Soldier weapons: Taking the long view

By Debi Dawson, PEO Soldier Public AffairsMay 20, 2014

Army Technology Magazine
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Soldier weapons: Taking the long view
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FORT BELVOIR, Va. (May 20, 2014) -- As the Army's materiel developer for small arms, PEO Soldier's Project Manager Soldier Weapons continues to enhance the capabilities of current weapon systems while it pursues future Soldier needs identified by user communities, such as the Maneuver Center of Excellence.

In 2013, PM SW began taking part in Army's strategic modernization planning process, which incorporates an in-depth process to create a clearer picture of what the future looks like out three decades from now. The next generation of small arms that will arise from this process will be an outgrowth of coordinated efforts that align the identification of capability gaps with materiel development and the science and technology investments needed to bring the world of the possible into the realm of reality. The resulting weapon systems will be lighter and more accurate, durable, reliable, and ergonomic. Significant performance improvements will be seen through advanced weapon system enablers, including fire control, which integrates technologies such as ballistic calculators, range finders, target tracking, and environmental sensors.

"Looking to the future, fire control is a critical field for us to advance if we are to maintain our overmatch against a determined adversary," said Col. Scott C. Armstrong, project manager Soldier Weapons. "These systems provide a way of realizing the full potential of our small arms weapon systems by helping Soldiers acquire and engage targets with precision."

The effort to modernize the Army's small arms fire control is the subject of this year's deep dive process. The review is considering fire control for crew served, volume, precision, counter defilade, and squad systems. The deep dive process will help Army leaders make informed decisions that maximize capability. This is particularly important for an Army that is operating in an economic environment where costs and benefits are scrutinized more so than at any point in the past decade. While the return on investment for fire control is considerable, the cost for a particular system may exceed that of the weapon it enables.

"The path forward for fire control will focus on increasing Soldiers' capability to get first round effects during the day, night and under all climatic conditions," said Lt. Col. Toby Moore, Chief, Lethality Branch, Soldier Division, Maneuver Center of Excellence. "We're looking to reduce a Soldier's overall time of engagement while increasing the range at which Soldiers can detect, recognize, and identify targets."

As the ability to communicate digital information on the battlefield comes online through programs like Nett Warrior, a whole new arena of command and control and target sharing will begin to emerge, ushering in a new generation of potential capabilities. Target tagging, tracking, virtual pointing and target hand-off are just a few of the capabilities being explored to enhance the lethality of next generation Soldiers.

Remote weapon stations also are high on the priority list. Since 2007, the Common Remote Weapon Station, known as CROWS, has provided units with tremendous capability for enhanced lethality, situational awareness, and survivability by allowing Soldiers to fire a weapon from inside an armored vehicle or protected location rather than from a space where they are exposed to direct enemy fire. The system's integrated fire control provides Soldiers with fire superiority as a result of its ability to turn area weapons, such as the M2A1, into on-the-move precision-engagement weapons.

"We continuously seek to enhance Soldier lethality by providing the capability to defeat the enemy at ever greater distances," said Armstrong. "In the future, we hope to leverage our expertise with remote weapon systems by assisting the Army in its efforts to integrate small arms onto other remotely operated platforms."

Maintaining and Modernizing

The Army has systematically worked to keep its combat-tested small arms fleet in good working order throughout a decade of warfare. However, the Army continues to sustain, improve, and modernize its small arms in a manner that keeps systems in operation longer.

"The term 'old' has an entirely different meaning in the world of small arms," said Mike Friedman, director of Logistics for PM SW. "Small arms weapon systems don't share the same obsolescence cycles as some products like electronics or computers do. Age is not the yardstick, performance is."

Weapons are routinely inspected and gauged in the field. When determined to be worn and unserviceable they are overhauled at Anniston Army Depot, Ala., to ensure proper performance. When the weapons do go through the depot overhaul program, technicians add the latest subsystems, and components to bring the weapon up to the latest specifications, thereby extending its useful life for many years. The result is essentially a service life extension program that takes advantage of S&T advances that become available and are "cut in" on a rolling basis.

The M2A1 includes modern features and design improvements that make it easier and safer to use.The M2 Machine Gun is a good example of a highly effective "old" weapon system design dating back to 1933 that has benefited from the insertion of S&T that will keep the weapon relevant well into the future. The Army is in the process of upgrading its fleet of M2s to the M2A1 configuration primarily through a modification kit applied at depot. The M2A1 includes modern features and design improvements that make it easier and safer to use, including a quick change barrel, fixed headspace and timing, and a new flash hider that reduces the weapon's signature by 95 percent during nighttime use. The upgraded gun also gets an upgraded tripod in the M205, which is 16 pounds lighter than the M3 Tripod it replaces and incorporates a modern traverse and elevation mechanism.

The M4 Carbine is another example of the Army's practice of continuous modernization. M4 systems have benefited from more than 90 performance-enhancing "Engineering Change Proposals" since they were first fielded. Now underway is the M4 Carbine Product Improvement Program initiative to upgrade the Army's M4s to the M4A1 that delivers increased sustained rate of fire, reliability, durability and enhanced ergonomics with the incorporation of an ambidextrous fire control to the design.

"Lighter barrels, shorter barrels, quick change barrels, improved bipods, collapsible butt stocks -- there are numerous upgrades underway across the small arms portfolio, that have been cut into depot overhaul," Friedman said. "We continue to enhance while we sustain."

Over time, advanced materials such as carbon fiber, barrel coatings, and other S&T developments will be integrated into the weapons that will not only enhance weapon performance but also reduce lifecycle sustainment costs.

Investing in the Future

To select and implement S&T investments over the long term, the Army arms itself with knowledge in the near term. For example, the Army is currently pursuing its Small Arms Ammunition Configuration study to identify the optimal caliber for small arms capabilities. The study is an acknowledgement that there is more to combat effectiveness than just the weapon. The MCOE's combat effectiveness "formula" is Combat Effect = Soldier + Weapon + Enablers + Ammunition + Training or SWEAT. The SAAC study will inform future small arms requirements and determine the caliber potential in conjunction with associated weapon and fire control technology. The study is also in synch with the Army's new approach to the material aspects of SWEAT, which is now focused on first achieving enhanced, consistent terminal effects on a particular target set through the right ammunition before considering other aspects of the weapon system that could be upgraded for increased lethality. Numerous other efforts could potentially be influenced by the study to include tactics, techniques and procedures surrounding training and logistics.

Whereas in the past, the prioritization of effort was sometimes based on budgets stretching just a few years into the future, prioritization now considers capability gaps conceptualized across decades. Through the strategic modernization planning approach, the small arms community now has a significant collaboration process in place that looks at emerging requirements 30 years into the future and backs into the science and technology needed to make it happen.

To get to that future, officials at PEO Soldier said they continue to work closely with partners in the requirements and S&T communities in the "constant pursuit of the capabilities that enhance our Soldiers' survivability, lethality and the ability to dominate in any environment."

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