Army and Marines Speed Up Improvements for Small Arms

By Kennedy, Harold | National Defense, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Army and Marines Speed Up Improvements for Small Arms


Kennedy, Harold, National Defense


Faced with the possibility of continuing ground combat in coming years, the U.S. Army and Marines are stepping up their efforts to improve the small arms used by their infantry.

In recent months, many of the combat operations in Afghanistan have been conducted by elements of the U.s. 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions, using small arms, such as M-4 carbines, 7.62 mm sniper rifles and squad automatic weapons. During Operation Anaconda, "I actually witnessed some of my guys raking out al Qaeda targets out to ranges of 500 meters," Sgt. Maj. Frank Grippe, from the 10th, told a telephone press conference.

Driving the remaining al Qaeda out of their caves and fortified positions is "a light infantry fight," Grippe said.

With this in mind, the Army and Marines are speeding up their work to give the infantry better weapons. "We want to reduce the size and weight and increase the lethality and survivability of all weapons," said Lt. Col. Gilbert Z. Brown, small arms program manager at the Army's Armament Research and Development Center (ARDEC), at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.

Many light infantry units in the two services are exchanging M-16A2 rifles for M-4 carbines, said Lt. Col. A.J. Diehl, program manager for infantry weapons at the Marine Corps Systems Command, in Quanrico, Va.

The M-4s, made by Colt's Manufacturing Company Inc., of Hartford, Conn., fire the same 5.56 mm rounds as the M-16s, built by FN Manufacturing, of Columbia, S.C. But the M-4s are 5 1/2 inches shorter than the M-16s, Diehl said. The carbines have a collapsible butt-stock, and, at 5.65 pounds, the M-4s are almost two pounds lighter than the M-16s.

Those attributes are particularly attractive for light infantry troops, such as Rangers and Marine reconnaissance units, who are "always jumping out of C-130s and helicopters and climbing through building windows during urban combat," Diehl said.

Rail System

Both the M-4 and the M-16--which remains the rifle of choice for many standard military units--can be outfitted with a system of rails, Diehl explained. This modular system allows the two weapons to accept a wide array of auxiliary devices, such as a day or night sight, laser target designator, flashlight and even an M-203 40 mm grenade launcher.

"Right now, I'm buying thermal sights," said Diehl. "For the first time, we're giving our infantry the ability to see through dust, smoke, all the fog of war. This is a great capability that we need to be pushing through, and we will."

The Army, meanwhile, is trying to pick up the pace of development for its futuristic, but problem-plagued objective individual combat weapon, which eventually is scheduled to replace many of the rifles, carbines and grenade launchers carried by soldiers and Marines.

The OICW is being developed by a team headed by ATK Integrated Defense Company, of Plymouth, Minn., which has a $105 million contract from ARDEC. The team includes Brashear Ltd., of Pittsburgh; Heckler & Koch GmbH, of Oberndorf, Germany; Ocrec, of Bracknell, in the United Kingdom, and Dynamit Nobel AG, of Cologne, Germany.

Like the M-16 and the M-4 with an attached M-203, the OICW can both fire 5.56 mm rifle bullets and launch grenades. A major difference between the two systems is the nature of their grenades. The M-203 shoots a traditional 40 mm grenade, which explodes on impact. The OICW launches a newer, 20 mm version, which can be timed to explode in the air above a target, spraying lethal fragments into an enemy hidden behind a wall.

Originally, the OICW had been scheduled to begin production in 2005. That date was pushed back to 2009 after tests at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in Maryland, turned up design problems. During one of the tests, a 20 mm round detonated in an OICW chamber, injuring two testers.

Since then, the ATK team has made changes in the weapon's design to prevent a reoccurrence, officials said. …

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