Army Bolstering Weapons Portfolio

By Connie Lee
M249 live-fire battle drills

Army photo

The Army is continuing to overhaul its small arms weapons portfolio in hopes of better preparing its troops for future warfare.

The service has been making strides in its M4 carbine and M249 squad automatic weapon replacement efforts while also looking to adopt new products to boost soldier lethality.

In the next-generation squad weapons program, leaders are pushing through the COVID-19 pandemic and moving onto the second prototype phase, according to the service’s product manager for the effort.

Lt. Col. Jason Bohannon said the service has already completed the first iteration of prototype testing, which was the diagnostic test. The next round of testing is slated to kick off in February and run through June.

“That was primarily to ensure that the vendors had a common understanding of all the tests they were going to undergo,” he said in an interview. “Then we go into what we call prototype test No. 2, which is the for-record test. That will go through the summer.”

Three bidders are competing in the program. In August 2019, 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. As part of the competition, the companies are bidding their solutions for a new 6.8 mm round that will replace the current 5.56 mm NATO ammunition.

The Army is holding both technical tests and soldier “touchpoints” to put the weapons through their paces, Bohannon noted. Soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Drum, New York, have been trying out the prototypes to provide hands-on feedback. Bohannon said the service hopes to have 300 to 500 personnel participate in the soldier touchpoints.

“At the end of the day, they’re really determining or giving feedback on if they believe the weapon system is operationally effective or not,” he said. “Will it increase or decrease their performance?”

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the service has not had to curtail its soldier touchpoints, he noted.

“Everybody takes all the proper precautions and spacing,” he said. “We have not reduced the number of our soldiers. If anything, we’ve increased the number of soldiers” involved.

Wayne Prender, senior vice president of Textron’s applied technologies and advanced programs, said the company will be making improvements to its offering based on information gained from the soldier touchpoints, but declined to provide specific details on how it plans to enhance its prototype in the next round.

Textron has been paying close attention to how soldiers interact with the weapon to make adjustments, he noted.

“Soldier touchpoints have been very valuable especially in the area of ergonomics, hand placement, [and] trigger pull,” Prender told reporters during a virtual Association of the United States Army media roundtable in October. “What they say, what they don’t say, what we observe, are all elements that are then rolled into our weapon system.”

Textron is offering cased telescoped ammunition in hopes that it will result in weight savings for the service.

Sig Sauer said it is making changes to its accessories package as it moves along in the competition. It is also conducting manufacturing rehearsals to ensure that it would be able to quickly transition to production and fielding, the company said in a statement. Sig Sauer’s bid is based on its MCX firearms line and has a folding stock capability.

“For our second phase submission we have used the various testing opportunities afforded to us by the U.S. Army such as soldier touchpoints and environmental testing to refine our platforms,” said Robby Johnson, Sig Sauer’s vice president for product management for defense and law enforcement. “In this period our accessories package for the weapons has seen the greatest changes, and through this we’ve vastly improved the soldier ergonomics.”

Sig Sauer will continue to evolve these platforms beyond the second-phase submission, he added

As of press time, General Dynamics had not responded to requests for comment about its offering.

Meanwhile, the Army is picking a new fire control system to accompany the next-generation squad weapons. Last year, the service downselected the competition to L3Harris Technologies and Vortex Optics. The companies delivered their products in December, Bohannon said.

The Army plans on fielding the fire control at the same time as the weapon, he said. The prototype test phase for the system was slated to begin in December and go through April 2021, with a production award planned for July 2021.

“There will be a period of time where we conduct a source selection, but it mirrors a lot of the same characteristics of the weapon competition,” he said. “We still conduct soldier touchpoints, we still have separate technical testing, and all that information goes to a selection team.”

That team will include an operational general officer, rather than an acquisition officer, he noted.

“It’s somebody who’s got loads of operational experience,” he said.

The Army is looking into potentially replacing its M240 machine gun for the conventional force as well, said Col. Rhett Thompson, soldier requirements division director. Special Operations Command has been examining a .338 Norma Magnum machine gun from Sig Sauer to replace its own M240s.

The Army is conducting a 36-month Platoon Arms and Ammunition Configuration Study to determine if the service should pursue a next-generation machine gun for its conventional forces, Thompson said in an interview. The report will be similar to the Small Arms Ammunition Configuration Study, which helped officials decide on abandoning the 5.56 NATO round for its M4 and M249 in favor of the 6.8 mm caliber and pave the way forward for future weapons at the squad level.

Leaders are expected to make a decision on whether or not to replace the M240 when the platoon-level report is completed in fiscal year 2024, Thompson said. Similar to the small arms study, this will be “threat driven,” meaning that the service will inform its requirements based on what soldiers may encounter on the battlefield. The Army plans to use information from the intelligence community to help inform its capability gaps, he noted.

“The PAAC study is really what we’re going to use to inform our decision in terms of the mobility, survivability, durability of the weapon and lethality,” he said.

Col. Scott Madore, project manager for soldier lethality, said in December the Army will be tracking the performance of the 6.8 mm ammo in the next-generation squad weapon program as it seeks to make its decision. The M240 uses the 7.2 mm round.

The service will need to examine how a new machine gun may affect the formation as well, he noted.

“Those decisions pivot off of the outcomes of the next-gen squad weapon program,” he said during the National Defense Industrial Association’s virtual Joint Armaments, Robotics and Munitions Digital Experience conference in November. “Once we have a good understanding or see the demonstrated performance of the 6.8 mm in the next-gen squad automatic rifle, that would determine, do we need a next-gen machine gun beyond the 6.8 mm capability?”

The Army wants a new grenade launcher as well, according to Lt. Col. Pete Stambersky, the service’s product manager for individual weapons. A request for information for a Precision Grenadier System was released in October.

“This is going to be different than the XM25 in several different ways,” Stambersky said, referring to the Army’s previous attempt to field a new grenade launcher dubbed the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement. “We’re going to learn from our past mistakes, and … we are going to be focused on a soldier-centered design, which will be integral to the PGS development. Grabbing that soldier feedback and what works for them is something we didn’t necessarily do a few years back.”

The future system is expected to have a range of 1,000 meters and variable magnification, which allows users to choose the level of magnification in the scope, he noted.

According to the October RFI, the Army envisions a semi-automatic system that weighs no more than 14.5 pounds and has an ambidextrous configuration.

Stambersky said the service was planning to host an industry day in December or January to discuss the requirements with industry, but did not provide a timeline for a request for proposals.

Additionally, the Army is expanding its interest in remote weapon stations. David Oatley, product director for crew served weapons, said his office is improving the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station while also looking for potential new systems. The product allows soldiers to shoot targets without leaving their armored vehicles.

“We see an increase in demand for that, and we don’t see it going anywhere anytime soon,” Oatley said. “We’re always interested in finding out more about what’s available in that space.”

Oatley said his office is not limited to just CROWS, but also works on other remote weapon station systems and is able to integrate them onto various platforms.

The office plans to hold a range week at the end of fiscal year 2021.The event will be open to industry looking to demonstrate any systems that may be suitable for the crew served weapons portfolio, he noted. Soldiers will be available to evaluate products for industry and provide feedback.

“That event will provide benefits to both the government and industry,” Oatley said. “It helps inform us about the state of technology and what’s available and helps us inform requirements and inform some additional analysis we may have on where we can take weapons in the future.”

Topics: Army News

Comments (5)

Re: Army Bolstering Weapons Portfolio

You want the best infantry support weapon since 1965? Try licensing the RPG. It's hands down the best there is.

44giarc at 1:43 PM
Re: Army Bolstering Weapons Portfolio

Pete,Its easy to inflate the capabilities of enemy weapons and people have always done that. The AKM (AK-47's haven't been made since 1954) IF its in good shape has a max effective range of 350 meters which from my own experience with them that's a tad exaggerated and double so with the worn out weapons seen in the third world. However it is a great close quarters weapon because of its bigger slug and reliability. The RPK is only good out to 500 meters which is the max effective range of an M4. The PKM does have a realistic but small advantage over the M240 and the insurgents in both theaters used the PKMs range over the 249's 800meter range to engage US Forces long before the could return fire and then run. The SVD has about the same ballistics as a 30-06 and both have a small advantage over the 7.62/.308 round. Our military is 7mm magnum and .338 Laupu which has a range of 1,750 meters.

Mario at 9:01 AM
Re: Army Bolstering Weapons Portfolio

I believe that flamethrowers are banned.

Pat at 11:11 AM
Re: Army Bolstering Weapons Portfolio

One has to wonder "What if" these new weapons systems that can reach out to 1,000 meters, would the war in Afghanistan turn out differently? Using SAWs and M4s that can only reach out to 300-500m compared to 800m-1,000m for the RPK, SVD, AK-47, PKM, the U.S. soldiers and Marines were out-ranged, out-manned, and outgunned. But that's beside the point of this article.

The U.S. Army and U.S. Marines should explore flamethrowers, thermobarics---and rockets, missiles, mortar shells, artillery, and 40mm grenades that can put out fires because the PLA employs conventional backpack flamethrowers. While backpack flamethrowers are still highly vulnerable, the American soldier and Marine have not experienced raging flamethrower flame in the modern training environment and battlefield. The ability to suppress fuel-induced flames will become very important in the future, and it's not like the GI can carry a bright red fire extinguisher wherever and whenever. Even a small PackBot, UGV, or drone, with extinguishing foam or a Fireball might help and work. Fueled-flames laid down by the enemy might be a HUGE challenge in the future peer nation battlefield and the U.S. is still thinking kinetically.

It's nice that the U.S. Army is planning for a new grenade launcher that can reach out to 1,000m because that capability hasn't been offered before. Such a device needs a great telescopic sensor for IFF of the target before firing. If possible and true, the 1,000m grenade launcher can have SHORAD and Anti-UAV capabilities besides just against ground targets.

Replacing the M240 is a nice idea, but bear in mind that the M240L and M240LWS do shave off a few pounds and still offer 1,000-1,200m range, so it's not like it's critical to replace the M240 right away.

The U.S. Army should explore the 5.56mm and 7.62mm minigun as a man-portable, Anti-UGV, Anti-drone, or light MRZR vehicle weapon and reduce the weight, power, heat, and ammo consumption of these weapons to provide effective suppressive fire at range. Lightweight miniguns can be used as a counter to enemy RPGs, flamethrowers, snipers, drones, UAVs, and ATGMs if the minigun can reach out further than American carbines and SAWs.

Finally, the Russian and Chinese are fielding RWSs with 23mm-30mm cannons, smoke grenades, and ATGMs. The U.S. needs to copy as the .50cal and 40mm AGL might not be sufficient in firepower and range a peer nation fight. The Russians and Chinese aren't ashamed in mounting heavier firepower RWS on their MRAPs, and the U.S. should follow suit with their RWSs beyond CROWS.

Pete at 9:38 PM
Re: Army Bolstering Weapons Portfolio

Pat, there is a training video that explicitly shows PLA using flamethrowers on a building....and here is a photo, dated 2017.

Pete at 3:41 PM
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