ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — The Army sent its newest rifle, automatic rifle and optics to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky this week.

Officials declined to identify the specific platoon in the division that would run the limited user test of the weapons systems in the coming months, citing security concerns. New equipment training for the unit begins Sept. 25, officials said.

A squad from the 75th Ranger Regiment will also assist in the testing, officials said.

The 101st unit has swapped their 5.56mm caliber M4s and M249s Squad Automatic Weapons for the 6.8mm XM7 rifle and XM250 automatic rifle.

The unit will conduct tests over the coming weeks and months as the Army prepares to fully equip one of their brother units within the Division in the second quarter of fiscal year 2024, officials said on Sept. 21.

The change to a new “intermediate caliber” round away from the more than half-century use of the 5.56mm emerged after a series of studies during the Global War on Terrorism and the 2017 Small Arms Ammunition Configuration Study. The study noted limited range and insufficient energy on target for the existing small-caliber squad-level weapons.

That sparked a competition in recent years geared around an intermediate caliber in the 6mm range. The Army ultimately decided to develop its own 6.8mm projectile, which it is manufacturing.

Currently, the 10-year contract for the Sig Sauer weapons systems has a ceiling value of $4.5 billion and the Vortex Optics/Sheltered Wings optic cost ceiling is set at $2.7 billion.

These weapons are slated for close combat forces — infantry, combat engineers, select enablers such as scouts and special operations units.

The weapons combo along with the 1-8x magnified XM157 fire control, or computer-assisted rifle optic, extends range, improves accuracy and hits targets harder. The optic has a ballistics computer and aiming assist as part of the device.

That shift was made tangible in a demonstration for media at the Mulberry range here when soldiers fired the XM250 side by side with the SAW.

Both fired at cinder blocks blocking red plastic human silhouette targets. Multiple XM250 6.8mm rounds punched holes through cinder blocks and struck the target. From appearances, a single 5.56mm round managed to damage, but not fully pass through the cinder blocks.

“That’s turning cover into concealment,” said Lt. Col. Micah Rue, product manager for soldier weapons at Program Executive Office-Soldier.

Soldiers in the unit will run through not only their standard infantry tasks but also perform timed mobility tests over obstacles with the new weapons and with the old for a side-by-side comparison, Rue said.

The officer said that one of multiple aims is to see how soldiers adjust the way they outfit their kit and load bearing. While the XM250 is lighter than the SAW, the XM7, an actual infantry rifle, is 3lbs heavier than its carbine predecessor, the M4.

The Army has designed a new load carrier for the weapon, in part because the 6.8mm magazines for the XM7 are a different shape than the legacy M16 and M4 magazines.

Soldiers will carry fewer rounds for each weapon.

The XM7 load out with seven magazines will include 140 rounds as compared to the M4′s 210. The XM250 combat load of 400 rounds is fewer than the SAW 600-round load. Infantry experts involved with the program have said increased accuracy and lethality of the 6.8mm round should reduce the number of rounds needed to either kill or suppress a target.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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