Date Posted: 18-Sep-2009
Jane's Defence Weekly
In the line of fire: infantry weapons
NATO nations are likely to take on lessons drawn from operations on the ground in Afghanistan as they plan the next generation of infantry weapons. Andrew White reports
With a handful of leading NATO nations starting to consider replacement programmes for their in-service 5.56 mm assault rifles, the issue of small-arm lethality has once again been ignited.
As defence experts and organisations worldwide continue to debate the stopping power of various calibres, the majority of operators on the ground continue to make do with the NATO-nominated round.
According to one British soldier, who recently returned from operations in Helmand Province, it is not possible to suppress the Taliban.
"The only way to suppress is to kill," he said, adding that the dismounted combat in southern Afghanistan is the "most enduring close combat" experienced by UK forces since the Korean War (1950-53). Never before has the lethality of weapons come under such scrutiny.
Sources close to the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) recently stated that they had received no negative feedback from troops on the ground about the lethality of 5.56 mm ammunition. This, they say, is due to the SA80A2 L85A2 assault rifle's 518 mm barrel, which is partly responsible for the weapon systems' muzzle velocity of 940 m/s.
In Afghanistan generally, small arms are used to suppress the enemy and act as a movement 'enabler' for friendly forces as part of section/squad, platoon or company direct action operations or counter-ambush drills. They also provide a means of keeping Taliban heads down while other coalition assets are called in for close air support, for example.
Carrying the 7.62 mm AK-47 assault rifle, Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters alike are using 'suicide shooters' more frequently in attacks against International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces. However, with contact distances ranging from the close and personal up to between 500 m and 900 m, according to MoD sources, troops are finding it difficult to suppress, locate and subsequently kill the enemy.
The question to be answered is whether this is down to a well-trained enemy combatant, restriction by calibre or poor drills on the part of ISAF forces.
UK forces are under no illusion. One soldier said that, "5.56 mm the Taliban ignore; 7.62 mm worries them; .50-calibre scares them".
According to another source: "The Taliban are not presenting easy targets." Some units report that locating the enemy is a significant challenge; many soldiers rarely ever sight them. One soldier from 1st Battalion, The Rifles told Jane's he had seen the enemy a total of three times in 13-14 contacts.
An MoD source said: "What applies on a firing range rarely does so on ops [operations]. Suppressing a hidden enemy concealed in tree lines, ditches and behind compound walls makes it far harder to bring accurate fire down [on a target]. Instead, volume of fire is paramount." Subsequently, this means larger quantities of ammunition are carried and a resurgent preference for larger-calibre weaponry when suppressing targets.
This has seen a renewed popularity of the 7.62 mm general-purpose machine gun (GPMG), which is able to lay down accurate area fire at ranges up to 1,800 m (and 3,000 m in a sustained fire role with tripod).
Accurate location of the enemy has proved difficult due to the Taliban's good use of cover, concealment and alternative positions. However, longer ranges in Afghanistan have also seen a re-employment of Accuracy International's 7.62 mm L96 sniper rifle in a sharpshooter role.
The right mix
Normally having a maximum effective range of 600 m, 5.56 mm weapons "lack the reach" to engage the enemy at longer ranges, said an MoD official. Hence the reason why, at platoon level, the GPMG is being used so often.
One MoD official, who is involved in the research and development of the UK's future small arms capability, believes that 5.56 mm is a sufficiently lethal calibre "at the right range".
However, he added: "Troops need 7.62 mm for longer ranges and we should be looking at higher performance rounds comprising higher lethality at longer ranges. These sorts of rounds are now becoming available. Such research is going to filter into user requirements for the soldier system lethality programme [the MoD's small-arms review]."
In addition, the one-round-fits-all philosophy is "flawed", he said.
"Commanders need a mix of 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm ammunition right down to section level. We should not seek to adopt a compromised medium calibre. Such a development would represent a retrograde step."
A replacement programme is in place for the SA80A2 L85A2 assault rifle, which is due to come into action around 2020.
In the meantime, however, the MoD is undertaking a number of upgrades to the existing A2 variant to bring it up to A3 configuration. This updated version will have a Picatinny rail upper receiver, due to be fully integrated by 2011, polymer 30-round magazines already on trial with some users in Afghanistan and a Vortex flash eliminator, allowing the weapon to be fitted with a suppressor.
Elsewhere, the British Army's 5.56 mm Light Machine Gun (LMG) or Minimi, as manufactured by FN Herstal, has been criticised for not being accurate and effective beyond 200 m. FN Herstal claims that the 'para' version of the weapon has a maximum effective range of 800 m.
In response, the MoD is looking at the possibility of fitting a longer barrel to deal with this requirement alongside the bipod foregrip, already in service with the L85A2 assault rifle, Picatinny tri-rail handguard and Picatinny top cover. This has also contributed to the renewed popularity of the 7.62 mm GPMG on operations in Afghanistan, which UK troops are using for "greater ranges and kinetic energy" capabilities, according to the MoD.
Sources added that there is also a desire for more powerful 40 mm rounds for the Heckler & Koch (H&K) underslung grenade launcher to provide "more powerful terminal effects". The MoD is considering procurement of such 40 mm ammunition in addition to a less-than-lethal capability.
The MoD is also expected to replace around 20,000 Browning 9 mm pistols over the next few years. This follows an urgent operational requirement, which saw an undisclosed number of 9 mm SIG Sauer P226 pistols delivered to UK forces for Operation 'Herrick' in Afghanistan. Sources said the P226, designated the L105A2, will be considered in the procurement of a new combat pistol as well as in the role of a personal defence weapon. There have been several cases during 'Herrick' where soldiers have been required to use their side arms during close-quarter combat due to the restricted mobility of the long-barrelled SA80A2 assault rifle in enclosed spaces.
Meanwhile, Per Arvidsson, NATO team leader for Integration and Interoperability Issues for Dismounted Soldier Weapon Systems, Technical Interfaces, who is also chief engineer and product manager for Small Arms Systems for the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV), does not expect any substantial change in small-arms calibres in the near future.
"No army is going to change from 5.56 mm to 7.62 mm assault rifles because the burden is too heavy at the moment," he told Jane's at the 23rd Small Arms and Cannons Symposium, held at the UK's Defence Academy in August.
"There has not been much change over the past 70 years and there will not be a revolution over the next five to 10 years either," he added. To substantiate this, he told Jane's that the FMV is working up plans for a procurement programme to replace its existing stocks of Ak5 (Automatkarbin 5) 5.56 mm assault rifles, undergoing a second upgrade programme.
The Swedish armed forces have a requirement to procure a modified off-the-shelf 5.56 mm assault rifle. The 'Ak6' programme will take place between 2019 and 2020, Arvidsson explained. Although requirements for the new weapon system are at an early stage, additional demands are expected to include a folding stock and Picatinny-compatible rail system for the attachment of multiple ancillaries.
Currently, Swedish armed forces operate with the 5.56 mm x 45 Saab Bofors Dynamics Ak5 (also known as the CGA5): a derivative of FN Herstal's FNC assault rifle.
In 2006, the FMV awarded Saab Bofors Dynamics a SEK260 million (USD40 million) contract to upgrade its existing Ak5s to Ak5C configuration. A four-year programme is due to be completed in 2010 with a total of 1,500 upgraded weapons being delivered to Swedish forces each month.
Upgrades for the Ak5C 'improved assault rifle' include new adjustable butt-stocks, handgrips, bayonet interfaces, revised flash suppressors, Picatinny rail systems and plastic magazines manufactured by Norwegian company Norplasta.
Available 5.56 mm weapons with folding stocks include FN Herstal's Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) Mk16, H&K's G36 rifle, SIG's SG552 Commando system and Beretta's ARX 160.
The next generation
A previous upgrade programme saw the development of the Ak5B assault rifle, which allowed the weapon to be fitted with the Sight Unit Small Arms Trilux (SUSAT) sight, as used on the L85A1 individual weapon and L86A1 light support weapon in the UK. A total of 5,200 weapons were upgraded.
Looking to the future, Arvidsson believes most future requirements, including the UK's forthcoming replacement of its SA80 weapons, will comprise 5.56 mm weapons with Picatinny-compatible rails, red *** sights and short barrel configurations.
"By 2020, several nations will be looking to introduce a new [assault] rifle and we could be looking at the next generation of small arms," Arvidsson added, referring to potential Canadian, Swedish, UK and US programmes.
He does not think there will ever be a single, NATO-approved rifle in the future; just a list of nominated weapons that must be compatible with the current NATO 5.56 mm ammunition. These currently include FN Herstal's FNC, H&K's G36, the H&K upgraded L85A2, Colt Defense's M16A2 and the Beretta AR70/90.
However, while referring to the issue of the lethality of 5.56 mm ammunition, Arvidsson maintained that shot placement is "the most important parameter".
"This is achieved through good and realistic training. Forces must train as they fight," he said. Swedish armed forces are now using pop-up targets for field firing exercises, comprising metal sheets measuring only 120 mm in width. When compared with previous targets used, which measured 500 mm across, Arvidsson said the smaller targets are designed to represent the core of the body, which, when hit with a 5.56 mm round, will receive the maximum lethal effect of the projectile.
Another nation that has begun preparation for a small-arms replacement programme is Canada.
As part of the larger Integrated Soldier System Project, the Small Arms Replacement Project 2 (SARP2) is looking to replace the existing 5.56 mm Colt Canada (formerly Diemaco) C7 and C8 assault rifles as well as selecting a variety of other weapon systems.
The programme, designed to provide weapons for the army, navy and air force, is also considering replacement high-powered hunting rifles for the Canadian Rangers. An indigenous force comprising First Nation personnel, the Rangers are tasked with patrolling the northernmost areas of Canada and currently carry a .303-calibre Lee Enfield rifle, primarily for self-defence against animals.
However, the Canadian Forces (CF) have recently expressed a desire to provide more combat training for the Rangers and this requirement could materialise into more of a multipurpose weapon for the units.
Phase one of SARP2, due to run between 2012 and 2015, will see the procurement of a pistol to replace the 9 mm Browning; a Ranger rifle; an underslung grenade launcher replacement for the 40 mm M203 (no longer compatible with longer cartridges according to the CF); and a combat shotgun requirement.
The second phase, which will run from 2015 to 2018, includes a personal defence weapon (PDW) to replace H&K 9 mm MP5s bought for the navy and special operations forces (SOFs).
The CF have said these weapons could not be upgraded, resulting, therefore, in a requirement for a new PDW.
Other requirements include boarding party weapons for the navy, hand grenades and breaching systems for method-of-entry teams.
A final phase, running from 2018 to 2022, will see the replacement of the infantry assault weapons. The CF are also working in partnership with the US Department of Defense's (DoD's) Lightweight Small Arms Technology (LSAT) programme to develop an assault rifle that can fire both caseless telescoped and cased telescoped ammunition, currently in development.
According to Major Bruce Gilchrist, project director for small arms at Canada's National Defence Headquarters, human factors will also provide fruitful design guidance for the forthcoming assault rifle requirement.
Referring to a CF-sponsored Interoperability and Integration report, due for completion in December 2009, he describes the future possibilities for offset optical sights, ergonomically designed to maximise full-face combat helmets and body armour.
The Canadians are still not sure if they will continue with 5.56 mm ammunition. As Maj Gilchrist explained, it depends on requirements. "Are we expected to close with and destroy the enemy or fix and obliterate them?" he asked. He also questions whether 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm are still suitable calibres for future operations.
The CF are also conducting a biomechanical review into weapon handling as well as research into electronic ignition ammunition, identification of partly obscured targets, target hand-off at soldier-to-soldier level and use of small arms to control unmanned aerial and ground vehicles.
However, the general consensus is that NATO nations will inevitably follow the US DoD's lead when it comes to future calibre selection.
Currently, the US is understood to be finalising plans for a request for proposals (RfP) for a replacement programme for 5.56 mm M16 rifles and M4 carbines.
A main criticism of the M4 weapon system is that it has too short a barrel. Measuring 370 mm in length, it provides a muzzle velocity of 884 m/s. By comparison the SA80A2 L85A2, which has a 518 mm barrel, produces a muzzle velocity of 940 m/s.
An alternative being considered by the US Army is modernisation of the existing Colt Defense M4 carbine, since there are approximately 500,000 systems currently in service with US combat troops.
Numerous industry days hosted by the US Army have involved up to 19 vendors exhibiting various weapon systems in calibres ranging from 5.56 mm, through 6.5 mm and 6.8 mm, up to 7.62 mm.
Army requirements include improvements to individual weapon performance in the areas of accuracy and dispersion, reliability and durability in all environments, modularity and terminal performance.
However, a spokesman for the US Army's Program Executive Office Soldier (PEO) told Jane's that he was "unable to discuss the carbine competition at this time until the army's plans are firmed up".
H&K has already confirmed to Jane's that it will offer its 5.56 mm HK416 carbine for the replacement programme: a system that is already in use with US 1st Special Forces Group Operational Detachment-Delta.
Other companies expressing interest include: AAI, Armwest, Barrett, Bushmaster/Remington, Polytech, KAC, POF, Precision Reflex, Robinson Armament, Sabre Defense, SIG Sauer, Smith & Wesson, Superior Tooling and Troy Industries.
FN Herstal's SCAR system, which has started fielding with US SOF units, is also expected to run, although H&K's XM8 was not exhibited at the industry day.
Sniper rifles are proving immensely popular on operations - in Afghanistan especially - and the issue of Accuracy International's .338-calibre L115A3 sniper system to UK forces has "increased range and lethality" for British sharpshooters.
Accuracy International Director Tom Irwin told Jane's: "The .338-calibre is gaining popularity for the military because of its range [up to 1,400 m] and provides the opportunity for greater distance than 7.62 mm rounds [900 to 1,000 m]." Irwin said that the US is pushing research and development to increase the accuracy of .338-cal ammunition, which, he claimed, already provides a flatter trajectory and reasonable accuracy when compared with other rounds.
Current requirements, however, include rapid engagement of multiple targets with semi-automatic weapons, night-vision compatibility and other ancillaries.
Sniper system add-ons
This means the latest sniper systems to come to the market include extended Picatinny rails on the top of the upper receiver as well as around the foregrip and barrel for the application of laser rangefinders, bipods and other add-ons.
"This was never a requirement before," Irwin recalled. "Snipers are now carrying a higher number of rounds than before. Traditionally, five- round magazines have been carried for one-shot missions. Different conditions are being seen on the battlefield today with a requirement to engage more targets than before," Irwin explained.
This has resulted in requirements for larger-capacity magazines, folding stocks for carriage, adjustable cheekpieces and butt stocks for snipers wearing body armour.
Subsequently, Accuracy International has outlined to Jane's plans to unveil a new series of sniper rifles in response to such increasing requirements.
Next year the company will launch the AX-series: higher capacity, modular bolt-action and semi-automatic weapons in 7.62 mm, .300-calibre Winchester Magnum and .338-calibre systems.
The move is in part a response to the DoD's requirement for a Precision Sniper Rifle (PSR), which will now be fielded across the triservices in the US along with increasing requirements in Afghanistan for longer precision weaponry capable of engaging multiple Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets at ranges over 1,000 m.
Accuracy has revealed that new AX-series weapons will, therefore, comprise 10-round magazines, folding stocks, adjustable cheekpieces, adjustable buttstocks (for increased compatibility with a shooter's body armour), bipods and multisided Picatinny rails around the barrel. The latter will include a long, single Picatinny rail running along the top of the barrel back to the top of the upper receiver.
"A higher number of rounds are now carried due to different conditions experienced on the battlefield today requiring operators to engage more targets than before. The sniper system market has never seen this trend before alongside growing requirements for adjustable weapon parts and ancillaries," Irwin told Jane's.
The move follows development of Accuracy International's semi-automatic AS50 .50-calibre (12.7 mm) anti-materiel rifle, initially developed for evaluation by the US Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) special forces teams and which has now made the final shortlist, alongside Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, for the UK MoD's Long-Range Precision Anti-Structure (LRPAS) sniper requirement.
Lethality debates are set to continue for many years and, once the US has made a decision on where it is heading, a more NATO-centric policy is likely to be enforced worldwide. However, until then 5.56 mm assault rifles and 7.62 mm machine guns will continue to do the groundwork in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Author of Time for a Change - US Incremental Small Arms Fielding and small-arms consultant Jim Schatz believes weapons used by SOFs should be extended to conventional forces. One option is to follow the SOF penchant for allowing operators to carry 7.62 mm assault rifle variants instead of 5.56 mm versions.
He pointed out how SOF units have access to a faster fielding model, compared with conventional units; most weapons are fielded with "limited government research and develop-ment spending".
Looking ahead to a possible US solicitation for 'The Next Carbine' competition, Schatz said: "[The SOF model] can and should be replicated for all US military warfighters as soon as possible."
Andrew White is Jane's Land Reporter, based in London
ISRAEL DEFENCE FORCE PREPARES TO ADOPT NEXT-GENERATION INFANTRY WEAPON
Israel's next-generation assault rifle - the 5.56 mm Tavor TAR-21 - is finally overcoming earlier setbacks and is now on track to become the Israel Defence Force's (IDF's) main infantry weapon.
With two regular infantry brigades - Givati and Golani - already fully equipped with Israel Weapon Industries' (IWI's) Tavor rifles, the IDF is currently fulfilling an initial order for 15,000 TAR-21 rifles placed in 2003, intended to equip four infantry brigades.
Developed originally by Israel Military Industries (IMI) in the 1990s as a replacement for the M16 series rifles, the TAR-21 was selected by the IDF in 2002 following operational testing against the US M4 carbine. IMI began supplying the IDF's initial requirement as well as an order from India, but both customers complained of problems in operating the rifle and requested that deliveries cease.
In 2005 IMI's Light Weapons Division was sold to IWI, which launched a series of changes and modifications for the TAR-21. The weapon now appears to have overcome the setbacks.
The standard TAR-21 weighs 3.3 kg and has a relatively long barrel of 460 mm considering its overall length of 720 mm. It uses an M16-pattern 30-round box magazine and is equipped with a red-*** reflex reflector sight unit that requires no zeroing, as the sight unit is attached directly to the barrel.
All controls are ambidextrous; the cocking handle can be placed in a slot on either the right or the left of the forward receiver. Changing to right hand or left hand can be accomplished easily in the field.
"IMI and IWI have recognised that today's battle begins at long ranges and ends at close ranges," Uri Amit, president of IWI, told Jane's. "The Tavor's bullpup configuration is designed for maximum performance at both close and long ranges. We have also identified the requirement for installing a variety of accessories on the weapon, as modern armies perceive the rifle as the centre of energy for all accessories."
The TAR-21 features accessory rails that can accommodate a one-eye night-vision sight, a laser designator, a clip-on light bipod, a blank firing adaptor and non-lethal ammunition adaptor and a 40 mm M203-pattern grenade launcher slung from a position under the muzzle, or alternatively a torch or a camera.
The Micro Tavor (MTAR-21), now designated as the X95 assault rifle/submachine gun, was selected to equip IDF special forces.
Weighing 2.95 kg, it is typically equipped with a 20/30 5.56 mm NATO round magazine, but could be converted to accommodate a 20/25/32 19 x 9 mm Parabellum round magazine by changing the barrel and adding a magazine adaptor.
The IDF has already received about a half of its order of 15,000 Tavor rifles and eventually intends to acquire an additional 40,000. India, which acquired 3,000 TAR-21 rifles for its special forces in 2002, placed an order for additional 1,000 rifles in 2008. Other customers of the TAR-21 include Thailand, which received 15,000 rifles with an option of procuring anadditional 30,000; Georgia; and the Philippines.
The TAR-21 has gained significant combat experience during Israel's offensive in Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009. It was also operated by Indian special forces during the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
IWI, which took over all of IMI's small-arms production lines, continues to market the Galil 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm assault rifles, mostly based on refurbished used weapons acquired from the IDF.
Older Galil rifles as well as Uzi submachine guns are refurbished at the IWI facility outside Tel Aviv and sold to dozens of customers, mostly in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
"We have consciously decided to stay out of Western Europe, as there are too many competitors in that market," said Amit. However, IWI is trying to enter the US and Australian market with its Negev 5.56 mm gas-operated, open-bolt, selective fire light machine gun.
Designed to fire standard 5.56 x 45 mm NATO M885/SS109 ammunition, the 2.98 kg Negev is a multipurpose weapon that can be fed from standard belts, drums or magazines and can be fired from the hip, a bipod, a tripod, a ground vehicle or helicopter mounts.
IWI's Uzi-series submachine gun continues to be popular mostly in the US civilian market.
Since taking over IMI's light weapons facility in 2005, IWI has multiplied sales of small arms by four, with revenues of almost USD100 million in 2008, some 75 per cent of which are in exports. Owned solely by Sammy Katsav, the company currently has 350 employees.
Alon Ben-David JDW Correspondent, Tel Aviv