enjoy today. 

The “open caliber” piece is a deal breaker. The Army should, and has been told over and over again by most experts in the industry, to select the caliber and cartridge that best meets their current and future needs and provide that information to the modular handgun system bidders so that they may direct their focus on a single proposal with mature, exhaustively tested bid samples. This is what the Army’s 2014 soldier weapons strategy lays out as a key element in new weapon selection; start with target effects and work back to the weapon.

Where the Army must focus is in addressing the individual rifle and light and medium machine gun performance. This is not possible through endless improvements of existing systems. We must start from a clean slate working from target effects back to the weapon, improve the weapon enablers like the sights and accessories, and then provide the operator with appropriate training suitable for today’s battlefield. 

The nation will be remiss if it does not exploit the many modern, often paradigm shifting technologies that are available today in the commercial and defense markets.

The employment of a single squad-common intermediate caliber cartridge loaded with a modern “blind-to-barrier” projectile can easily replace both 5.56mm and 7.62mm NATO ammunition and outperform both without the drawbacks of 7.62x51mm NATO. 

There are many commercial options to begin with or choose from. Polymer cases are now a reality to not only reduce the weight of the ammunition but also the overall ammunition combat load of the infantryman by as much as 40 percent. 

Modern optical sighting systems, both direct view and digital are available and emerging that allow the rifleman to find, acquire, identify, precisely engage and quickly reengage, and assess the effects of his or her aimed fire against the individual enemy soldier at ranges out to 800 meters and beyond, or those hiding and only partially exposed at shorter ranges. 

Modular “Lego”-style weapon systems are available that would allow the small unit commander or individual to reconfigure squad weapons in the field. Swappable barrels, butt stocks, forearms, sights and even feed devices and calibers would allow a soldier to ride in the close confines of his armored vehicle with a 10-inch barreled compact carbine and also support maneuvering troops with a designated marksman’s rifle with an 18.5 inch barrel and sniper butt stock and forearm, both assembled from the same common receiver. 

Support troops can train with existing stocks of 5.56mm NATO ammunition in the same common platform that those on the front line use to pound away at the enemy at long range with 6.5x47mm intermediate caliber ammunition, fired from the same weapon simply outfitted with the corresponding caliber conversion components.

Such weapons already exist today and are even fielded with the Italian army’s ARX-160 assault rifle and here at home with the universal receiver version of the special operations forces’ combat assault rifle. Next generation signature suppression is emerging that will eliminate any blast, flash and much of the sound signature of the weapon to mask the warfighter’s position, and can be employed on the weapon in the same way our troops fight. 

The unique “flow-through” technology eliminates the functional issues that old “silencers” caused with the host weapon. Emerging are lightweight super alloy barrels that are half the weight of conventional steel barrels and diamond hard surface coatings that all but eliminate chances of corrosion and the need for lubricant.

Rifle training for even average troops has changed dramatically in the past two decades. With these material capabilities as listed above, in particular with the new sighting systems and cartridges, it is well within the means of the military and abilities of today’s very capable troops to teach and apply true marksmanship skills out to 800 meters, well beyond the current 300 meter pop-up target ranges and static firing tables still in effect since the Cold War. 

SOF troops, police and even civilians today, when properly outfitted with appropriate equipment, and with minimal training, are making first-round hits on personnel targets out to 1,200 meters with 16-inch barreled rifles, a paradigm shift that is well beyond the capabilities once envisioned by marksmanship instructors even as recently as the 1990s.

The Army can also apply the same modern materials logic to the crew-served weapons and sniper rifles by fielding a common “heavy” intermediate cartridge, like the .338 Norma Magnum round, and thus replace up to four current calibers — 7.62mm, .300WM, .338 Lapua, .50 BMG — while in some cases doubling their maximum effective range, and reducing weapon and system weights by 60 percent or more as in the case of the .50 caliber M2HB heavy machine gun.

Direction, selection and decision making authority for any new small arms programs must be given to the end users in top-tier SOF units who have proven time and again their ability to field incrementally superior small arms, ammunition and a host of superior enablers in record time and without spending a fortune to do so on bloated, wasteful, redundant and unnecessary infrastructure. 

So how is this fixed? A solution requires courageous leadership and pressure from the top. The predecessor of today’s M4 carbine, the AR-15, was only adopted because of the direct personal involvement of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President John F. Kennedy.

Simple steps can address this issue today. First, reassign the authority and direction for small arms and ammunition development, selection and acquisition to top-tier special operations users. Let those experienced end users and combat developers select the next generation of small arms and ammo.

Second, Congress must authorize and appropriate sufficient funds annually to support the fielding of advanced small arms and ammunition.

Next, revamp training and facilities to match the advanced capabilities that future small arms and ammunition developments would bring to the war-fighter.

The Army must also adapt its thinking and policies about “pure-fleeting” the same capabilities to all those in uniform and focus on providing advanced capabilities.

Perfection is the enemy of progress. The Defense Department must look to field evolutionary improvements in small arms capabilities and stop chasing after the unobtainable “leap-ahead” solutions. They do not exist.

Also, overmatch capability at the small unit level for all unit members is available from commercial and emerging materials and technologies that can be fielded in three to five years. 

“Standoff” is a term used to describe the ability of a combatant to engage his or her foe beyond the effective range of their weapons. Being “overmatched” is not a place any infantryman wants to find himself.

Jim Schatz has 38 years of experience as a small arms end user, trainer, armorer, developer and technical support subject matter expert to U.S. and allied foreign military, law enforcement and special operations units. He does not represent any small arms or ammunition producers.

Topics: Armaments, Small Arms

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