Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo
Photo: Defense Dept.
As adversaries continue to update their body armor, the Army is examining ways to upgrade its rifles to keep pace.
The service has been employing its standard-issue M4 carbine since the 1960s while steadily making improvements to the system over time. But now, the rifle’s 5.56 mm round may not be able to penetrate enemies’ newly developed body armor, officials said.
During a Senate Armed Services airland subcommittee hearing last year, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., noted that “everyone from Russia and China, to Hezbollah” and the Islamic State is employing advanced armor that “risks making the 5.56 round essentially obsolete.”
However, the cartridge still has advantages when compared to the 7.62 mm round, which is also being considered as the caliber for a new rifle, Cotton said. Soldiers can carry twice as many, shoot with less recoil and shoot in quicker succession with more accuracy, he noted.
“The key is finding the right combination of weight, recoil, impulse, range and lethality,” he said.
Thomas Spoehr, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, said the M4 rifle is often criticized for its lack of lethality at ranges greater than 300 meters and its tendency to jam when firing a large number of rounds. Soldiers often have to engage at ranges greater than 300 meters when operating in Afghanistan, he noted in an interview with National Defense.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley also marked this as a critically important area of concern in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last year.
He pointed out that purchasing body armor strong enough to counter the 5.56 mm round is affordable for adversaries. However, the Army would be able to replace the M4 “relatively quickly,” he predicted.
But the service must also concentrate on the effectiveness of the bullet, and the Army has already begun developing a solution, he noted.
“The key on any of these things is not so much the rifle, it’s the bullet — it’s the ballistics of the bullet,” he said. “Down at Fort Benning we’ve done some experiment and developmental work. … We know we have developed a bullet that can penetrate these new plates.”
M4 carbine (Defense Dept.)
Although the service has yet to formally announce its plans for new bullets, it did attempt to kick off a formal effort for an M4 replacement last year with the interim combat service rifle project, which was canceled in November.
But Spoehr pointed out that these are not the first conversations about an M4 rifle replacement. During his time on the Army staff, multiple examinations into replacement options yielded no substantial improvements, he said.
“It’s not [a] good value to go after this thing and get something that’s pretty close to what the M4 delivers,” he added.
However, the next-generation squad automatic rifle is more likely to come to fruition and become a program of record because there is more “dissatisfaction” with the M249 light machine gun — the weapon the effort is intended to replace, he said. A FedBizOpps notice announcing the cancellation of the interim combat service rifle did not state why the project was discontinued, but noted that the service was reallocating the funding to the M249 replacement effort.
Daryl Easlick, deputy for the lethality branch at the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, said the service plans to field a lighter system as the M249 reaches the end of its lifecycle.
It wants a “trifecta of mobility, lethality and protection,” he said. “Weight is the currency of mobility — we know we want to reduce the weight of that weapon system.” At the same time, the service wants to increase its ability to defeat both protected and unprotected threats, he added.
Matt Walker, deputy director of the soldier division at the Maneuver Center, said the intent is for the next-generation squad automatic rifle to provide a large amount of capability all at once rather than follow the process of the M4, which has required many modifications over time. The M249 replacement will be lighter, more accurate and have signature management, he noted.
“What we want to do is …[have] a revolutionary leap in capability in small arms,” he said. “Our next-gen squad weapons … outline how to improve small arms in a revolutionary manner as opposed to the evolutionary manner [where] we keep making little tweaks on the system.”
"The M249 replacement will likely be built from scratch rather than be a non-developmental item."
Easlick said the Army is leveraging results from the recently completed small arms ammunition configuration study, which examined the most advantageous caliber for small arms. Walker declined to provide details about the results of the study.
The M249 replacement will likely be built from scratch rather than be a non-developmental item, Walker said, but noted the Army will officially make a decision at a later time after discussing options with industry.
The Army will determine in fiscal year 2019 whether the next-generation squad automatic rifle will also be used for the squad designated marksman, the medium machine gun and the carbine, according to information released on FedBizOpps.
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