In the area of small arms, support weapons, ammunition and munitions, there remains plenty of scope for weight savings across the DCC (Dismounted Close Combat) and special operations communities, designed to reduce the burden.
The US Army continues to consider multiple options in this area with the consideration of lighter but equally effective assault rifle and support weapons technology, as well as ammunition types. Addressing delegates at the Armaments Systems Forum held in Fredericksburg on 9th May 2017, US Army programme manager for soldier weapons, Colonel Brian Stehle outlined service plans to upgrade a variety of weapons: “There is a lot of discussion that may require changes to our formations, actually different capability sets we are trying to get to our squads,” he explained while describing how the army continues to work up plans for its Squad Automatic Rifle which is expected to enter service by 2025.
Due to replace legacy FN Herstal M-249 5.56mm Light Machine Guns (LMGs), the army is closely monitoring technology advancements with regular industry days planned from June onwards. An initial requirements list is expected to be published by the end of 2017, Col. Stehle added. Although yet to be officially confirmed by the US Army, the concept could involve the adoption of Lightweight Small Arms Technology (LSAT), comprising both weaponry and ammunition, which Textron continues to develop. Also speaking to Armada ahead of the SOFIC (Special Forces Industry Conference) exhibition held in Tampa, Florida in May, Textron sources described how LSAT small arms and scoped telescoping ammunition remained a favoured technology for development in the company. The LSAT concept is working on reducing the weight of the M-249 by nearly 50 percent, reducing it from 7.9 kilograms/kg (12.4 pounds/lb) down to 4.2kg (9.2lb) while ammunition encased in plastic to replace legacy brass designs, is expected to reduce the weight of belt-fed ammunition by as much as 37 percent.
However, sources associated with Textron explained to Armada how the company used SOFIC to exhibit for the first time a larger calibre variant capable of firing 7.62mm ammunition. Based on the FN Herstal/US Ordnance/Barrett M-240 medium machine gun, Textron has named the weapon the Ultra Light Weight (ULW) machine gun. At the time of writing (early May) a government contract was expected to be announced by the US Department of Defence’s (DOD’s) Joint Service Small Arms Programme Office on 16th May 2017.
Other options available in the marketplace include General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems’ (GDOTS) Lightweight Medium Machine Gun (LWMMG), which has also been manufactured in .338 Norma Magnum (NM) calibre as an alternative to NATO-standard 7.62mm ammunition. However, this type of technology is nothing new for the companies involved, with GDOTS first conducting a live-fire demonstration to the US Army at Fort Benning, Georgia back in September 2011. According to GDOTS company literature, the LWMMG is capable of providing dismounted close combat teams with an: “increase in effective range and lethality in a lightweight form is for dismounted operations (with) the mounted configuration providing long range, accurate fires currently associated with the M-2 Browning , but without the burden of a heavier weight.”
GDOTS explains how the LWMMG boasts a muzzle velocity of 807.7 metres-per-second (2650 feet per second) with cyclical rate of fire as high as 500 rounds. The technology, sources added, and satisfactory levels of stopping power have been achievable with the rearrangement and reduction in size of weapon parts which included the removal of the firing chamber from the barrel itself, resulting in lower temperatures and fewer barrel changes. At the Special Operations Forces Innovation Network Seminar (SOFINS) held in southwest France between 28th and 30th March 2017, Knight Armaments’ displayed its latest lightweight Light Machine Gun (LMG) which continues to provide significant weight savings for combat teams. Designated as the XLMG by the company, the 5.56mm weapon claims to provide a 2kg (4.4lb) weight saving for soldiers over other offerings in the market place, including FN Herstal’s Minimi LMG.
Displayed at SOFINS in a paratrooper configuration with collapsible butt stock, the XLMG provides soldiers with the same levels of firepower with the additional benefits garnered from its more streamline profile. According to company literature, the XLMG comprises a total length of 895mm (34.9 inches/in) with 317mm (12.7in) barrel length providing operators with a maximum effective range up to 600 metres/m (1968.5 feet/ft): “The XLMG features a hybrid modular fore-end and an underslung mounting slot for accepting standard and improved 5.56mm belted ammunition containers. The XLMG is extremely accurate due to the secure mounting of the quick change barrel and the reduced length feed cover design, which accommodates loading and unloading without disturbing the zero of rearward mounted optics or sights … Eliminating the need for a bolt buffer mitigates recoil effect common to machine guns, as there is no impact of the bolt on the end of its stroke, making the gun very easy to control, even in long bursts,” company literature went on to describe. Discussing the market place with Armada at SOFINS, defence sources admitted both the French Special Operations Command (COS) as well as the Danish Special Operations Command had expressed interest in the solution although neither organisation was able to comment. Lighter weight support weapons such as the XLMG are supported by ongoing developments in ammunition with the likes of Textron.
Finally, anti-tank weapons and other shoulder-launched munitions continue to benefit from weight reductions in line with ongoing and emerging requirements from across the contemporary operating environment. The US Army, for example, is currently working on plans to replace legacy Saab M-3 Carl Gustaf anti-tank weapons with the M-3A1 Medium Anti-Armour Weapon System (MAAWS). The first deliveries of weapons are due to the army’s inventory by 2018, company sources explained. The M-3A1 comprises a weight of 6.8kg (15lb) compared to the M-3’s ten kilograms (22lbs) while its overall length has also been reduced from 1066.8mm (42in) down to just over 990.6mm (39in) in order to provide a more manoeuvrable weapon system capable of being operated in urban terrain as well as confined spaces. However, despite such reductions, the weapon has retained its maximum effective range of one kilometre (0.6 miles), Saab officials added while explaining how savings had been achieved through the integration of carbon-fibre and titanium materials.
In July 2016, the US Army announced a $5.4 million contract with Saab for the supply of M-3 ammunition for the MAAWS solution which Michael Andersson, president and chief executive officer, of Saab’s North America division described as a: “versatile and powerful (weapon) for the most demanding environments.” However, Saab has also developed the M-4 Carl Gustaf which continues to witness reductions in size and weight compared to legacy weapons. According to the company, the M-4 variant of the Carl Gustaf has reduced overall weight down from the ten kilograms of the M-3 to just seven kilograms (15.4lb). The M-4 has been reduced in length to just under a 1000mm (39in), down from the 1065mm (41.5in) length of the M-3 variant. Additional features include an improved ergonomic fit for the soldier with the introduction of adjustable fore-grip and shoulder rest as well as more efficient safety mechanism allowing a more rapid engagement of enemy forces.
The weapon, which was first sold to the Slovakian armed forces in 2015, continues to be promoted by Saab as a: “man-portable, multi-role weapon system providing high tactical flexibility through its wide range of ammunition types.” This includes applications to destroy armoured vehicles; protected troops; as well as anti-materiel missions to clear obstacles from the battlefield as well the destruction of buildings and compounds, sources revealed: “Today’s dismounted infantry face a broader range of battlefield challenges than ever before and speed can mean the difference between life and death for dismounted infantry. Operational success depends upon soldiers that can react quickly and effectively in any combat situation. Having a single weapon for all situations increases their tactical flexibility and reduces the amount of equipment that they carry,” a Saab spokesperson explained: “As technologies evolve, weaponry needs to keep pace and offer cutting-edge capabilities. Programmable ammo is just one innovation that is set to revolutionise the battlefield for dismounted infantry. Built with future requirements in mind, the M-4 is compatible with intelligent sighting systems and prepared for programmable ammo, ensuring your forces have advanced technology at their fingertips,” the spokesperson added.
Elsewhere, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems continues to market the smallest member of its anti-tank range, the Spike-SR (Short Range). Comprising an optically-guided surface-to-surface missile, the Spike-SR has been designed as a shoulder-launched, lightweight and multi-purpose munition for use by mounted and dismounted infantry as well as Special Forces. Rafael officials described to Armada the weapon’s capabilities to defeat modern Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), armoured vehicles as well as bunkers. With a total weight of nine kilograms (19.8lb) in its ‘ready to fire’ configuration, the Spike-SR is capable of engaging targets at a range of 1.5km (0.9 miles), while providing a disposable option for DCC personnel seeking to manoeuvre quickly across the battlefield. Rafael sources described how the Spike-SR had been: “specially designed for the infantry combatant with operational capabilities in all weather conditions and adaptability to various levels of conflict and types of terrain, including populated urban arenas and densely forested areas.” The sources continued that: “The Spike SR engages the enemy under the principle of fire and manoeuvre; fire the missile and manoeuvre to a more opportune position,” the source explained: “It offers its operators the ability to use their own initiative and make quick decisions, taking advantage of timely opportunities and targets. The Spike-SR’s rugged design and simplicity of operation provide the infantry combatant with a versatile tactical weapon, essential on today’s dynamic and demanding battlefields.”
According to Rafael, the Spike-SR provides operators with a high-hit probability against both static and mobile targets, with the systems’ uncooled infrared seeker and advanced tracker technology. Pini Yungman, head of Rafael’s missile defence directorate, states that the Spike-SR is being considered by armed forces across South America where its minimum arming distance of 50m (164 feet) remains of interest to infantry and special fources routinely conducting short range engagements associated with jungle warfare. According to Mr. Yungmann, a total of 16 armed forces across the world have received Spike-SR demonstrations over the course of its launch event in December 2016. Capable of firing High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT), anti-structural and fragmentation warheads, the Spike-SR measures a single metre in length although company officials admitted to Armada how reduced weight continued to provide the greatest capability enhancement for armed forces seeking to employ such weapons.
Critical to any DCC operation is power, especially in the execution of long range and expeditionary operations which might require force elements to operate far beyond the reach of more traditional logistical support. Addressing delegates at the SOFINS event Rear Admiral Laurent Isnard, head of the French Special Forces Command, explained the importance of support and logistical supply chains, while emphasising the integral nature of what he coined “future energy requirements … We need to reduce the volume of batteries and increase autonomy with rechargeable and smaller form factor batteries,” he announced while describing requirements associated with such energy autonomy as his organisation’s greatest need: “We need batteries of various voltages which can be big, bulky and costly, and we need to reduce the volume of these batteries and increase autonomy with rechargeable batteries in order to deliver high energy on a regular basis,” RADM Isnard urged.
Speaking to Armada, Protonex Technology’s Sean Gillespie described how battery technology continued to provide greater capabilities for infantry and special forces teams now conducting greater frequencies of expeditionary missions: ‘With the military focus of operations now on expeditionary operations, increased supply lines and mission costs drive up per-soldier expenditure. By decreasing battery demand, increasing the use of alternative energy sources, maximising energy use and reducing transportation-associated costs, Intelligent Power Management solutions dramatically reduce energy costs and, more significantly, the cost in both financial and effort terms,” he explained.
Explaining how significant future soldier technology programmes including the US Army’s Nett Warrior soldier modernisation article and TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit – see previous article) programmes continue to consider advanced fuel cell solutions ranging in power outage between 100 Watts (W) and 1000W, Mr. Gillespie described how more than 300000 AA-sized batteries were generally used by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and non-NATO forces in Afghanistan every day during the height of the campaign between 2005 and 2014: “The Nett Warrior system shares a single lightweight battery to power both commercial and military system components and includes the capability to charge that battery on the go. As such, it is being embraced by dismounted infantry and special operations teams that need to operate untethered from wall outlets and vehicles for long periods of time,” Mr. Gillespie explained: “Operators will typically replace primary batteries between missions, or during rest periods, to assure fully-charged equipment when it is needed. The US Army’s Power Division estimates that batteries are generally discarded with an average of 30 percent to 50 percent of their energy unused.”
Recent US deployments have demonstrated that Protonex’s Squad Power Managers (SPM) can address all these issues because operators have found they can quickly and easily harvest all the energy from primary batteries or other sources available, which reduces disposed energy and sees an immediate and dramatic reduction in energy costs,” he continued to describe. Protonex’s SPM retains the ability to convert various energy types into a single power source for infantry and special forces equipment, including solar and wind energy as well as multiple legacy and next-generation battery types including lithium-ion systems. With the capacity to concurrently charge up to five different batteries, the SPM allows an operator to transfer surplus energy into rechargeable battery packs including the BB-2590. Protonex states that the SPM comprises a: “lightweight, compact and rugged intelligent power management solution designed to withstand the harsh operating conditions of military field use. This unit directly powers virtually any man-portable military equipment, recharges a squad’s batteries and intelligently adjusts to changing mission conditions or requirements.” This company statement continued that: “The power suites needed to keep these multiple devices powered has seen huge advances … Conformal batteries, wearable and form fitting, provide increased power without the bulk of conventional batteries and power manager systems allow multiple incompatible devices to feed off of these batteries and even recharge the battery from multiple sources, including solar blankets.” Protonex technology can be used alongside integrated power and data technology including Black Diamond’s Apex Predator which provides a single power source for handheld tactical radios through to End User Devices (EUD) including tablets and ruggedised laptops. The Apex Predator is able to integrate a variety of power sources into the situational awareness inventory of the dismounted soldier.
Also present at the Future Soldier Technology event held in London in mid-March, Black Diamond promoted its concept to industry featuring a smartphone; software defined radio; global positioning system and biometric technology; all of which were powered by the Apex Predator and its associated power management device. This product also included a ‘Battery Eliminator Mode’ which allows soldiers to carry fewer batteries for their devices therefore saving weight on the battlefield. The system is designed for multiple missions that demand a flexible communications platform and power management solution. It allows for the data and power connection of multiple peripheral devices, which may use a variety of interfaces, back to a COTS computer over a single USB (Universal Serial Bus) Interface, Black Diamond explained at the event.
Similar concepts were also displayed at the AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association) event held in Bonn, western Germany on 26th April and 27th April with industry participants positioning themselves to provide a dismounted Battle Management System (BMS) capability for the German Army’s MOTIV programme (see introduction). Systematics displayed a mock-up of a DCC soldier with an integrated BMS capability based on its SitaWare situational awareness software. Comprising a tactical radio and conformal battery pack, the solution featured the SitaWare Edge product, designed to provide the lowest tactical level with BMS and command and control capabilities. Speaking to Armada Sven Trusch, vice president for business development for defence in central Europe, explained how the technology relied upon open architecture allowing it to be integrated on any legacy and future soldier ensembles. The German Army’s MOTIV effort is expected to require not only a vehicle-mounted BMS but also a dismounted variant although details are yet to be finalised by the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces). Systematic sources confirmed the company was working with Black Diamond Advanced Technology (see above) with regards to various types of technology demonstrators. Systematics’ concept demonstrator comprised the SitaWare Edge-equipped and Android-based EUD integrated into a chest mount fitted to a body armour vest; as well as a tactical radio and conformal battery pack. The SitaWare Edge is capable of providing DCC soldiers with the capability to process exploit and disseminate data including orders as well as monitoring and updating blue force tracking systems as well as other ISR data: “We are looking at options with ergonomics, weight, fit and functionality in mind,” Trusch added.
A similar concept was also promoted at AFCEA by Elbit and local partner Telefunken, which exhibited a mock-up model featuring dismounted BMS solutions. In this offering, the technology demonstrator comprised a chest-mounted Raptor EUD and tactical radios manufactured by the former. Neither company was able to provide further details to Armada.
Also highlighted by RADM Isnard as a future growth area for the DCC and special operations communities was three-dimensional (3D) printing technology which continues to display potential to lessen the burden on existing combat supply chains. Additionally, defence sources explained how such technology could provide expeditionary forces with more responsive, agile and rapid re-supply capabilities. Addressing the SOFINS conference, RADM Isnard described how 3D printers, deployed at forward operating bases for example, could be used to print spare parts for a variety of systems including unmanned aerial or ground vehicles.
Referring to such combat logistics requirements, RADM Isnard explained: “This is under development now. We must do anything to help the soldier do what they are trained to do and leave support to other elements.” In France, such 3D printing efforts are being led by the French Air Force’s Centre of Excellence for Drones which continues to consider technology options for forward deployed capabilities. According to the centre’s commanding officer, Commander Daniel-Frederic Gigan, the French MOD retains the capacity to: “…develop this capability quickly with our experience in the field and conduct some prototyping in the field in a period somewhere between three days to a week.”
Meanwhile, the US Army Research Laboratory continues to consider similar technologies including the 3D printing of UAVs following an exercise which saw such a capability adopted during the Army Expeditionary Warfare Experiments programme, conducted at Fort Benning, Georgia, during December 2016. According to US Army official sources, the exercise saw 3D UAVs printed for utility by DCC squads operating the On Demand Small Unmanned Aircraft System (ODSUAS); a fixed wing small UAV capable of being used for ISR missions. The army, which developed the capability alongside the Georgia Tech University’s Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory, described how the airframe could be ready for operations within 24 hours of being requested by a combat formation. The aircraft, which is capable of reaching a top speed of 76.5 knots (141.6 kilometres-per-hour), has proven the concept for 3D printing to rapidly and effectively respond to emerging requirements from the battlefield, according to US Army project manager, Eric Spero.
Describing how the frame and propellers of the fixed wing UAV was created using a 3D printer, army officials explained how an electric engine based on COTS materiel was simply integrated in order to produce a functioning platform. Future developments are expected to include greater range extensions; enhanced mobility; and reduced noise, while army officials proclaimed: “Everybody knows all the great things that can be done with 3D printers. So we figured let’s assemble these two new technologies and provide a solution to soldiers that need something right now.”
Despite a rapidly evolving COE, requirements for an agile and effective mounted and dismounted close combat force appear to remain as relevant as ever although capabilities continue to emerge particularly in the area of urban warfare and its associated restrictions to soldiers operating in confined and congested areas. However, as near-peer adversaries including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the People’s Republic of China and Russia continue to upgrade their infantry and special forces with increasingly mature levels of technology, it remains imperative that the rest of the world’s armed forces remain ahead of the curve in maintaining their edge. This will only be achieved with the seamless integration of technology designed to not only reduce the physical and cognitive burden on soldiers, but also the networking of soldiers into the wider connected network of the battlefield.
by Andrew White