Marines Going After Slew of New Infantry Weapons

By Connie Lee

Marine Corps photo by Cpl Ronald L. Parker II

The Marine Corps’ push to become leaner and more lethal is compelling it to adopt new weapons to better equip its infantry squads. 

The service is implementing several close-combat lethality enhancements to address near-term requirements while working with the Army and Special Operations Command to pursue next-generation capabilities for the future, said Emanuel Pacheco, director of public affairs and communication for Marine Corps Systems Command. 

“The overall goal of this modernization is to enable our close-combat forces to continue to compete and win against a near peer adversary,” he said in an email.

After nearly two decades of counterinsurgency wars in the Middle East against lightly armed militants, the 2018 National Defense Strategy has refocused the military’s attention on great power competitors Russia and China, which both have potent ground forces.

Pacheco said the Marine Corps has its eye on the next-generation squad weapon, which is one of the Army’s most high-profile programs. The Corps is participating in the system’s development, but has yet to make a decision on which variant to procure, he noted. 

However, the service is looking to obtain the weapon around fiscal year 2025. Last year, the Army awarded Sig Sauer, AAI Corporation/Textron Systems and General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems other transaction authority agreements to develop prototypes for both the M4 carbine and the M249 machine gun replacements. OTA agreements allow the Defense Department to cut through bureaucratic red tape and more rapidly conduct prototyping and follow-on production with industry.

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. 

“The Marine Corps will continue to participate in and assess NGSW [Next-Generation Squad Weapon] solutions for maturity, suitability and affordability to meet our operational requirements in order to inform a decision on if and when to begin procurement of these improved capabilities,” Pacheco said. 

Another notable small-arms acquisition is the modular handgun system, which is a lightweight, modular 9 mm semi-automatic pistol, he said. The weapon contains night sights, external safety and interchangeable hand grips, which allows users to attach a grip that fits their hand size. The weapon was first chosen by the Army and Air Force to replace their legacy equipment. 

In May, Marine Corps Systems Command announced that it had begun procuring the weapon, which is slated to replace all of the service’s pistols and will begin fielding this year. 

The modular handgun system “improves on the precision and reliability of the legacy platforms, while also bringing with it new, more effective ammunition,” Maj. Mike Brisker, weapons product manager for program manager infantry weapons, said in a statement.

To further improve the infantry’s arsenal, the Corps is moving forward with the squad common optic. The Marine Corps awarded an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract to Trijicon Inc., of Wixom, Michigan, in February. The contract has a ceiling of $64 million for 19,000 optics. Pacheco said the Marine Corps will begin fielding the equipment in the first quarter of fiscal year 2021. The system is a magnified optic that is intended to help the user improve target acquisition and can be used with either an illuminated or non-illuminated aim-point, he noted. It also includes a non-caliber specific reticle and features variable power.

Meanwhile, the service announced in July that it plans to award a single-source contract to Knight’s Armament Co. for 5.56 small arms suppressors. They will be used with the M27 infantry automatic rifle, M4 carbine and M4A1 close-quarter battle weapon.

The service will also finish fielding the M27 this year, according to the news release. In 2011, the weapon was originally slated to replace the M249 squad automatic weapon, but officials later decided to field it to all rifle platoons. They will be completely fielded by the end of this fiscal year, Brisker said. 

Meanwhile, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger has issued new planning guidance dubbed “Force 2030,” which outlined the service’s intent to restructure to concentrate on amphibious operations in the Indo-Pacific region. The shake-up would have a major impact on infantry. 

The blueprint focused on divesting some of the service’s legacy capabilities and reducing infantry battalions and tanks to make way for new systems. Future fights will also require the use of smaller, more affordable amphibious ships to counter China, the report said. 

“The most logical way to approach divestment is to take a systems perspective and reduce infantry battalions while proportionally reducing the organizations dedicated to supporting these battalions,” Berger said in the report, which was released in March

The service intends to slim down its infantry battalions by more than 200 Marines each. They will be redesigned “in the direction of greater lethality and flexibility,” he said in the document. 

“These changes facilitate our close-combat forces’ ability to leverage the best capability now, while posturing for the future through continued work with partner services,” Pacheco said. “The changes will increase the lethality, speed, and command and control for the infantry and other close-combat forces.”  

Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said the service’s new force structure plan will require Marines to operate in smaller, more self-sufficient groups. These will be essential for operating in the Indo-Pacific region, which has numerous islands and archipelagos, he noted. 

“If you’re going to have combat forces in that sort of an environment, smaller is better because they have less signature, less footprint on the ground, less equipment, less acreage that they’re occupying,” he said.

“That means that the units that you’re using have to have the equipment that enables them to protect themselves and to pose a threat to the enemy. Otherwise, the enemy could just ignore them,” he added.

Frank Hoffman, a distinguished research fellow at National Defense University’s Center for Strategic Research, said the changes in the service’s force structure will help Marines reduce their electromagnetic signature, making it more difficult for adversaries to detect them. 

“Can the Marine Corps operate at a lower signature, much more mobile, less logistics-intensive ... and do this in a way that enhances the projection of naval power?” he said during a July Heritage Foundation event. “This reorganization effort is trying to develop new capabilities and organizational constructs that answer that big question: How to make the Marine Corps relevant in future battle by making it smaller, more distributed, lower signature and have all the range of sorts of capabilities?”

Improving the capability and equipment of the service’s small units with new weapons would help the Marine Corps be more versatile, Wood said. Some critics of the Force 2030 restructuring plan have said that it highlights capabilities that are too focused on China. But this new equipment could help the service fight other adversaries as well, Wood noted. 

“It is not limited to China and that environment,” he said. “If you can solve these small-unit, distributed operations problems with the new equipment that they’re investing in, then that same capability has brought a quick capability in operations anywhere else on the planet against any other opponent.” 

Small unmanned aerial vehicles have also become one of the service’s acquisition priorities, Wood noted. In recent years, the Marine Corps has been adopting more autonomous platforms, including small UAVs that would help infantry units conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

“By investing in small UAVs, the Marine Corps is giving these small units the ability to get eyes in the sky,” he said. “You can put a platform up in the air that has a relatively small signature, and it can beam back to the unit any kind of sensor data” including video imagery collected by cameras. It can also act as a communications relay and connect small units to larger organizations, he noted.

The service shares a small tactical unmanned aircraft systems program office with the Navy and has also been pursuing Group 5 drones, which are much larger and able to travel farther distances. 

“As a ‘stand-in’ force of the future, the Marine Corps requires a family of UAS capabilities,” Berger said in the Force 2030 report. “We need to transition from our current UAS platforms to capabilities that can operate from ship, from shore, and able to employ both collection and lethal payloads.” 

Wood said the Marine Corps will also need to work on ways to make small units more energy efficient so they can operate more independently. The service does not want to be reliant on systems that require lots of fuel, he noted. 

“If you can use solar or have batteries that last for a good long time, and you’re not so reliant on diesel or gasoline powered generators, those are the kinds of changes that the Marine Corps is making,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the service is trying to mitigate potential program delays stemming from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic by conducting new equipment training virtually and keeping an eye on system deliveries to ensure they arrive on time, Pacheco noted. 

Marine Corps Systems Command’s program management office for infantry weapons “continues to work with our partners in industry to field capability now,” he said.

Topics: Marine Corps News

Comments (7)

Re: Marines Going After Slew of New Infantry Weapons

The USMC is America's premier rapid reaction force in regards to sustainable forces. They should receive whatever assistance in maintaining its superiority that is needed, however, having put the priorities in order it is important to grasp some very basic concepts that govern successful development. Changing too many components in a short span is a sure fire means for screwing everything up.

Brian Foley at 10:51 AM
Re: Marines Going After Slew of New Infantry 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." What would be the point if it were not. Does the author know anything about caliber?

David Oldham at 7:49 PM
Re: Marines Going After Slew of New Infantry Weapons

Go to the6.8 mm, 223 is great but this fine soldiers need a little more bullet weight I’ve shot coyotes with a 223 and let them haven’t lost any with 243.

James babcock at 4:42 PM
Re: Marines Going After Slew of New Infantry Weapons

Lethality? By merely WOUNDING one enemy soldier, you potentially take THREE enemy soldiers out of action since it takes two other soldiers to properly tend to one wounded soldier.

JAY at 9:40 AM
Re: Marines Going After Slew of New Infantry Weapons

$64M for 19,000 optics units?!? $3368.42 each. In the private sector, for the same sum, each fighter could get a firearm, optical sight, a half dozen magazines, a fighting knife and a keg of beer. Why does a mass produced weapon sight cost so much? There isn't some magical capability built inside. There are literally dozens of top tier vendors who could compete for this business and save all taxpayers a handsome sum, or arm a larger quantity of outstanding Marines with top shelf gear. These contract prices are just ridiculous.

Jim Allen at 2:19 PM
Re: Marines Going After Slew of New Infantry Weapons

Very good information y like it much

Ruben medina at 12:44 PM
Re: Marines Going After Slew of New Infantry Weapons

The US Marines should adopt an approach of implementing weapons that they WILL NEED in the future, such as lighter ATGMs than the Javelin, flamethrowers, Anti-UAV weapons, EW / ECM handheld devices, translators, rifles that can reach to 1,000m (such as 7.62mm), new SHORADS besides the Stinger, guns that fire underwater, new rockets, etc. Just to replace their existing weapons with newer ones makes sense, but DOES NOT give them new capabilities and features to deal with peer nations. Already, peer nations have flamethrowers, thermobaric weapons, underwater dart guns, etc. While these exotic weapons may not seem suitable for everyday patrols and Embassy Security, they are vital for attacking fortifications and defending against armor.

Trisaw at 2:30 PM
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