Three Companies Vie to Make Next-Gen Squad Weapon
Image: General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems
The Army has whittled down the competition to replace its legacy M4 carbine and M249 squad automatic weapon to three companies, each with starkly different designs.
The service’s next-generation squad weapon program has been one of the service’s most high-profile soldier lethality efforts. Besides new weapons, the program also includes the development of a new 6.8 mm round that is expected to be more lethal than the current 5.56 mm NATO ammunition.
In August, the service awarded other transaction authority agreements to Sig Sauer, General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems and Textron Systems, which are all providing prototypes for soldier evaluation.
Once the Army receives prototypes for a new fire control system in January, the service will pair it with the weapon systems for testing in April, according to Brig. Gen. Anthony Potts, the head of program executive office soldier.
“What we had to do with all the vendors, is demonstrate that they meet the threshold of capability that we need in the weapon systems,” Potts said at the Association of the United States Army annual meeting in Washington, D.C. “We know that all vendors that have been selected to move forward meet those thresholds.”
National Defense spoke to each company participating in the next-generation squad weapon program to examine their bids.
Ron Cohen, Sig Sauer president and CEO, touted the company’s experience in small arms as one of its biggest assets. Rather than partner with subcontractors, Sig is making the rifle, the machine gun, the ammunition and silencer for the program, he noted.
“If Sig is chosen, then we are the least amount of risk because we make all of the ingredients under one roof,” he said. “Anything that the Army would want to make changes in, or to evolve, we have it.”
The company’s bid is based off its MCX firearms line and has a folding stock capability, he said. The machine gun has a 16-inch barrel and the rifle has a 13-inch barrel.
Soldiers won’t need additional training on the weapons because the overall designs are similar enough to the legacy systems, but provide increased lethality and range, Cohen noted.
“We didn’t pair a right-side drive on the car,” he said. “They still sit in the same seat, they still have the steering wheel on the gas pedal. … It goes farther. It has more velocity and it’s lighter weight and it has better ergonomics than they do now, but nothing that they have to retrain themselves to use.”
On the rifle, the company kept the rear charging handle that is featured on the M4, but added an additional one on the side, he noted. The machine gun also has left and right-side charging handles.
“If the buttstock is folded, I can still charge traditional style or if I’m in the prone or any type of shootings position that doesn’t allow me to access the rear of the charging handle as well,” he said.
For ammo, the company has a three-piece brass case with a stainless steel head and a lock washer that holds them together. They can be made in the service’s present manufacturing facilities, which negates the need to create new production factories to make the ammunition, Cohen noted.
“If somebody in the world has to make this ammunition, you don’t need to burn down the factories and start a completely new factory with different technologies,” he said. “You can use current technologies to make this ammunition.” Sig’s bid is lighter than the current NATO round, he said.
For General Dynamics, one of the most notable features of its weapons bid is the bullpup design, which puts the magazine well behind the pistol grip.
Jon Piazza, the company’s program manager for the next-generation squad weapon, said General Dynamics already had a bullpup design in the works from a previous effort.
“Those requirements led us to a bullpup design,” he said. “We wanted to be able to have barrel length to maintain velocities.”
This configuration generally has long barrels but shorter overall weapons lengths.
The rifle has a 20-inch barrel that sits well back into the receiver area, he noted. The barrel length on the M249 replacement is 22 inches.
Left to right: General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems’ NGSW offering, Sig Sauer’s NGSW offering, Textron Systems’ NGSW offering
However, having a magazine placement different than that of an M4 won’t require a large difference in training, he said. Mid-career soldiers will be able to adjust quickly, and new soldiers won’t have a frame of reference to compare it to, he said.
“The guys can change the magazines on those weapons systems just as fast, if not faster, than on an M4,” he said. “They’re looking for new. … They’re not looking for the same old grandpa’s gun.”
Additionally, the rate of fire can be adjusted by removing some mechanical components internally, he noted. The weapons have an average rate of fire of about 550 shots per minute.
Soldiers have provided positive feedback on the bullpup design, Piazza noted.
“We had more apprehensions about it being a bullpup design than any of the customers that we’ve run into,” he said. “There’s been a lot of questions about bullpups, but I think that we’ve … abolished some of those things.”
For ammunition, General Dynamics is offering a magnum cartridge, which would normally lead to an increase in recoil. The company added additional features to the weapons to mitigate these effects.
“We have a significant reduction in felt recoil to the shooter, which gives us much more ability for controllable fire and automatic fire,” Piazza said. “It certainly lessens that felt recoil to the shooter that burdens, and increases our ability to provide accurate fire.”
Additionally, General Dynamics is offering a composite case, which has long been a desire for the military, he noted. However, there have always been inherent issues with reengineering rounds that were designed for brass. General Dynamics solved these problems by designing the case from scratch with True Velocity, a company that specializes in composite munitions.
“In this particular [instance], we had the ability to design a composite case from the ground up,” he said.
When paired with the next-generation fire control system, General Dynamics’ weapons and ammunition may be able to engage targets up to 1,000 meters away, he predicted.
“I’m not even talking about the terminal effects that that brings,” he noted. “That’s just the range.”
This means that front line forces may need to train on different shooting ranges that will accommodate these longer distances.
“Not everybody has those,” Piazza noted. “But at the places where these guys are getting them … there’s going to be some changes to the way that they train anyway with the inclusion of this system. … It doesn’t matter which vendor it is because the engagement area is so significantly more.”
Textron Systems is hoping that its cased telescope ammunition will lead to weight savings and give it an edge in the competition. Wayne Prender, the company’s senior vice president for applied technologies and advanced programs, said Textron’s 6.8 mm round has plastic polymer that completely surrounds the projectile. In the Army’s current 5.56 mm ammunition, the bullet protrudes from the brass case.
“That plastic — by its nature — allows us to significantly reduce the weight of the ammunition,” he said. “It also simplifies many of the interfaces that the bullet — or the case — has with the weapon systems, which then has some inherent benefits to the overall system of systems.”
The material allows the ammunition to accommodate future upgrades, Prender noted.
“If there is a future caliber or a future change in the configuration of the projectile, our weapons system is able to accept and implement those changes without a drastic change to the overall rifle or automatic rifle,” he said.
Prender declined to outline specifications about the company’s weapons systems, including the rate of fire or barrel lengths. However, Textron is sticking with a belt-fed automatic weapon for its offer to replace the M249, he noted.
“A belt-fed configuration to replace a belt-fed weapon is certainly something that we know the user community and the soldiers are familiar with,” he said. “Starting with that configuration made sense for us.”
Textron is partnering with Lewis Machine and Tool Co. for suppressors on both variants, he noted. This will allow the user to have “really good controllability of the weapon without adding too much weight, and also has good signature management characteristics,” he said.
The company is currently incorporating soldier feedback into its current design as well, he said.
The next major milestone for the program is delivering prototypes to units for initial tests in April. Delivery of weapons and ammo for formal tests and evaluations is slated for December 2020, he noted.