Concerns regarding the generation of collateral damage in the contemporary operating environment continue to have significant effects on the employment of support weapons on the battlefield, particularly in relation to complex Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT).
Long and tiring US-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen the public appetite, particularly in the West, for the unnecessary loss of civilian and military life substantially reduce compared to previous campaigns, as governments seek to not only win on the battlefield but also to prevail in the battle for hearts and minds, at home and abroad. This is increasingly important as insurgent groups around the world exploit the internet as part of their propaganda efforts; witness the use of social media to this end by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) guerrilla organisation.
Infantry support weapons can be used for multiple tasks to assist small units of troops looking to attack; to tactically retreat from a situation; or even to hold an area of territory. Options range from 40mm grenade launchers (generally underslung below an assault rifle, or vehicle-mounted), 5.56mm x 45mm Light Machine Guns (LMGs), 7.62mm x 51mm Medium Machine Guns (MMGs) and .50 cal (12.7mm) Heavy Machine Guns (HMGs). Beyond such weapons, infantry soldiers can be supported by.303, .338 and .50 cal sniper rifles, Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs) and mortars.
Arguably the most popular fire support systems carried at the lowest tactical level by a squad or section of troops is the LMG and MMG. However, the very nature of these weapons means their utility in urban warfare must be very carefully considered before deployment.
Most LMGs and MMGs feature automatic firing settings, generally meaning multiple rounds will be fired when the trigger is depressed for even a short period of time. Due to the recoil of the weapon and subsequent minimal movement of the barrel, this means rounds impacting a target will result in what is known as a ‘Beaten Zone’ which can, depending on the ranges involved, see ammunition fired onto the same point of aim, spreading across several metres of ground.
In today’s complex urban environment, this can easily result in civilian casualties and damage to property; not always conducive to winning the ‘hearts and minds’ battle. However, with these legacy weapons, it is possible for a single shot to be fired if an operator is particularly dextrous with their handling of the trigger, although this can never be guaranteed.
One company which has designed LMGs and MMGs for supporting MOUT is Israel Weapons Industries (IWI) which unveiled its Negev family of machine guns in 2012—all of which are fitted with a semi-automatic capability for single shot application. An IWI spokesperson explained to Armada that “(t)he Negev LMG is the only LMG with a semi-automatic mode in the world, and is currently deployed by the IDF (Israel Defence Force). It has powerful target acquisition tools and accurate performance on the modern battlefield with its semi-automatic feature empowering its use in Close Quarter Battle (CQB) safely.” The weapon is available in 5.56mm x 45mm (NG5) and 7.62mm x 51mm (NG7) calibres. The NG-5 LMG comprises a 460mm (18 inch/in) barrel and operates from an open bolt position, fed by a belt of linked ammunition, an ammunition drum or from a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-standard magazine. An open bolt position sees a weapon’s bolt and moving parts held to the rear, only moving forward when the trigger is pulled back which feeds a round into the chamber which is then fired. The NG5 is also available in a shorter configuration, designated the NG-5 SF, with the barrel measuring 330mm (12.9 inches) in length, with a retractable stock for stowage in vehicles, aircraft and enclosed spaces. However, measuring 7.7 kilograms (16.9 pounds/lbs) and 7.5kg (16.5lbs) respectively, the NG-5 series of LMGs comprises additional weight when compared to FN Herstal’s popular 5.56mm Minimi LMG which weighs 6.8kg (14.9lb).
IWI’s NG-7 meanwhile, comprises a more powerful calibre of 7.62mm x 51mm, based on technology that the firm developed for the NG-5 LMG (see above). Also including a semi-automatic capability, the NG7 is available in a shorter barrel configuration (NG-7 SF) measuring 420mm (16.5in) compared to the standard 508mm (18.9in) barrel model. In the lightweight role, the NG-7 boasts a maximum effective range of 800 metres (2624.6 feet/ft). Weighing 7.8kg (17.1lbs) in its NG-7 SF configuration, and 7.9kg (17.3lb) in its standard NG-7 configuration, the weapon compares very favourably with the FN Herstal 7.62mm x 51mm Minimi which weighs 8.8kg (19.3lbs). Such weight savings will be of particular interest to armed forces around the world with efforts continuing to be made worldwide to ‘reduce the burden’ in terms of the equipment carried by infantry and special forces soldiers.
Both the NG-5 and NG-7 also feature options for a foldable or telescopic butt stock; adjustable cheek rest, foldable bipod, side-mounted Picatinny Rails; and a flip-up back-up iron sight. The NG-5 LMGs also boasts a rate of fire comprising between 850 and 1050 rounds-per-minute (rpm) while the rates of fire of the NG-7 models are of between 600rpm and 750rpm.
Additional features include ruggedised bipod legs for robust immediate action drills, such as reacting to effective enemy fire, as well as an improvised hand grip for when operating the system in the standing, kneeling or sitting positions. Ammunition drums for the NG-5 and NG-7 families are available in 150- and 200-round configurations. Finally, NG-5 and NG-7 LMGs both feature a rapid barrel change capability without any requirement to cock the weapon to complete such an action. Machine gun barrels must be changed after firing several hundred rounds to prevent overheating and such an action can delay the delivery of suppressing fire during a contact by critical seconds.
Speaking to Armada, sources within IWI explained how armed forces around the world were now experiencing the type of warfare first encountered by the IDF during the First Lebanon War of 1982, when Israel deployed forces to southern Lebanon to combat the activities of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation which was using the territory to launch attacks against Israel and Israeli interests. Such lessons learned, which highlighted a need for CQB weapons capable of engaging targets effectively out to 600m (1968.5m) and beyond, were fed back into company developments including the realisation of the NG-5 and NG-7 LMGs.
Elsewhere, General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems (GDOTS) continues to offer its Lightweight Medium Machine Gun (LWMMG) which is aimed at filling the gap between legacy 7.62mm x 51mm and .50-cal (12.7mm) medium and heavy machine guns. Designed for individual and crew-served operation, the LWMMG fires .338 Norma Magnum (NM) cartridges providing a maximum effective range out to 1.7 kilometres/km (one mile), in line with requirements for longer-range engagements such as those discussed above. This calibre of ammunition is also capable of defeating US National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Level 3 standard body armour at a range of one kilometre (0.6 miles). Level 3 body armour, according to the NIJ standard, must be capable of defeating 7.62 x 51mm ammunition travelling at a speed of 847 metres-per-second/mps (2778.8 feet-per-second/fps). According to GDOTS, the LWMMG features a recoil profile similar to standard 7.62mm NATO medium machine guns, capable of using 7.62mm x 51mm ammunition, but which, according to a company spokesperson, delivers nearly four times the terminal velocity of standard 7.62mm weapons.
The LWMMG weighs 10.8kg (23.7lbs) and includes a collapsible stock, allowing it to be mounted on tactical ground vehicles, maritime vessels and helicopters. However, the system has also been designed for dismounted operation. Similar to IWI’s machine guns (see above), the LWMMG includes a quick change barrel mechanism with a Picatinny Rail for the attachment of accessories including gun sights, laser designators and tactical torches. According to the GDOTS spokesperson, the LWMMG provides soldiers with an “increase in effective range and lethality in a lightweight form for dismounted operations (with) the mounted configuration providing the long range, accurate fires currently associated with the GDOTS/US Ordnance M2HB Browning .50 cal HMG, but without the burden of a heavier weight.” The LWMMG is capable of firing up to 500rpm at a muzzle velocity of 807.7mps (2650fps).
The US Army’s Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, its centre of excellence for small arms and light weapons, continues to consider options for even lighter weight LMGs and MMGs with the development of Cased Telescoped (CT) ammunition, designed to reduce the weight of heavy ammunition a squad must carry for its machine gunners. CT ammunition has the ammunition’s projectile either completely, or partially, enveloped by its propellant, as opposed to conventional ammunition designs which have the projectile mounted on top of the cartridges’ propellant; the advantage being that CT ammunition has a smaller length, and avoids damaging the projectile as the cartridge is loaded.
Having redesigned and re-designated the 5.56mm x 45mm FN Herstal M249 Squad Automatic Weapon as the CT LMG, US Army officials explained to Armada how weapon weight had reduced from 7.9kg (17.3lbs) to 4.2kg (9.2lbs), making the weapon less than a single kilogram heavier than the in-service Colt M16A2 assault rifle, which weighs 3.9kg (8.7lbs) when loaded. These weight savings, the officials continued, have been achieved by the downsizing of components and the rearrangement of weapon mechanisms including the detachment of the firing chamber from the barrel. This latter efforts means the weapon can be kept cooler, thereby reducing requirements for barrel changes. In addition, development of CT ammunition has accounted for 39 percent of weight savings in ammunition with bullets now encased in plastic material as opposed to legacy brass casings.
Nevertheless, the weapon and ammunition are still at a developmental stage and have yet to be fielded operationally. The CT LMG was first test-fired back in September 2011 at Fort Benning, Georgia. The latest rounds of testing commenced in the last quarter of 2015 with ongoing evaluation expected to consider how well the weapon system and ammunition performs in the long term. However, the army was unable to comment on future timelines.
Textron, which has worked on the lightweight M249 with the US Department of Defence’s Joint Service Small Arms Programme Office, is also involved in the continued development of its ‘Ultralightweight’ (ULW) 7.62mm x 51mm M240 medium machine gun. Weighing 6.5kg (14.3lbs), more than three kilograms (6.6lbs) lighter than the latest lightweight FN Herstal M240L machine gun, the ULW MMG effort also falls under the US Army’s Cased Telescoped Weapons and Ammunition Programme (see above). Army sources suggested to Armada that a technology demonstrator of the 7.62mm x 51mm CT machine gun would be ready for an evaluation test phase towards the end of 2016.
Alongside machine guns, Underslung Grenade Launchers (UGLs) remain an important fire support solution for dismounted soldiers with an ever-increasing range of ammunition to suit a variety of environments. Options include High Explosive (HE), HE Dual Purpose (HEDP), tear gas, smoke, non-lethal, thermobaric (where flammable fuel is dispersed and ignited), buck shot, white light and infrared illumination, and paint marking rounds, some of which can be set for either point or air burst detonation on, or over, a target.
Available UGLs include Heckler and Koch’s M320 UGL. Elsewhere, IWI has developed its GL 40 40mm x 46mm grenade launcher with the urban environment in mind. It can be operated in a standalone mode with its own fixed stock, or in an under-barrel configuration for integration onto any assault rifle including the company’s X95 and ACE weapons. IWI’s UGL comprises a forward and side opening barrel, allowing for the simple extraction and injection of ammunition as well as upper and lower Picatinny Rails for the integration of accessories.
Currently in service with the IDF, the standalone GL 40 is available in 305mm (11.9in) and 228.5mm (8.9in) barrel lengths, again designed for MOUT, as well as for use from vehicles and in enclosed spaces. Options for the GL 40 include a foldable or telescopic butt stock, meaning the weapon system can be collapsed to a length of 531mm (20.8in) for the short barrel variant. IDF Special Operations Forces sources informed Armada how such a concept allowed operators to covertly carry the weapon inside grab bags for counter-insurgency and close protection duties. Dependent upon the configuration selected, the GL 40 weighs no more than two kilograms (4.4lb), although IDF sources explained how this could represent too heavy a weight for patrolling missions if integrated directly onto an assault rifle, hence why many soldiers prefer to carry the weapon as a standalone system in addition to their personal armament. The GL 40mm boasts a maximum effective range of approximately 400m (1312ft) with a typical HE round providing a five-metre (16.4ft) killing area radius. Sighting options for the GL 40 have traditionally comprised flip-up ladder sights although companies including MeproLight have introduced the Mepro Grenade Launcher Sight (GLS) specifically for IWI’s standalone GL and UGL. The GLS is a small form factor sight comprising a self-illuminated reflex sight for rapid target acquisition, which can be attached to the GL 40’s top Picatinny Rail.
As with many other small arms solutions, the most progress currently being witnessed in the realm of grenade launchers focuses on ammunition developments. The US military is also working on CT options for 40mm grenades, again for weight savings. According to Steven Gilbert, project manager for the US Army’s Small Arms Grenades Munitions initiative, this latest family of ammunition will provide autonomous, air bursting and low velocity solutions with the added benefit of a smart fuse similar to those already employed in much larger ATGMs.
This latest type of 40mm grenade, which has yet to be given a designation by the US Army but is known as the Small Arms Grenade Munition (SAGM), will be capable of autonomously sensing requirements to initiate itself as an air-burst munition should it fly over a compound wall for example, US Army sources explained to Armada. The SAGM’s technology in this regard relies upon a proximity sensor integrated into the grenade which allows it to detect clutter on its path. Similar to legacy ammunition, this latest development is capable of engaging targets up to a range of 400m. However, US Army tests conducted in February 2015 illustrated that the munition provided just 76 percent reliability as an air burst ammunition, illustrating that further development is required before such a capability can be deployed on the battlefield. The SAGM will be capable of being fired from in-service Colt M203 and Heckler and Koch’s M320 UGLs and following successful demonstration could become a Programme of Record with the US Army’s Project Manager-Maneuver Ammunition Systems office by the end of Fiscal Year 2015.
Mr. Gilbert added; “We must demonstrate a certain level of functional reliability over selected target sets. The SAGM cartridge provides the small unit grenadier with a higher probability of achieving a first-shot kill against enemy personnel coupled with the ability to defeat personnel targets in defilade positions at increased ranges with greater accuracy and lethality.” To enable this, “(the SAGM) has a sensor that will sense defilade or walls, or anything that somebody will be hiding behind, without the need for a laser range finder. The biggest challenge has been maturing the SAGM sensor’s robustness to ensure proper functionality against the plethora of available defilade structures in a battlefield environment,” he continued. In terms of the SAGM’s operation Mr. Gilbert says, “All the soldier would need to do is to aim the weapon and fire it. They would have to have good aim … or the round won’t detect the wall. You have to have some sort of accuracy.”
Unlike some of the more complex ATGM smart fuses, the SAGM requires no pre-programming by the user ahead of any engagement. The US Army’s Alliant Techsystems/Heckler and Koch XM-25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System (also known as ‘The Punisher’), airburst grenade launcher which is also currently in development, requires the pre-programming of 40mm smart sensor grenades for air-burst capabilities which determines the range to target for optimal detonation. The US Army is expected to take a decision on whether the weapon will enter the production and deployment phase by August, with the possibility that it could be deployed from early 2017.
The contemporary and future operating environments look set to continue their focus on MOUT and also operations in littoral environments, with armed forces positioning themselves to win the propaganda war while prevailing in their military efforts. These latest solutions in support weapons discussed above will go some way to assisting soldiers as they seek to suppress enemy forces while minimising collateral damage. Nevertheless, more emphasis must be put on weapon handling and marksmanship if these future capabilities are to be effective.
by Andrew White