Army Moves Forward With Next-Gen Squad Rifle Program (Updated)

By Nick Adde
A soldier qualifies with an M249 squad automatic weapon.

Photo: Army

Now that the Army is set upon going forward with plans to field a new squad automatic rifle, the service is committing to proceed as expeditiously as possible to move the project from the testing stage to the field.

Exactly how soon soldiers should expect to use their new Next-Generation Squad Weapons (NGSW) in combat, with variants that would replace both the M4 carbine and the M249 squad automatic weapon, however, is still to be determined.

The new weapon would fire a 6.8 mm round, which both the service and representatives from industry who are vying for the contract to build it are embracing. The round, they say, would provide the right balance of lethality required in both close- and long-range fights. Proponents say it is both lighter and deadlier than the 5.56 mm NATO round, the ammunition it would replace.

“Ninety percent of our casualties are coming from 4 per-cent of our force,” said Daryl Easlick, small arms deputy at the lethality branch of the maneuver capabilities and integration directorate, at Fort Benning, Georgia. “This means those close-combat [military occupational specialties] that close with and destroy the enemy are the most likely to be injured. Those are the ones we’re concentrating on the most when looking at these modernization efforts.”

But while the Army team that is working on the new weapon’s development is optimistic that they are on the right track, they fully understand that more testing will be necessary before the project emerges from its present prototype stage.

Factor in the current political and budgetary climate, and any visions of a closing date for the project become even murkier. In essence, if the money is there, testing would be completed sooner. If not, that date would slide to the right accordingly.

“Budget cycles are painful at best,” Easlick said. “We try to read the tea leaves and make sure we have some sort of plan. It’s dependent upon our senior leaders going back to lawmakers, and making sure they’re dotting I’s and crossing T’s.”

The cost concerns cannot be underestimated. In time, every soldier, Marine and special operator who directly engages the enemy would need the new weapon, delivered as close to the same time across the spectrum as reasonably possible. Otherwise, troops could be forced to fight under circumstances in which units would be carrying different ammunition.

Additionally, supply chains would have to change accordingly to ensure that new weapons and replacement parts are readily available.

As such, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley told an audience at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., last October that the new weapons would be distributed first to the 100,000 troops who engage in close-quarters combat.

“Right now, the feedback looks like we are going to a 6.8 ... round,” Milley said last fall. The service selected five contractors to develop prototype rifles: AAI Corp.-Textron Systems; FN America LLC (producing two rifles); General Dynamics-OTS Inc.; PCP Tactical LLC; and Sig Sauer Inc.

The prospective manufacturers are largely cautious in discussing their plans to meet the Army’s requirements. Most declined to be interviewed.

“Textron Systems has developed automatic rifles and rifles in a variety of configurations and calibers, ranging from 5.56 mm to 7.62 mm, and is supporting the Army’s current efforts to revolutionize its small arms capability,” Wayne Prender, a senior vice president with the company, said in a written statement.

“The Army has outlined a set of requirements that demand a new technology baseline in small arms — one that more accurately reflects the demands on users today in mission and environment. We are confident that our CT [case-telescoped] weapons technology meets, and in many cases exceeds, its requirements in the areas of lethality, weight reduction and overall performance.”

Textron began producing CT weapon systems and ammunition in 2004, with ammunition encased in polymer rather than brass. The technology results in lighter, lethal and proven ammunition, Prender stated.

FN America released an announcement in July, stating that the company would produce prototypes of both a lightweight machine gun and a heat adaptive modular rifle — both of which would meet Army weight-reduction requirements.

“The Army has tried this on a number of occasions, and has not brought a new weapon into the field,” said Mark Cancian, senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

“The problem with a new infantry weapon, particularly if you adopt a new caliber, is it can be extremely disruptive and expensive,” said Cancian, who retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel after a 30-year career.

Cancian also cited the overall unease and unwillingness to rush a new weapon out too soon, because leadership is still “haunted by the experience of Vietnam.”

Specifically, Cancian is referring to the Pentagon’s decision to introduce the M16 during the conflict, before it was adequately tested.

“The result was [the M16] had a bad reputation and caused both problems and casualties because of unreliability,” Cancian said.

The Army, for its part, is moving forward on a course that balances the cross-purposed needs for speed and caution.

Indeed, when the service began soliciting ideas from industry last October, it did so in a draft prototype opportunity notice rather than a formal request for proposal. The listing on FedBizOpps specifically sought “industry questions and comments to assist in shaping the NGSW program strategy to rapidly develop and deliver prototype weapons and ammunition.”

At this point, the service is moving accordingly along this somewhat open-ended timeline.

“We are in a prototyping effort [now], not production,” Easlick said. “We can do what we say we need to do.”

Prototype testing would take place at a host of Army installations and facilities. Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, will play key roles. Combat soldiers at major U.S. Army Forces Command installations like Fort Bragg, North Carolina, will get the opportunity to provide their input as well.

Project managers want to determine if the weapon prototypes allow soldiers to do the same tasks they now must perform in the same or a shorter time duration, based on the load they must carry. Such tests can be performed anywhere, Easlick said. Determining when and where they would take place would depend upon scheduling, costs and the amount of temporary duty time.

Possible concerns about making the weapon suitably effective at both close range and longer distances are being addressed throughout the development process, Easlick said. He realizes, however, that the related concerns are well founded.

“We understand [the rifle will have to] do short- and mid-range engagements and still meet long-range requirements.

If I want to get better at long range, it’s a push-pull on other requirements. That’s just the way it is — physics,” Easlick said.

To approach a solution for this issue — and any other they are encountering — entails meeting the threat-based requirement and “walking it backwards, to put it into a soldier’s hands so that he will be able to do the tasks he’s supposed to do,” Easlick said.

Subject-matter experts in Easlick’s shop — former non-commissioned officers, retirees, National Guard and reserve-component types — are working on capability development.

These experts have a “high degree of ability to conduct infantry tasks,” he said. They are using their expertise to understand what industry has that is technically feasible, and will be both controllable and able to be fired during any of the maneuvers and movement techniques soldiers use during engagements, Easlick said.

“That’s the crux of being able to figure this out,” he said, adding that any final product would have to fit in with the concept of treating each soldier as an individual platform — akin to the way services regard larger systems such as tanks, aircraft and Navy ships.

The approach to the new squad weapon must be developed based on both operational needs and emerging technologies in other areas. It is no longer acceptable, he said, to “hang stuff on the soldier like a Christmas tree.”

The weapon likely would be able to provide a soldier with information about signature suppression — making it harder for him or her to be spot-ted by adversaries — fire control, or interaction with other nearby friendly weapons systems.

At this point, the discussion and experimentation becomes quite conceptual, Easlick said.

“What if the next-generation weapon system can send reports for me, so that the ground commander in a fight doesn’t have to [do it] anymore.

The soldier can concentrate on the fight, rather than [telling higher-ups] what’s going on around him,” Easlick said.

The weapon itself could interact with other systems contained in future combat uniforms — telling the soldier, comrades in arms who are nearby, and commanders who monitor the fight if help is needed in supplying more ammunition, or treating and evacuating casualties.

Night-vision goggles and other visual-augmentation systems and sensors on display inside helmets all would function with the weapon as a single system.

The weapon’s self-contained systems would also be seamlessly integrated with other systems so that initial indoctrination and fostering familiarity with future upgrades would not require extensive bouts with new learning curves. Soldiers would be able to adapt to changes with “no training detriment,” Easlick said, as they move through their infantry careers.

“A lot of this sounds very next-century — very far out there,” he said. “We’re being realistic. It’s not going to happen soon. But we have to make sure we have the ability to integrate things into the system, instead of hanging things onto the soldier. It’s difficult to do when you don’t know what’s technically achievable.” The visual-augmented integration systems Easlick refers to are not available yet. As such, the concepts are “pretty aggressive, pretty imaginative,” he said. “Even so, we’re being realistic about what’s able to be fielded in a short period of time.”

Updated story corrects a typo in quote from Textron System's Wayne Prender. He intended to say 7.62 caliber.

Topics: Land Forces, Defense Department

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