Infantry Weapons Update

Infantry Afghanistan

A GUEST POST FROM MONTY

As the conflict in Afghanistan starts to wind down, many NATO armies need to replace their aging and worn out weapon fleets. The problem is that few governments will have enough money in their coffers to budget for new guns before 2020, unless a foray in Iran or elsewhere mandates earlier replacement. But since it takes about 10 years to select and approve a new weapon for service, many nations have begun the search for the next generation. I thought it might be interesting to share a few perspectives on emerging developments.

L129A1 Infantry Sharpshooter Rifle
L129A1 Infantry Sharpshooter Rifle

Calibres

Despite the obvious logic of a single intermediate calibre being able to replace both 5.56 mm NATO and 7.62 mm NATO, both legacy calibres look as though they will remain in NATO service for some years to come. What could change this is if a potential enemy (Russia or China) were to develop one.  Expect to hear more about this in due course. What will change, however, is the wider use of 7.62 mm and the decreased use of 5.56 mm. The larger 7.62 mm calibre is rapidly establishing itself as the machine gun (MG) and designated marksman rifle (DMR) standard, while 5.56 mm will be limited to an assault rifle (AR) and carbine (CAR) role.

The USA recently updated its M855 5.56 mm ammunition to a new standard, the M855A1 EPR. This uses a lead-free construction to deliver improved soft tissue performance. It fragments more reliably by breaking into two or more pieces. It also has better barrier penetration. This round has been very controversial. Firstly, the US Army was accused of stealing someone else’s IP and is currently being sued. Secondly, the round is fired at much higher velocities to overcome the deficiencies of the M4A1’s short 14.5” barrel. This results in higher chamber pressures leading to increased weapon wear and parts breakages.

The flight path of the M855A1 is also quite different from that of the M855, so requires weapons to be re-zeroed if ammunition types are changed. What happens if troops get resupplied in combat with M855 when they’ve been using M855A1? That’s a good question; fortunately M855A1 is being used almost universally within the US Army now.

Finally, the new ammo is much more expensive to make. The US Army is presently involved in litigation with the patent owner of the M855A1 EPR design. When this settles, it is probable that the US Army will gain access to a better TDP, which will allow it to be improved.

M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round
M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round

Meanwhile, the US ARDEC research and development team,  has been looking at advanced lead-free bullet designs, so a further revised round, the M855A2 EPR, is expected to be introduced before too long.

Britain is also working on its own revised 5.56 mm round, the so called “Dirty Harry”.  Despite being announced two years ago, it is still 18 months away from service. This will offer better terminal effectiveness by having a bullet that yaws (tumbles) more reliably and earlier in soft tissue. It too will be lead free, but it won’t fragment.

The legality of the US M855A1 is a moot point. The USA naturally insists that it is Hague / Geneva compliant. But since they are not signatories, they are free to adopt an independent and more liberal view of what is legally and morally acceptable.

It is fair to say that NATO 5.56 mm ammunition can be considered effective within its range limitations. The UK and most of NATO says that the maximum range is 300 metres. The USA insists that it is 400-500 metres. In fact, a 5.56 mm bullet will reach 800 metres, but can easily be blown off target due to its susceptibility to wind drift. This is the real Achilles heel of the 5.56 mm’s light bullet.  As Afghanistan has proved, often troops will need to engage targets beyond 600 metres and this is what has necessitated a return to 7.62 mm.

The UK, USA and other NATO allies have all established new range requirements for dismounted close combat. Small unit dominance is a key requirement for counter-insurgency operations. Thus, there is a need to dominate the battlespace at ranges of up to 1,200 metres. Obviously, this will be done with more than just small arms. We need individual soldiers to be able shoot to 300 m, as before, but the requirement for sections to shoot collectively as a team (which existed previously when we had the 7.62 mm L1A1 SLR) has returned. Designated marksmen need to be able to hit targets at 600 m. Machine gunners need to do so at 800 m, (US machine gunners to 1,100 m).

So the increased need for 7.62 mm is clear.

The USA is working on an improved 7.62 mm round, the M80A1 EPR, which will incorporate the same construction and materials as the M855A1 EPR.

When the Americans talk about future capabilities two themes dominate: ‘overmatch’ and ‘lightening the burden’. It is the same story for the UK, although we prefer to describe overmatch as ‘enhanced lethality’. (The term overmatch is a bit like warfighter.) The bottom line is, as combat feedback makes clear, any unit that faces an enemy equipped with full-calibre weapons (7.62 mm x54R, .303, 7.92 mm etc.) will be out-ranged and out-gunned if they only have 5.56 mm weapons.

Weapons

A pleasant surprise is the increasing reliability of SA80. It appears that after the initial upgrade programme, Heckler & Koch has continued to supply spare parts. In doing so, it has reportedly redesigned various additional weapon components to offer increased dependability, durability and longevity. In short, the L85A2 is working very well in Afghanistan, even if it is heavy and has questionable ergonomics.

SA80 A1
SA80 A1
SA80 A2 British Army Service Rifle
SA80 A2 British Army Service Rifle

The UK is on course to replace this weapon in 2020-2025. A search for a new SOF assault rifle was initiated this year by the MoD. It isn’t yet known what the contenders are, but expect all of the usual suspects to submit all the usual weapons: FN SCAR, Colt M4A1, HK416, Thales F-90 (AUG Steyr), LMT AR-15 and Beretta ARX160.

The weapon that’s chosen may also become the Army’s next assault rifle.

The US Army’s search for an improved carbine also continues. Colt, Remington, H&K and FN have submitted improved versions of existing products for testing. Given that there is no firm intention to buy the winning weapon and that Colt already has a contract to provide improved M4s, the competition is perceived by many to be meaningless. There is congressional pressure to scrap the IC competition and to select a brand new weapon.

I recently had an opportunity to meet the team responsible for the US Army’s Lightweight Small Arms Technology (LSAT) program being run by the Joint Services Small Arms Program (JSSAP). Having seen the technology at close hand, I have completely changed my mind about it. It is a very clever system.

PEO Fires Inaugural Light Machine Gun Shot
PEO Fires Inaugural Light Machine Gun Shot

The mechanism uses a forward eject system instead of rearward extraction. Spent cases are expelled through the front of the weapon and land in a neat pile. Since there is no need for an extractor to grip the base of the cartridge, the case can be lighter and simpler in construction. This saves both weight and money in production. It also simplifies weapon design. The LSAT machine gun has a swinging chamber that pivots from side to side. The incoming round ejects the spent cartridge. See this video for more details:

The ammunition comes in two varieties. Both are extremely short, light and compact versus legacy ammunition. The caseless ammunition has yet to fully overcome breech sealing and other issues, but the case-telescoped ammunition has proven itself to be able to deliver all of the hoped for benefits. It is looking as though development of the caseless ammunition will cease, because the incremental reduction in cartridge weight is hardly worth the effort.

The case-telescoped round is contained within a simple rimless plastic tube. The projectile is wrapped by propellant, a primer is inserted at the base and an end cap protects the round by sealing it at the front end.  The cartridge is simple, easy and inexpensive to produce.

AAI LSAT Ammunition
AAI LSAT Ammunition

The cost saving versus brass is likely to be considerable. There can be no doubt that this is the cartridge technology of the future. Given the maturity of the existing design, the risk of failure is negligible. As has been mentioned elsewhere, adopting LSAT also provides an ideal opportunity to select an optimised calibre – and that may well be the best possible reason to introduce it.

Unfortunately, as things stand, the LSAT project has reached a standstill. It has completed all initial development and testing objectives, but needs further funding to take it forward to the next level. To do that, the US Army needs to issue a requirement for it so that on-going Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) and operational testing can proceed. It isn’t dead, but it is disappointing that the project is in a state of hiatus.

What could invalidate the LSAT concept is polymer-cased versions of conventional brass-cased ammunition. This solution also saves a considerable amount of weight, but is simple and easy to implement in legacy weapons. However, the weight saving is only 25% versus 35-40% with LSAT.

H&K has developed a new 7.62 mm machine gun for the Bundeswehr, the HK121, to replace its aging MG3s (a design that can trace its roots back to the WW2 MG43). This weapon superficially resembles the 7.62 mm FN Minimi, (which the UK has bought in limited quantities, but not yet issued). The new HK121 has a twin return spring arrangement (not unlike that of SA80) that contributes to an extremely reliable mechanism and short action length. In theory, the weapon could easily be as light as the 7.62 mm Minimi at 8.2 kg, but the Bundeswehr has specified a very heavy barrel for sustained automatic fire. The lightweight version weighs 9.1 kg versus 10.8 kg for the standard version.

The MAG58 weighs 11-13 kg, depending on the version. According to reports, the HK121 (which will be called the MG5 in Bundeswehr service) is rated for 100,000 rounds. It is likely to be bought by a variety of other MG3 customers once development is complete. Incidentally, H&K is also manufacturing FN MAG58s (as GPMGs) for the British Army.

The other important new machine gun is General Dynamics’ new .338 MMG. Using the same calibre as the UK’s sniper rifle, the Accuracy International AW L115A3. This ammunition essentially makes it a lightweight man-portable .50 calibre BMG (see below). The GD .338 MMG uses a hydraulic buffer to reduce felt recoil. This makes it easy to control.

The gun is extraordinarily light for such a large calibre machine gun. Weighing around 11 kg, it is about the same as an HK121 and massively lighter than the 36 kg of the .50 BMG. The range is about 1,700 m in the light role, which compares favourably to the .50 Cal. BMG.

Interestingly, this gun uses the shorter .338 Norma cartridge instead of the .338 Lapua Magnum to conserve barrel life.

It is worth pointing out that, without any competition, .338 has rapidly established itself as the new standard NATO sniping calibre.

In 2007, when the UK replaced its older 7.62 mm sniper rifles with the Accuracy International AW L115A3 it simply determined that the .338 Lapua magnum was the best round for the job.

We ignored the US’s .300 Winchester Magnum and it looks as though we made the right choice.

The longest recorded range for a sniper kill was set in 2009 by a UK sniper, Corporal of Horse Craig Harrison of the Household Cavalry. He shot two Taliban machine gunners consecutively near Musa Qala in Helmand Province in Afghanistan at a range of 2,475 m using his L115A3 rifle.

L115A3 Sniper Rifle
L115A3 Sniper Rifle

Given an alarming number of green-on-blue incidents, the British Army plans to give pistols to all soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Handgun shooting is expected to become a much more important part of small arms training than it has hitherto been. An initial purchase of SIG P226s is expected to be supplemented by a larger buy of Glock 17 (Gen. 4) 9 mm handguns. (Soldiers: never forget that the weapon in your hand was supplied by the cheapest bidder.)

Glock 17 Gen 4
Glock 17 Gen 4

The UK, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and the USA are all on a similar critical path to replace their military small arms. Canada has shown interest in LSAT and is working with Colt Canada to develop a carbine version of the weapon.

Australia is set to purchase an updated version of its AUG Steyr. This is the F-90 developed by Thales. Since Thales is a French company, the same weapon must be in pole position to replace the French FAMAS, another bullpup design.

France is in an interesting position. Unlike the rest of NATO, it never adopted the SS109 / M855 5.56 mm cartridge. Instead, it used the older M193 round in a steel-cased cartridge. The French Army’s FAMAS has a very fast blowback action, so the cartridge needed to be made of a sturdier material than brass to avoid having the base ripped off during extraction. It has become increasingly difficult to source this old steel-cased M193 ammunition since France stopped domestic production. This has accentuated the need to replace the old and somewhat inferior FAMAS series.

Norway recently bought the 5.56 mm HK416 and 5.56 mm FN Minimi to replace the Norwegian Army’s existing fleet of weapons. It fires new lead free ammunition developed by Nammo. Meanwhile, Italy is starting to issue its new Beratta ARX160 5.56 mm assault rifle to its Army. China has updated its 5.8 mm ammunition as well as the bullpup rifle that fires it, the QBZ-95-1.

Both Poland and the Czech Republic are developing new 5.56 mm assault rifles for their armies. The Polish MSBS is available as both a conventional assault rifle and a bullpup.  The Czech Cz805 Bren resembles the FN SCAR. It is too early to say how good these weapons are, but they look well-designed, high-quality weapons that provide European members of NATO with a less expensive new weapon option.

Finally, the .50 calibre BMG is performing sterling service in Afghanistan. When available, it can quickly lay down coving fire out to 2,000 metres. Often used at shorter range. When Jackals equipped with these weapons open up, the Taliban soon melt away. Virtually unchanged since WW2, the .50 Cal BMG has received a few minor updates including a fixed headspace (which now no longer needs to checked every time the barrel is changed), a quick-change barrel and new flash hider. It is a heavy system – 36 kg, so is usually mounted to vehicles.

Not bad for a weapon that was designed in the early 1930s.

The US Army is using anti-materiel rifles in .50 calibre. The HE warhead makes such weapons ideal for disabling vehicles at long-range. They are also equally effective at neutralising Taliban insurgents, should they get in the way of a vehicle target.

Grenade Launchers

Detachable 40 mm UGL grenade launchers tend to be used detached more often than they are used attached to 5.56 mm weapons.  (Not the UK – our UGLs are not detachable.) This is because UGLs are perceived to add too much weight to small arms. More important, we’re seeing the emergence of 5-6 round standalone magazine-fed grenade launchers with sophisticated sighting / targeting systems.

The XM25 has been fielded with limited success in Afghanistan. According to anecdotal reports, its 25 mm HEAB (High Explosive Air Burst) ammunition is very good at supressing the enemy, but less good at actually killing people. The burst pattern of the 25 mm grenade may be to blame, although it may simply be that users need better training to use it effectively. More definitive feedback is required and that may lead to improved sighting systems. What is beyond doubt is that the XM25 is an extremely innovative weapon. When a burst of 6 x 25 mm airburst grenades is fired at 700 metres, anyone in the line of fire tends to take cover pronto.

XM25, Counter Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE) System
XM25, Counter Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE) System

If the lethality of the 25 mm grenade is in doubt, 40 mm airburst grenades work impressively well. Rheinmetall is developing a new 40 mm magazine-fed launcher, the Hydra, which is available with 4, 6, 8 and 10-round magazines.  It is noticeably bigger and heavier than an XM25 and uses medium velocity 40 mm grenades. Fired from shoulder-controlled weapons, these high power 40 mm grenades require buffering systems to mitigate the recoil.

Rheinmetall Hydra
Rheinmetall Hydra

Rheinmetall has also developed a single-shot medium velocity detachable UGL system, the Cerberus. This can be retrofitted to existing assault rifles and offers a 700 m range versus 400 m for low velocity 40 mm grenades.

Vehicle-mounted 40 mm grenade machine-guns have proved very popular in Afghanistan. Providing a rapid response mobile artillery platform, they can be attached to vehicles like the Jackal or Foxhound to provide an immediate means of dislodging a dug-in enemy or repelling an attack.

In summary, there have been many complaints about the current range of small arms in use with the British Army and other NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan. The truth is we’ve never had better equipment than we have now.

The fact that we plan to replace it with something even better can only be a good thing.

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