The GI’s best friend and first line of defense is getting its first overhaul in a generation.
The Army is looking to replace the M-4 carbine and M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon now used by front-line combat troops in favor of firepower better suited for the Pentagon’s top mission of countering “near peer” adversaries such as China and Russia.
The other services are watching closely. As the largest branch of the military, the Army is likely to influence the purchasing decisions of the other services.
Right now, top Army officials are evaluating three finalists for an initial contract of about 100,000 weapons as part of their Next Generation Squad Weapons program. Compared with its main international rival, the equally storied Russian AK-47, the M-4 has long been considered a more accurate but more prickly firearm, an “excellent weapon if you can maintain it,” as one defense publication once put it.
The Army’s modernization strategy considers the Next Generation Squad Weapons program as one of its top priorities. A 2013 competition involving eight manufacturers concluded that none of their designs was a significant improvement on the M-4.
In 2018, it began working with gunmakers to develop a more lethal carbine and automatic rifle.
“The current weapon systems we have are OK in the fight,” in Iraq and Afghanistan, now retired Army Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski told a congressional hearing in 2019. “The issue runs deeper, though, with respect to a peer or near-peer threat.”
The next era in weaponry is coming fast. Army officials hope to make their choice by the second quarter and begin fielding the winning model later this year.
The M-4 carbine and M-249 squad automatic weapon have long histories with the Army. The M-4 is a more compact descendent of the storied M-16 rifle first fielded in the mid-1960s. The M-249 was adopted in the mid- to late 1980s to give soldiers the ability to provide sustained suppressive fire.
Potential candidates to replace the M-4 and M-249 are coming from gunmakers Sig Sauer, General Dynamics Ordnance and Textron Systems. The Army also will adopt a more powerful 6.8 mm round for the new weapon rather than the 5.56 mm round it has been using for decades.
“What these weapon systems are designed to do is be able to reach out to greater ranges and have the penetrating power necessary in order to beat [the enemy] at those ranges,” Gen. Ostrowski said.
The weapons will be able to shoot through body armor even at a distance, he said.
“These weapons systems will give soldiers significant capability improvements in accuracy, range, signature management and lethality,” Army officials said.
Making their pitch
The rifle and automatic rifles offered by each vendor for the Army’s consideration are largely identical, other than adaptations such as a bipod and heavier barrel. Each company took a different path to meet the Army’s requirements, and some are playing the home-team card.
“The Sig Sauer next-generation squad weapon system is the only submission entirely designed, engineered and manufactured by a single American company,” said Ron Cohen, president of the New Hampshire-based company. “Our ammunition, machine gun, rifle and suppressors far surpass the performance of the legacy weapons system in range and lethality.”
Sig Sauer’s submission is based on the lightweight rifle they produce now that is used by military forces around the world, combined with what they called the “added firepower” of the 6.8 mm round.
Mr. Cohen said he was proud that each component of their submission was manufactured at the company’s facilities in New Hampshire and Arkansas and is “entirely American made.”
“Our engineers have worked in concert to optimize the system, ensuring that every component is synchronized and our soldiers are equipped for the demands of the modern battlefield,” he said.
Although the 6.8 mm round called for in the testing is expected to have increased velocity and greater penetration, Army officials said they don’t want it to weigh any more than the 5.56 mm round now in use.
The submission by Textron Systems is noteworthy because of its unique ammunition. The 6.8 mm rounds provided by the Maryland-based company for the competition were designed with the projectile completely enclosed within a polymer cartridge. Company officials said it provides a 35% reduction in weight over conventional brass ammunition while preserving the greater stopping power.
“We have assembled a team that understands and can deliver on the rigorous requirements for this U.S. Army program with mature and capable technology, reliable program execution and dedicated user support,” said Wayne Prender, Textron Systems’ senior vice president for applied technologies and advanced programs. “We are honored to support America’s soldiers with the next-generation capabilities they need.”
General Dynamics teamed up with legendary firearms manufacturer Beretta for its unique bullpup-style rifle submission, which offers the greatest change from the current models.
A bullpup weapon places the weapon’s internal mechanism behind the trigger, allowing for a more compact layout. Although several countries, including the United Kingdom, have adopted the design, the U.S. military has never found much use for it.
Kevin Sims, senior director of business development at General Dynamics, told Military.com that he had early concerns about whether U.S. troops would accept a bullpup-design weapon.
“But I think that has been sort of eliminated with a lot of user feedback that we have received,” Mr. Sims said. “People aren’t worried about it. It’s a very balanced rifle. It’s not front-heavy.”