The U.S. Army is looking for across-the-board replacements for the M4 and M249 SAW platforms with a pair of new rifles, the NGSW-R (for Rifle), and NGSW-AR (for Automatic Rifle). These replacements under development are to be lighter than their predecessors, hit harder, have a longer range, and be capable of penetrating body armor that the M4 and M249 SAW predecessors are not able to.
The Army has stipulated that all entrants in the NGSW competition should be chambered in an intermediate 6.8mm round. Aside from the diameter, the details of the round are up to the individual manufacturers. This would be a significant break from the US/NATO standard and fall in between the previous NATO 5.56mm and NATO 7.62mm rounds. The goal would be to field them by 2021.
The Army is looking for a dizzying amalgamation of electronics as well, including facial recognition and an electronic fire-control system. Yep, they’d need batteries.
General Dynamics & True Velocity
General Dynamics has partnered with True Velocity, a Texas-based ammunition manufacturer and is developing its NGSW contenders around the True Velocity’s composite polymer ammunition. According to True Velocity’s website, their polymer ammunition casing weighs 30 percent less than traditional brass casings.
Both of General Dynamics’s entrants in the NGSW program are bullpup designs, meaning magazines are loaded behind the trigger and action. Bullpups benefit from having a longer barrel and thus higher muzzle velocity and longer effective range than the current AR-based rifle designs all in a more compact package.
Interestingly, GD’s Automatic Rifle entry is also a magazine-fed design. The U.S. Marine Corps has also recently moved towards magazine-fed designs, and began fielding the M27 as a partial replacement for the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon.
Although a traditional box magazine would increase time spent reloading, the visual similarity of a box-fed automatic rifle to the other rifles within a squad could reduce the intentional targeting of machine gunners by enemy combatants. Capacity limitations inherent in a magazine-fed design could theoretically be overcome by larger-capacity magazines, such as the drum magazine the Marine Corps is developing in tandem with Magpul.
Textron, Winchester, H&K
Textron’s entrants into the NGSW program are outwardly very familiar—a box-fed and belt-fed for the rifle and automatic rifle entrants respectively.
This is where anything familiar is left behind. Textron partnered with Olin Winchester to tap into Winchester’s ammunition expertise, and with Heckler & Koch to aid in production and ammunition optimization. Both platforms are designed around a radical polymer cased telescoped round. Cased telescoped ammunition somewhat resembles a shotgun shell. Total length is shorter when compared to traditional ammunition, as the case and propellent fully envelop the projectile. Textron anticipates weight savings due to lighter polymer being used in places of brass.
Heckler & Koch also experimented with caseless telescoped ammunition near the end of the Cold War and developed the space age G11 platform. Although the G11 was submitted to Bundeswehr after testing and declared ready for issue, the end of the Cold War eliminated the need for Germany to spend money on new rifles.
Sig Sauer’s two entrants into the NGSW program are the least radical. Their automatic rifle entry is belt-fed and rifle entry is magazine-fed. Their belt-fed automatic rifle entrant would use familiar disintegrating links. It has apparently been designed with a kind of recoil-mitigating technology to make fully automatic shooting more manageable and accurate.
Sig Sauer is using a third kind of ammunition developed in-house. This familiar but unusual looking hybrid round has a steel base attached to a brass body, shoulder, and neck. Sig Sauer claims that this combination allows them to achieve the required weight reduction and case strength required to handle an increase in energy.
Subtract Brass, Add Batteries
The primary benefits of polymer cases are corrosion resistance and weight-savings. Plastic cases would theoretically be able to resist the elements better than brass casings, a plus in their favor.
The argument for using polymer cases to save weight would be of only marginal benefit to the individual soldier, who would in all likelihood rarely carry more than several hundred rounds of ammunition. The real weight savings comes from a logistical standpoint, where hundreds if not thousands of pounds of weight could be shaved off when transporting massive quantities of ammunition by land, sea, or air.
Unfortunately, a logistical weight saving wouldn’t benefit the grunts much—especially if batteries would be needed for all of the on-board electronics.
Production cost could also potentially be lower than traditional brass cases, although this remains to be seen and is dependent on economies of scale.
Hot and Bothered
There is another problem besides weight, however. How would a polymer case affect heat conductivity? Traditional brass or steel cases absorb the heat created by exploding propellant and are ejected hot. It remains to be seen how a polymer case would fare under sustained-firing conditions, assuming they would not absorb as much heat as metallic cases. Melting plastic gumming up the action could be a problem.
Another potential problem would be the environmental impact that spent plastic casings proposed by Textron and General Dynamics would have on the environment. This could also play into politics as well—what would countries hosting U.S. troops think about on-deck weapons practice at sea, and floating heaps of plastic left afterward?
Sig Sauer’s 6.8x51mm round is the most traditional of the three—bass cases are over a century old, ubiquitous the world over, and have already proved their mettle. The predictability of brass lends itself well to the reliability argument. Brass and steel are also environmentally inert—not a political issue.
I Got 99 Problems, But a Bullet Ain’t One
Bullets, propellants and radical untested casings aside, problems abound. Textron’s bullpup design look great on paper, but bullpups' designs are not universally loved. One immediately clear problem is the fixed stock, which is not adjustable to fit shooters that are either taller or shorter than average height. Rifle balance could also be an issue, as bullpups are inherently rear-heavy.
Compounding Textron’s problems is a report relayed by an industry insider that H&K is withdrawing from their Textron-NGSW partnership. H&K has tremendous production capabilities, and experience with cased telescoped ammunition. Backing out of a deal with Textron would certainly harm Textron’s bid. Textron will likely have to either up the production price per unit, or give the Army a less optimal platform to test—both options would be bad news for the Army.
Although very different, these three platforms represent sweeping changes to the Army’s existing inventory and an unhealthy obsession with cutting ammunition weight, but gaining weight in other areas. Transitioning from the M4 and M249 SAW to a Next Generation Squad Weapon would be a massive undertaking. There is an argument to be made about transitioning to a round in between the 5.56mm and 7.62mm. That being said, transitioning to a new round would present a logistical nightmare, especially considering not only American arsenals but also the stockpiles of allies.
All things considered, the three remaining contenders in the Army’s Next Generation Squad Weapon program represent either small incremental improvements to existing Army small arms, or radical, immature, and unproven designs, with a heavy reliance on electronic additions. The Army would be better off waiting for caseless telescoped ammunition to mature, gain consensus from allies, partners, and host nations on the environmental implications of polymer ammunition, and look further into Sig Sauer’s steel-brass hybrid case.
Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture.
Image: Creative Commons.