A summary of the Infantry Weapons 2012 conference, by a delegate

Contributor:  Phil D. Harrison
Posted:  10/15/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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One overriding impression from the Infantry Weapons conference last month was that the infantry soldier of today is invariably carrying too much equipment. As a result, mobility and freedom of manoeuvre is impaired or compromised. Strength and physical fitness can help mitigate the effect of the weight burden but adverse terrain or climate can easily tip the scales to the point where physical exhaustion degrades performance. Weight reduction is, therefore, a key factor on the mind of everyone who studies the equipment and effectiveness of the modern infantryman.

The Golf Bag Concept

KLM indicate in their literature that; ‘a golf bag counts as a single piece of luggage and may weigh up to 23 kg (50.5 lbs).’ In infantry small arms terms the golf bag concept describes the idea and ideal of having equipment options close to hand, to address different missions. As the Conference progressed, a number of references were made to this concept, ranging across the field of infantry weapons, tasks and training.

The golf bag concept is not new and almost certainly represents a key component of the Special Forces modus operandi.

Close Support

One of the early speakers at the Conference, Captain Claus Schmidt, described the use of the crew operated Carl Gustav recoilless rifle in Afghanistan. Armour support can be invaluable, particularly when there is the very real possibility of ambush from buildings and from behind field walls. Armour support, however, often requires significant forward planning and can become, ‘unavailable,’ at a particularly crucial time.

Consequently, it is essential for the infantry to have their own means of addressing mouse hole (loophole) firing points in sturdy walls. From a somewhat different perspective, the impact of the Carl Gustav, on an engagement, was such that it often enabled the infantry to disengage from contact at a time of their choosing. Because of the weight (10Kg + ammunition), this was a crew operated weapon that fitted into the Platoon structure.

See the presentation by Captain Claus Schmidt and Saab below.

New Intermediate Calibre

A thought provoking presentation by Nicholas Drummond entitled, “The case For an Intermediate Calibre Military Cartridge,” addressed the question of a new intermediate calibre to potentially replace 5.56x45 and 7.62x51. This question has been brought to the forefront by the need to reduce the infantry load and by the apparent lack of effectiveness of the 5.56x45 calibre (M855) NATO ammunition.* (see reference)

As a result of the deficiencies associated with 5.56x45, at longer range, more 7.62x51 calibre rifles in the role of Sharpshooter, or Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR) have been purchased and introduced to plug the capability gap.

An important aspect mentioned by Nicholas Drummond, in his presentation, is the psychological effect on an enemy of experiencing a; ‘near miss.’ Suppressing the enemy often enables the infantry to manoeuvre and gain advantage. With regard to suppressive fire, Dr Jim Storr wrote in a 2009 RUSI journal:

“In simple terms, it makes them keep their heads down.”*

With regard to suppressive fire, Anthony G. Williams has written:

“The second problem with 5.56mm ammunition is its lack of suppressive effect. On most occasions when British foot patrols come under fire, they never see their attackers; the Taliban are skilled at selecting concealed positions for ambush. So the soldiers return fire in the hope of pinning down the enemy long enough for heavier weapons to be brought to bear. Field testing has revealed that 5.56 bullets have only half the suppressive radius of 7.62 fire, exacerbated by the fact that the little bullets are more affected by wind drift and therefore less likely to get close to the target. This is supported by battlefield reports that the Taliban basically ignore 5.56 suppressive fire.”

In conclusion, Nicholas Drummond mentioned the following current state of affairs:

“First signs that intermediate calibres are being seriously evaluated. The armies of four NATO countries plus Russia and China are now involved in intermediate calibre development projects. In addition to Remington and Alexander Arms, five other ammunition manufacturers are presently developing intermediate calibre cartridges. Six major military small arms manufacturers have developed or are developing intermediate calibre weapons. Considering that the USA, UK, Germany and France cannot presently share each other’s 5.56 mm ammunition, standardisation may not be the barrier to adoption it’s perceived to be. The ease and speed with which .338 Lapua has become a new sniper standard and 4.6 mm a PDW standard shows that effective technical solutions soon gain currency.”

Almost certainly, the biggest impediment to the introduction of an intermediate cartridge would be cost. As an example, for the UK alone, it would be of the order of £1billion. Replacing belted 7.62x51 MG ammunition, including tracer, might be a truly daunting economic mountain to climb. A requirement to replace both 5.56x45 and 7.62x51 might, unfortunately, count against making any change at all.

It is perhaps worth considering that, only a few years ago, discussing the shortcomings of the 5.56x45 calibre might have generated a negative impact on a promising career. Those who initially opened the debate on the effectiveness of the 5.56x45 calibre, showed courage, in opposing the status quo and the accepted wisdom of the time.

The Lethality Chain

A presentation from Lieutenant Colonel James York, outlined the; “Lethality Challenges,” faced in Afghanistan. The systems view of lethality, as described, entails a chain of seven discreet but interacting stages: Detect, Recognise, Identify, Acquire, Engage, Hit and Defeat.

This is reiterated in the schematic provided by Systems Engineering & Assessment Ltd. (SEA) below.

Looking Forward

It may be reasonable to surmise that developments and innovation in electronics and sensors will drive improvements in addressing the first four components of the Lethality chain; Detect, Recognise, Identify and Acquire.

Magnifying optics, combined with digital electronics, already influence the battlefield significantly through implementation in other arms. Improvements in traditional view-through-optics, combined with digital electronics (perhaps including multi-spectral imaging), could dramatically change the infantries view. Colonel York mentioned that the SA80 (L85) is already on its 3rd generation of sight.

If the infantry could Detect, Recognise, Identify and Acquire at longer range, it would be logical to have a rifle calibre with a commensurate range. When taking the last three components of the Lethality chain into consideration, Engage, Hit and Defeat, it might be reasonably argued that the 5.56x45 calibre, at longer range, is the weakest link.

Bullet Design Constraints

With regard to improving the last two aspects of the Lethality chain, Hit and Defeat, there are bullet design constraints that need to be considered. According to Robin Coupland and Dominique Loye:

“These constraints are imposed by adherence to The Hague Convention, Declaration (IV,3) concerning Expanding Bullets, The Hague, 29 July 1899.) The 1899 Hague Declaration (the Declaration) is a treaty prohibition based on particular technical specifications about a weapon system, namely, the construction of bullets. The Declaration has been widely adhered to and has assumed the status of customary law.”

Clearly, any thought of crossing the ‘1899 Hague Convention’ line must entail huge consideration. The 5.56x45 calibre might, therefore, be trapped between its poor terminal ballistics at longer range and the Hague Convention of 1899.

Procurement

Some of the NATO countries, represented at the Conference are moving forward with small arms procurement to address long standing questions of modernisation and rationalisation.

Poland

Lieutenant Colonel Miroslaw Zahor, Assistant Professor at the Polish University of Technology, presented: Examining the MSBS 5.56mm Assault Rifle –The Polish Soldier’s Future Weapon. The MSBS will be a modular, ambidextrous design, capable of both standard and bullpup configuration.

A particular feature of this system is the ability to quickly change the case ejection side by rotating the bolt.

Bullpup configuration rifles have been criticised almost from the beginning, with regard to left or right shoulder shooting. If the rifle was configured for the right shoulder, switching to the left shoulder (ambidexterity) could lead to a decidedly unpleasant experience.

One design, the FN F2000, enabled forward ejection and full ambidexterity in a bullpup configuration. However, the implementation of forward case ejection did not appear to gain wide market acceptance, possibly due to the complexity of the ejection mechanism.

The rotating bolt feature of the bullpup version of the MSBS 5.56mm Assault Rifle would not enable full ambidexterity, however, it would readily facilitate those who have a left shoulder preference. Lieutenant Colonel Miroslaw Zahor indicated that the case ejection port switch should be achievable by the rifleman and not require the skills of an Armourer.

This feature should be of significant interest to bullpup rifle designers and enthusiasts.

The MSBS 5.56mm Assault Rifle project will follow three stages:

Stage 1: (2007-2011)– Development, manufacturing and testing of two assault rifle technology demonstrators (pre-prototypes), one in classic configuration, the second in bull-pup configuration.

Stage 2: (2012-2014)– Refinement of pre-prototypes (technology demonstrators, manufacturing and testing of MSBS-5.56 family assault rifle, short carbine, sharpshooter rifle (DMR), light machine gun, assault rifle with under barrel grenade launcher).

Stage 3: (2015-2017) – Fielding of the system.

Czech Republic

Richard MÁCHA Lt. Col. Res. Presented: The New Czech Infantry Weapon Assault Rifle -CZ 805 BREN. This system also includes an optional under barrel 40x46mm grenade launcher with a useful range of 300m.

With regard to procurement, attendees at the conference indicated a preference to purchase complete, working, small arms systems.

Associated with the systems should be an accurate estimate of their overall lifetime cost. Any system would, ideally, be based on an open architecture that enables user options and flexibility. An open architecture also enables some degree of future proofing. Sight systems such as night vision optics, may have a defined life expectancy. It is expected, that innovation and improvement will precipitate the rapid obsolescence of some system components such as night vision optics. A system, such as, a rifle, ammunition, sights and rail should be complementary. Considering that the infantryman is invariably operating in a high stress environment, ease of use and good ergonomics would be a prerequisite.

Power Supplies

The introduction of advanced electro-optical sighting will always have the potential to be a double-edged sword. Innovative power supply solutions will be needed, in the future, to ensure that the infantry front line capability is not tied inextricably to the availability of AA batteries. Battery recharging points on vehicles may be an option provided that those facilities are realistically available on, or near the front line. The logistics of maintaining batteries to the front line is, apparently, nontrivial.

Strategic Questions

Improvements in equipment, to reduce the burden, may not, in the short term, be sufficient to recover some of the lost mobility of the infantry. Consequently, it may fall increasingly to, ‘other arms,’ to neutralise the opposing forces. This role has traditionally fallen to the artillery and fixed wing close air support. However, for reasons of collateral damage, more precise delivery systems may need to shoulder an increasing burden in the circumstances of asymmetric warfare.

For Consideration

Some of the better known infantry engagements, of the recent past have been conducted with battle rifles chambered for full power cartridges. The battle rifle calibres employed were, in many respects, a carryover from the last century and have been described on numerous occasions as overpowered. Some engagements that spring to mind are: Chosin Reservoir, Imjin River, Goose Green/Tumbledown and Mirbat.

Some of the better known battle rifles, of that time, include: M1 Garand/ M14, FAL/SLR, G3.

Would the 5.56x45 rifles of today have ‘held-up,’ in those historical battle rifle engagements mentioned above?

Putting the question of calibre to one side, should we seriously consider if there is additional room in the golf bag for a rifle that is weighted more towards a battle rifle than an assault rifle?

We’re interested to hear your thoughts and opinions on this topic – email haveyoursay@defenceiq.com or richarddesilva@iqpc.co.uk

*For further information see:

Time to Bite the Bullet, Anthony G. Williams & Nicholas Drummond, October 2012 (http://www.quarry.nildram.co.uk/The%20Next%20Generation.htm)

US Military Small Arms Ammunition, Failures and solutions, Gary K. Roberts, LCDR, USNR (www.dtic.mil/ndia/2008Intl/Roberts.pdf)

Monograph: Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan, Taking Back The Infantry Half Kilometre, Thomas P. Ehrhart, United States Army (www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA512331)

Phil D. Harrison Contributor:   Phil D. Harrison


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