Army leaders this week provided key weapons updates during a Senate hearing on modernization that included timelines on an improved armor-piercing round, sniper rifles and their Next Generation Squad Weapon.
Lt. Gen. John Murray, deputy chief of staff, G-8, and Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, principal military secretary to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, spoke primarily in response to questions from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, about lethality concerns within the infantry squad.
Cotton asked for updates to the rifles and rounds infantry soldiers use, given advancements in body armor that can defeat the standard 5.56mm round fired by the M4 carbine and M16 rifle variants.
The company that developed both weapons and cartridges to reduce soldier load by about 40 percent now has machine guns in both 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm and a new carbine that fires a round never used across the U.S. military.
Army is building a “Next Generation Squad Weapon,” which has been previously reported by Army Times. Murray confirmed to the senators that the Army has a “demonstration weapon right now.”
“It’s too big. It’s too heavy,” Murray said. “But we’ve recently opened it up to commercial industry for them to come in with their ideas about how they would get with that, get to that.”
The first variant, Murray said, will be an automatic rifle to replace the Squad Automatic Weapon, which is chambered in 5.56mm.
“We’ve been pushed on the M27, which the Marine Corps has adopted. That is also a 5.56mm, which doesn’t penetrate. So, we’re going to go down the path of [the] Next Generation Squad Weapon, automatic rifle first, to be closely followed — I’m hopeful — for either a rifle or carbine that will fire something other than 5.56mm,” Murray said.
He quickly added that the new round will likely not be in 7.62mm.
As Army leaders look to the service’s next standard issue rifle or carbine, a lot of options are on the table.
“The weapon will probably weigh a little bit more, the ammo will probably weigh a little bit less, and we can get penetration of the most advanced body armor in the world, probably well out beyond even max effective range of the current M4,” Murray said. “And that’s what we see as a replacement for the M4 in the future, not the [Squad Designated Marksman Rifle].”
Marines began working with the M27 Infantry Automatic Weapon, which is the military variant of the commercially available Heckler & Koch 416, in 2010 and began large orders and fielding last year. They have also adopted an upgraded version as their squad designated marksman weapon.
Experts at the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence have previously told Army Times that they are working with several 6mm variants, a round that cuts the difference between 5.56mm and 7.62mm, providing the range and lethality of the larger round without the weight.
The Interim Combat Service Rifle program was meant to provide a short-term, commercially available rifle in 7.62 mm to replace the M4/M16 weapons carried by front line troops.
Advancements not only include a new round but also improved fire controls and polymer casing.
Textron Systems has partnered with the Army to develop a cased telescope cartridge and weapons built around the shortened polymer round. They also have a 6mm carbine variant, which was on display at the Association of the U.S. Army annual meeting last year.
Ostrowski told the senators that the work with Textron and others will be offered to vendors in 2018, with the goal of seeing a decision by 2021 and having the capability ready by 2022 or 2023.
Murray listed several other, interim efforts, including the near-term gap of providing a Squad Designated Marksman Rifle chambered in 7.62mm that also fires the Advanced Armor-Piercing Round.
While the SDMR program has been sped up and will see fielding among infantry units this year, the round program has been delayed to field in 2019, Murray said.
“You can still fire a 7.62 and you can still penetrate; you just can’t get quite the range you will with the next generation round,” Murray said.