The Army Doesn’t Need a Battle Rifle
The Army recently published an RFI (“request for information,” basically a non-binding request for companies in the industry to send them spec sheets and estimated pricing for an item) for a “interim combat service rifle” with a 16-20″ barrel, chambered in 7.62x51mm NATO, presumably to replace or supplement the M4 until a new weapon system (i.e. rifle and cartridge) can be formally adopted.
While it needs to be understood that an RFI is just for gathering market and industry data and doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is planned, I strongly believe this document to be a move in the wrong direction. This RFI, and the subsequent brief to congress by General Milley, implies heavily that top brass considers 7.62x51mm NATO to be superior to 5.56x45mm for the average Soldier. Really, it implies the belief that anyone armed with an M4 would be better served with a bigger, heavier battle rifle in a more powerful cartridge.
I disagree entirely. With the advent and adoption of M855A1 EPR ammunition, the M4/M4A1 provides markedly increased lethality over the M855 in a relatively compact platform. The M4A1/M855A1 combination mimics M16A4 external ballistics, while providing a higher degree of mechanical accuracy, in a shorter platform, and the EPR bullet construction provides both improved terminal performance on soft targets AND improved armor penetration. Basically: with this system, the individual Soldier (with proper training) has the ability to engage even a lightly armored point target to beyond what has traditionally been considered the maximum effective range of the M16 FOW. It more than exceeds the original published requirement for the M855/SS109 cartridge from the 1980s by a factor of two. In fact, M855A1 penetrates armor significantly better than M80 ball 7.62x51mm even at more than twice the range that M80 ball is able to.
Among other things, the RFI states potential ICSR candidates can weigh up to 12lbs, unloaded, without optic. This is, frankly, an absurdly heavy maximum weight even for information gathering. The greatest sin of the GWOT era is the overloading of the individual Soldier. Every shiny new toy is additional poundage and pain on the back of the Infantryman. Nearly every “upgrade” to radios, weapon systems, armor, and web gear has brought the light infantry combat load out to 80-100lbs, depending on the individual’s role in the unit. Current 7.62x51mm ammunition alone weighs around twice what 5.56x45mm weighs, reducing the effective basic load by about half. Single 7.62×51-class magazines take up more space on load carrying equipment, further reducing the number of magazines ready to hand.
Additionally, 7.62x51mm weapon systems have more recoil than comparable 5.56x45mm ones. This means each shot will take more effort and training to recover from in order to take another. This is counterproductive to current trends: soldiers aren’t shooting to a high enough standard. A constant complaint from commanders is underperformance on the range, even from deployable combat arms units. Making the individual weapon harder to shoot AND reducing the basic combat load of ammunition will not make for more effective soldiers; more and better training with extant systems will. The Army is already moving in that direction with the publication of ATP 3-22.9 in May of 2016.
This mindset harkens back to the late 1800s, to the era of early cartridge rifles and the advent of smokeless power. US Ordnance brass refused to adopt a repeating rifle, despite them being available for nearly 30 years, because they were afraid soldiers weren’t trained enough and would waste ammunition if they were issued a more effective weapon system. Instead, they opted to issue high-powered single shot systems which could not be reloaded or brought to bear quickly and told Soldiers to rely on their bayonets in close combat. Combat in WWI proved that smaller-caliber, bottlenecked cartridges were absolutely critical to warfare in the 20th century and that volley-fire tactics at long range was an irrelevant niche, long since relegated to history. More and more data from combat operations in the 20th century (including WWII, Korea, and Vietnam) proved that aimed, sustained, rapid fire from semi-automatic rifles was most effective at destroying the enemy. Most of our fights have been 300m and in for almost a century. Longer shots are not particularly uncommon, but are best addressed through the use of machine guns, indirect fires, and precision weapons assets.
The other fallacy that needs to be addressed is the notion that US Infantry is “overmatched” by enemy forces, due to the enemy in Afghanistan using medium and heavy machine guns past the effective range of the M4. This term is misused: the weapons organic to the infantry squad are not overmatched by the Taliban’s soviet-era machine guns, firing from extreme ranges in the hopes of hitting a US service member. This is why we echelon fires, incorporating direct and indirect fire assets such as mortars, artillery, and CAS. This is why we fire and maneuver. Even if this were a legitimate problem, a heavier rifle and less ammunition would not solve it.
There has been a lot of murmuring recently about improvements to existing ammunition (including, I believe, a congressional inquiry into why the various branches of the military aren’t using the same 5.56x45mm ammunition), development of new cartridges, new case materials, changing the Army to a new caliber assault rifle, etc. Development and eventual adoption of a new service rifle in a different cartridge has the potential to be a huge boon to the average soldier. We will leave the speculation of what caliber would be ideal for another discussion. But moving back to a mass-issue 7.62x51mm battle rifle sets Soldiers back more than 60 years, to an era of outmoded tactics and strategies that have little or no place on the modern battlefield. The premise that we need such a rifle is invalid. The weapon systems in the inventory already do the job well and, barring a massive evolutionary step forward in small arms technology, they do it about as well it can be done.
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