US Army Seeks a New Battle Rifle for Piercing Advanced Body Armor

The service plans to test as many as eight different rifles, and wants designs that are combat ready now.

US Army

As it continues to work on an all-new standard infantry weapon, the U.S. Army is considering adopting a new “Interim Combat Service Rifle” in the 7.62x51mm caliber. The service is particularly concerned about soldiers' ability to penetrate advanced body armors with their existing 5.56x45mm M4 carbines. 

On Aug. 4, 2017, the Army announced it would buy up to eight different sample rifles as part of the evaluation of the potential future infantry weapon, also known as ICSR. In April 2017, the service reportedly began a project to consider giving such a weapon to a designated marksman in each infantry squad, according to Military.com. This ultimately evolved into the new, broader requirement, sources previously told Soldier Systems.

“The Army has identified a potential gap in the capability of ground forces and infantry to penetrate body armor using existing ammunition,” the notice on FedBizOpps, the federal government’s main contracting website, explained. “To address this operational need, the Army is looking for an Interim Combat Service Rifle (ICSR) that is capable of defeating emerging threats.”

The service’s present plan is to evaluate the submissions against a three main factors, which are, in order of importance, the features of the “bid sample” itself, the production capability of the vendor or vendors, and the price. Each of these has a number of more specific subfactors.  

US Army

Snipers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team train with M110 rifles.

The announcement does not include detailed requirements for the rifle, but says they will be scored for how accurate they are, their basic dimensions, and noise and muzzle flash, with and without a sound suppressor. The weapon must also have semi-automatic and full-automatic fire modes to get into the competition in the first place. The Army ideally wants a gun that has folding back iron sights, ambidextrous controls, the ability to accept its existing standard optical sights and laser aiming devices, and a magazine that can hold 20 to 30 rounds in order to support a combat load of 210 rounds in total.

The weapons will have to pass the various trials while using the standard M80A1 service ammunition, the contract notice said. Given the project’s focus on defeating armor, there is the possibility some tests could incorporate the XM1158 Advanced Armor Penetrating (ADVAP) cartridge that the Army is testing separately. Another option could be the U.S. Navy’s Mk 319 Mod 0 round, already available to special operations forces, which is specifically intended to have better terminal effects after breaking through cover, such as car windows.

The production and price factors are primarily focused on the ability of the manufacturer to make up the rifles quickly and efficiently without sacrificing quality. Based on the known criteria, the Army appears to want to hire a vendor that already has the ability to make a production run of up to 50,000 rifles or can reasonably expand to do so with limited effort. This would seem to favor established companies already making such weapons in appreciable quantities.

USN

A U.S. Navy SEAL with a 7.62mm Mk 17 Mod 0 SCAR rifle.

At present, the Army is already buying new rifles that meet many of the basic description of the ICSR as replacements for existing 7.62mm weapons it issues to sniper teams. Heckler and Koch’s M110A1 Combat Semi-Automatic Sniper System (CSASS), a derivative of the company’s HK417 rifle, will replace the older Knights Armament Company M110 rifles, which are based on the company’s SR-25 design. Both of these weapons share many of the same external characteristics and control features of the U.S. military’s standard M16 rifles and M4 carbines, which fire the smaller 5.56mm round, something that could simplify training requirements.

Other options could include the 7.62mm version of the FN SCAR, already in service with American special operations forces, or further upgraded variants of the Cold War-era M14 rifle. Before adopting the M110, the Army rebuilt and issued older M14s, known as Enhanced Battle Rifles, for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US Army

A US Army soldier poses with an M14 Enhanced Battle Rifle.

There is definitely a long-standing requirement for this sort of weapon. For years, critics have complained that insurgents and terrorists with Soviet-era weapons firing the 7.62x54mm cartridge, including SVD marksman rifles and similar types, had better range and terminal ballistics at those distances than their American counterparts armed mainly with 5.56mm weapons. Improvements in individual body armor have only added to these concerns.

"The 5.56mm round, we recognize that there is a type of body armor out there, that it doesn't penetrate,” U.S. Army General Mark Milleytold members of Congress in May 2017. “We also have that body armor ourselves.”

At the same time, however, there is also an ongoing debate over what type of cartridge and associated weapon would be the best solution, as well as the exact mix of those guns and other weapons in infantry and other units. Most importantly, bigger bullets might mean more range and a better ability to kill the enemy further away, but they also mean larger, heavier cartridges, which in turn either means soldiers have to carry more or have less ammunition.  

US Army

An Iraqi soldier trains with a Romanian PSL rifle, similar to a Soviet-era SVD.

Work on alternatives to heavy metal cartridges cases, such as polymer-cased, cased-telescoped, and caseless ammunition, could help reduce weight, but come along with their own developmental hurdles. We’ve already discussed many of these issues in our in depth look at the Army’s latest attempt to craft a so-called “intermediate cartridge” that would combine many of the best features of both 7.62mm and 5.56mm ammunition, as well as a gun to go with it.

This separate, parallel program is likely the service’s real desired end state and would explain the “interim” in the ICSR project title. So, it’s not entirely surprising that hidden in the dense contracting language are two important caveats that suggest the Army may not ultimately decide to buy any ICSR.

“Once the test and evaluation is concluded, the Government may award a single follow-on … contract for the production of up to 50,000 weapons,” the contracting notice noted. Deeper in the text, where it discusses this “follow-on production contract” in more detail, the announcement added that this deal will only come “provided that the ICSR prototype project is completed successfully.”

US Army

A US Army prototype squad automatic weapon using cased-telescoped cartridges.

It is also possible that the Army could decide to procure these weapons, but only issue them to select units. During his May testimony, General Milley made this basic argument after suggesting there might be a need for a new 7.62mm rifle.

"This idea that the entire Army needs the same thing all the time, it's not necessarily true," Milley added in his May testimony. "There are some infantry units that are much more highly likely to rapidly deploy than others and conduct close-quarters combat that we would probably want to field them with a better-grade weapon that can penetrate this body armor that we are talking about."

Though the contract says that the final number of rifles in any follow-on contract could be subject to change, the existing 50,000 total would fit with this idea of a limited purchase for particular units, such as the 82nd Airborne Division with its global response force mission, or storage in pre-positioned stocks for issue directly to troops heading to hot spots. At present, the U.S. Army has 10 divisions, each with approximately 15,000 personnel, depending on the exact composition of their brigade combat teams. On top of that, there are three separate maneuver “brigades,” counting its two deployable armored cavalry regiments, with another approximately 15,000 personnel.

US Army

A soldier fires an 5.56mm M4 carbine.

The contract notice does mention what weapon or weapons the ICSR would replace or provide any other information on a proposed basis of issue. A buy of 50,000 rifles would not be enough cover everyone already carrying an M4 carbine, the existing standard service weapon, in all of the Army's active component maneuver units. It also wouldn't provide the necessary rifles for the Army to issue substantial numbers of them up front to Army Reserve and Army National Guard units that often deploy overseas.

Another option would be to mix the new guns with the existing M4s and other weapons within the squad platoon structures, which would be closer to the original plan of having dedicated designated marksman carry the heavier rifles. The Army could still decide to only reorganize a limited number of units in this manner, keeping the rest of the ICSRs in reserve.

Whatever happens, the results of the trials are likely to add more data to the ongoing discussions within the Army over optimal cartridge sizes and associated weapons. Whether the ICSR makes it into combat or not, is likely that many of the required features will be present in the service’s future rifles and carbines.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com