‘Sweating’ to Next-Gen Soldier Lethality
Sig Sauer photo
The U.S. Army is preparing to introduce a new arsenal of small arms capabilities to its “close combat force” — the approximately 103,000 soldiers identified as those most directly responsible for closing with and destroying the enemy.
A cornerstone of these new capabilities can be found in the service’s Next-Generation Squad Weapons program emerging from Army Futures Command’s soldier lethality cross-functional team. Focused on enhancing squad-level lethality for the close combat force, the initiative is a prototyping effort that consists of a rifle (NGSW-R) and automatic rifle (NGSW-AR) with a common 6.8mm cartridge and fire control (NGSW-FC) between the two systems. The goal is to field the NGSW-R to selected units as the planned replacement for the current M4A1 and the NGSW-AR as the planned replacement for the current M249 Squad Automatic Weapon.
The project is not a stand-alone weapons program. Instead, it recognizes that Army close combat capabilities reflect a combination of factors identified as soldier, weapon, enabler, ammunition and training, or SWEAT. That philosophy is one of the things that makes NGSW different from some past weapons programs.
One classic example of previous Army small arms efforts directed toward the introduction of “leap ahead capabilities” nearly three decades ago was the Advanced Combat Rifle program, which explored four candidate designs developed by AAI Corp., Colt Industries, Heckler & Koch Inc. and Steyr-Mannlicher as possible replacements for the M16A2. In addition to fire control and ergonomic enhancements, the ACR prototypes featured four different ammunition technologies: AAI’s molded sabot steel flechette in an M855 5.56mm brass case; Colt’s 5.56mm “duplex” round, with two projectiles in one cartridge; Heckler & Koch’s 4.92mm ball ammunition in a caseless cartridge; and Steyr’s 5.56mm synthetic cased flechette ammo.
Following early engineering and safety testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1989, the Army began field testing the four candidates, together with the M16A2, in January 1990. Army testers said at the time that they hoped to find a technology that would “double the hit probability of the M16A2,” with the possibility that a “superior technology” could be fielded as early as 1995. The “field experiment” was completed in the fall of 1990 with data analyzed for inclusion in the Army’s Small Arms Master Plan, although that process was complicated due to higher priorities that quickly emerged during the Gulf War, which began in mid-January 1991.
However, much of the thought and effort behind those small arms prototypes represented stand-alone industry thinking, rather than platforms viewed through today’s SWEAT vision.
The new vision begins with recognition of the critical need to involve the soldier in the development of any new weapon system. In the case of the next-gen squad weapons, those development origins date back to the 2007-2008 time frame, when the Army undertook a small arms capability-based assessment to obtain a holistic view of the combat systems available and what those systems would allow soldiers to accomplish.
Participants in that assessment have acknowledged that it identified some capability gaps, with the Army working hard to address those issues even before the creation of Army Futures Command’s cross-functional teams.
Combined with evolving threat analysis, the findings from that assessment pointed to the need for the Army to conduct a small arms ammunition configuration study. One early request for information for that study called for “current and emerging small arm systems, components, and support technologies that would provide significant, enduring, enhanced operational capability to dismounted infantry forces in the 2025+ time frame.”
The RFI was “not focused on off-the-shelf solutions; nor [was] it focused on singular niche items that are intended for specific threats and venues,” the document clarified. “Rather, we are seeking broad based, innovative technologies which will enable the next generation of warighter to hit harder, farther, faster, and more often than they do now, with minimal consequence to logistics and maneuver.”
In a recent interview, Maj. Gen. David Hodne emphasized the importance of that study, observing, “I’ve got to give a ‘shout out’ on next-gen weapons to the CDID [Maneuver Capability Development and Integration Directorate] team [at Fort Benning, Georgia], because we’re really seeing the benefits of the work that actually preceded Army Futures Command.”
Hodne, who served as commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry School and chief of infantry from August 2018 to August 2021, as well as the first director of the soldier lethality cross-functional team, added, “In this case, the small arms ammunition configuration study started here at Fort Benning. And that study essentially paved the way for the next-gen weapons effort, with the most important outcome being that it defined and codified the important relationship between the soldier, the weapon, the enabler, the ammunition and the soldier’s training.”
In addition to clarifying the critical relationship, the study process also paved the way for initial exploration of new weapon elements within the SWEAT equation.
That exploration featured a prototyping effort led by the office of the program manager for crew served weapons, under the project manager for soldier weapons at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey. That effort, which included six prototype weapon designs from five different vendors, ended in mid-2019 and provided actual hardware to further inform the Army requirement. As such, it provided a foundation for the evolution of today’s NGSW program, which currently includes competitive prototyping by three weapons and ammo vendors: SIG Sauer, General
Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, and Textron Systems.
Defense Department program descriptions note that initial NGSW prototype testing, beginning in the third quarter of fiscal year 2020, served as a “diagnostic test” to inform the vendors on their performance and feed a follow-on design iteration.
In addition to reflecting the expanded SWEAT philosophy, this initial soldier feedback to contractors appears to have led to minor changes in some platform designs, such as movement of traditional iron back-up sights 45 degrees from vertical, to allow continuation of tactical engagements without the use of mounted optics.
A follow-on second prototype test phase of the NGSW-R and NGSW-AR began in the second quarter of fiscal year 2021 and is currently informing source selection teams on the performance of the systems.
NGSW source selection to a single vendor is anticipated in the first quarter of fiscal year 2022, with an extremely rapid first unit equipped goal for the fourth quarter of the fiscal year.
The next critical element in the SWEAT equation involves the enabler, with the most obvious being the fire control system. As part of its effort, the Army is conducting a parallel Next-Generation Squad Weapon-Fire Control program with the objective of providing a ruggedized fire control subsystem that will increase accuracy and lethality for the dismounted warfighter on the battlefield.
“Capabilities are achieved through integration of advanced technologies to provide a fire control system consisting of a variable magnification, ballistic calculator, atmospheric sensor suite, and laser range finder,” noted one early program announcement. “Combining these features with an in-scope digital display produces an adjusted aimpoint for the soldier within the field of view. The system will provide the weapon system an accurate range to target along with an adjusted aimpoint for the selected weapon/ammunition combination.”
In late April 2020, the Army announced its selection of two vendors — L3Harris Technologies and Vortex Optics — to provide competitive NGSW-FC prototypes. The companies provided more than 100 production prototype systems in early 2021 for test and evaluation during subsequent soldier touchpoints.
As of press time, downselection to a single vendor was believed to be imminent, to allow additional coordination between the NGSW-FC element and the NGSW-R and NGSW-AR platforms prior to completion of weapon source selection.
Another key enabler in the SWEAT equation is the “Intelligent Rail” and Rail Operating System. Now called “Picatinny Smart Rail” by the Army, I-Rail was originally developed under Army Small Business Innovative Research funding in 2008 to provide the power and network backbone for weapon-mounted accessories, optics and other enablers.
According to Don McLaughlin, president of Virginia-based T-Worx, the company’s I-Rail currently is the only approved smart rail supplier to the U.S. Army and supports multiple Army modernization priorities and cross-functional teams.
“Seeing the need for a connected weapon with the NGSW program, the Army inserted the I-Rail, with the Picatinny Smart Rail ICD [Interface Control Document], as a requirement for the NGSW weapons and NGSW-Fire Control optic programs,” McLaughlin explained.
“As a requirement on those programs, the I-Rail contributes to making the NGSW weapons ‘next gen,’ [since] data sourced from I-Rail-equipped weapons can feed telemetry data, including rounds fired, bearing, and other sensors to IVAS or other displays,” he added, referring to the Integrated Visual Augmentation System.
He noted that the company has provided enough smart rail components to outfit over 300 weapons and 200 optics during Next-Generation Squad Weapon and NGSW-FC prototype phases.
One of the most noteworthy SWEAT elements involves the introduction of a new 6.8mm ammunition design.
The need for a new ammo caliber reportedly came from the small arms ammunition configuration study, which indicated the need for an “intermediate caliber” between the already fielded 5.56mm and 7.62mm. Supported by science and technology efforts, along with exploration of developments in the commercial ammo market, the Army’s ballistic search focused on the realm of 6.5mm to 6.8mm. While U.S. Special
Operations Command pursued the 6.5mm Creedmoor cartridge for some of its weapons, the broader Army requirements focused on 6.8mm, where bullet ballistic performance is very similar to the .270 caliber magnum rifle and credited with significant capability improvements over the most modern 5.56mm and 7.62mm ammunition in accuracy, range, signature management and lethality.
But the Next-Generation Squad Weapon is not just an ammunition program. Looking at the broader SWEAT equation, each of the three weapon vendors currently in competition have their own unique cartridge ammunition solution, common to both NGSW-R and NGSW-AR and reflective of issues and tradeoffs ranging from bullet performance to ammo weight reduction.
The Army’s Next-Gen Squad Weapon prototype phase approach has been complex and reflective of significant support from a range of Defense Department organizations like the joint program executive office for armaments and ammunition. Together, they developed a solution to the unique cartridge challenge that involved the manufacture of the 6.8mm bullet component at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Missouri, with those bullets then provided to the NGSW competitors for loading in their unique cartridge solutions.
Longer term plans call for the manufacture of complete 6.8mm cartridges at the Lake City plant after the Next-Generation Squad Weapon downselect has been made.
Downselection will also need to occur before the full implementation of weapons training. In the interim, representatives for the Synthetic Training Environment cross-functional team were quick to cite “continuous collaboration and integration efforts with the other CFT’s modernization efforts and emerging technologies.”