It works, so let’s ignore it and maybe it will go away.
“I will ignore all ideas for new works on engines of war, the invention of which has reached its limits and for whose improvement I see no further hope.”
– Sextus Julius Frontinus
Last week we looked a little at some of the history behind why we still have the inadequate M16 as our basic infantry rifle, more than 50 years after it was forced down the Army’s throat by Robert Strange McNamara. In today’s column, I want to take a look into the future, even if it’s a future that may only come to pass in some parallel universe.
Like the Infantry School at Fort Benning, I used to think that small arms had pretty much topped out, technologically. Then, for a book, I did a little digging. Here are some improvements that exist now.
1. A rifle firing a bullet of 6.5 to 6.8 millimeter in caliber. The ballistic difference, especially for the 6.5 (6.5 Grendel, say), is enormous, at some ranges being superior to 7.62 NATO, while still saving considerable weight over the 7.62. It completely outclasses the 5.56.
2. Rapid burst fire. One of the reasons for the combustible casing in the (now canceled) German Army G11 was that it allowed for very rapid cycling, on the order of 2000 rounds per minute, which made burst fire a practical way to increase hit probability. Why is a high rate of fire needed? It’s needed because, with recoil — even from soft recoiling weapons like the M16 — the aim is driven off the target before the subsequent rounds fire. Suppressive value it may have. Close quarters combat value it may have. But increasing the probability of a hit at range it does not have.
Conversely, with the G11, the last round would have left the barrel before the firer felt the first recoil. The Russians, with their AN-94 — which looks a lot like an AK, but isn’t — have managed to make burst fire effective using normal, cased ammunition. In any case, our existing burst fire mode is not effective to increase hit probability at range, because the M16/M4 family does not have a sufficiently high rate of fire.
3. Carbon fiber and other innovative materials and production techniques. A hefty chunk of a rifle’s heft is in the barrel. There is a company, maybe more than one by now, that makes rifle barrels of very thin rifled steel wrapped in carbon fiber. Lightweight. Better cooling. Alleged to be more accurate. It may be too fragile for troop issue, but there are at least five other technologies being explored for better, lighter barrels.
4. Electronic firing. Trigger control is probably the hardest thing to get right. Electronic ignition eliminates the sear, that part of the trigger mechanism that holds the hammer or striker back until enough force is applied. This eliminates the sear’s break point, which makes trigger control easy, which improves accuracy.
5. Plastic casings. Reduces weight. Enough said.
6. Caseless ammunition. Reduces weight. Enough said.
7. A piston operating rod rather than the direct impingement (blows the gas to force the bolt back, and thereafter right into the chamber) of the M16 family. It’s cleaner, hence inherently more reliable, hence makes a mockery of the presumption — implied by Fort Benning — that the M16 was that peak of technology rifles had allegedly reached.
8. Or how about an optical sight? It would be wasted on a rifle firing a 5.56, but for something longer ranged it could be quite useful.
In light of those already existing improvements, there was something on the horizon that looked very promising, the Lightweight Small Arms Technology Program (LSAT) renamed Lightweight Small Arms Systems (LSAS), which name was ignored by the LSAT folks, and now, revealingly, reduced to the Cased Telescoped program, for the name of the ammunition.
As it evolved, LSAT was a twofer for a twofer. In other words, the program was developing caseless rounds (where the case was actually hardened and waterproofed propellant, so burned up when fired) and plastic cased (called “cased telescoped”) rounds, for both a rifle and a machine gun. Though there were suggestions of the program looking into both 6.5mm and 6.8mm, it seems to have been limited to 5.56mm in practice until recently. The weight savings for both rifle and light machine gun (for the weapons themselves and for their ammunition) were immense, on the order of 40 percent, for similar performance.
Source: LSAT Light Machine Gun – Image by US Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Reliability seemed quite good, so far, with the light machine gun. They tested it on ranges, with tens of thousands of rounds. They tested it with troops under circumstances of fairly high physical stress. They tested it under adverse conditions. It worked. The rifle was of broadly similar design, and employed a rising chamber, which is to say it dropped to allow feeding of a cartridge, then arose to line up with the barrel.
It’s worth mentioning that the rising (actually rotating) chamber was not remotely the same as the one on the German G11. With the LSAT rifle and light machine gun, firing cased telescoped, the chamber falls into position while containing the plastic casing for the previous, spent, round. That round is then pushed straight out by the next round to be fired, which is pushed into place by a rammer driven by the gas-operated piston. The chamber then rises to line up with the barrel, as another round is pulled into position to be fed.
While they differ greatly in their mechanisms, philosophically there is a similarity between the LSAT rifle, the G11, and the AN-94, mentioned above. This is that the G11 allowed very high rates of fire by eliminating ejection as a distinct step in the rifle’s cycle of operation, thus making burst fire effective. The AN-94 allows a very high rate of fire by having ejection and feeding take place simultaneously, for at least two round bursts. So, quite likely, would the LSAT rifle — even though burst fire doesn’t seem to have been pushed in the design. You wouldn’t want this in the machine gun.
Had they gone with a cased telescoped round of 6.5mm, of approximately the same performance as the 6.5 Grendel, or even with 6.8 Remington, both in flight and terminal (what it does to the body it hits) ballistics would have been superior to the M16, and far above the M4. Moreover, if the straight ejecting format cuts the cycling time down enough to achieve effective burst fire, that too would mean increased effective range. They’ve actually looked into 6.5mm, 6.8mm, 7.62mm, and — no joke — .50. Yes, you read that right, 50 caliber.
I’ve spoken with JSSAP, the Joint Services Small Arms Program, and they’ve done what they were told to do. They have a light machine gun, firing cased telescoped ammunition, in 5.56, that saves about 40 percent weight of gun and ammunition over the current light machine gun, the M249. They have a rifle that works, at least to technology readiness level five, TRL 5, which is to say (per Department of Defense Technology Readiness Assessment Guidance):
Fidelity of breadboard technology increases significantly. The basic technological components are integrated with reasonably realistic supporting elements so they can be tested in a simulated environment. Examples include “high-fidelity” laboratory integration of components.
Sadly, however, both rifle and machine gun are shelved, while the budget only allows for continued work on telescoped ammunition. Even the name of the program has changed to just cover ammunition development. Moreover, while still open to considering other calibers, JSSAP is concentrating on a 7.62mm round. That’s not disastrous, as it would still allow much better performance and, even in the larger caliber, considerable weight savings over conventional 5.56mm brass cased ammunition.
I suppose the writing on the wall was there to be seen with the May 2012 briefing from JSSAP, entitled, “Lightweight Small Arms Technology: The Epilogue.” Maybe they should have said, “The Epitaph.”
Thus, I confidently predict that the LSAT program will be killed. Thus, too, American soldiers will continue to be killed, by being forced to carry an inadequate rifle. And that’s not even counting our men who will die because some out of range enemy will be able to escape to fight again. Or because our overladen troops simply won’t be able to catch him, or to catch him unawares.
Just a thought, but you might want to ask your senators and congressman about this. Really.
Looking ahead: In some future columns I intend to talk about why getting the weight on the soldier’s back down is so critical, and why it’s so unlikely we’ll be able to do it.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.