The Army's Next-Gen Squad Weapons Program
Earlier this year, the Army awarded contracts for prototypes, under Other Transaction Authority (OTA), for its Next-Gen Squad Weapons Program (NGSW). All three companies receiving contracts were at the annual AUSA expo showing off their concepts to replace the Army’s existing standard issue infantry rifle the M4 and the M429 squad automatic weapon (SAW) used to provide sustained full auto fire. The program includes proposals for both magazine fed rifles and belt fed machinegun prototypes. Potentially the most groundbreaking change is in the ammunition for these weapons. The Army provided a 6.8mm projectile specification, leaving the overall cartridge design open to industry.
Firearms ballistic performance is largely dictated by the ammunition it fires. While certain changes such as barrel length have some effect on the performance of the round, there is little room for major performance changes. The Army last looked at replacing the M4 in 2013. After considering several submissions, all firing the existing 5.56x45 NATO ammo, the Army halted the program because none of the submissions offered enough of an improvement to justify procuring a new rifle. In 2005 the XM8, another rifle replacement program was canceled. The idea that the Army is open to not only a new weapon, but also a new cartridge, is a sign it might be ready to make a major capability change, though it does raise the issue of what will happen to ammunition standardization with NATO allies.
The submission from AAI Corporation of Textron Systems and Heckler and Koch uses an unconventional cartridge design called cased-telescoped cartridge. In a cased-telescoped cartridge the projectile is placed fully into the casing with the powder, giving it an almost shotgun shell like appearance. The General Dynamics team, which includes OTS Inc., is a bullpup rifle design that places the receiver and magazine close to the shooters shoulder for a barrel length advantage. The cartridge consists of a polymer case for reduced weight. Sig Sauer, the only company not part of a team, is producing all the products in house, and is using a bi-metal construction in the case to reduce the weight of the overall cartridge.
Whichever versions of the system the Army eventually selects, is expected to get any number of advanced firing and aiming systems attached to it. This could include advanced ballistic calculators that consider several environmental factors to automatically adjust the aiming point to increases hit probability. One of the best examples of what may be incorporated for sighting systems is the Army’s Enhanced Night Vision Goggle Binoculars (ENVG-B), the latest generation night vision with the option to fuse data with a thermal sight, allowing for more accurate shooting from behind cover. These integrations represent one of the Army’s first attempts to build a “network” of interconnected equipment around the soldier. This will give manufactures a new opening to develop products or redesign existing equipment to give unique advantages to the soldier. This new network of integrated systems may serve as the platform for future product and weapon developments.
Whichever weapons are ultimately accepted by the Army, they will be paired with new sensors and electronics to give soldiers an edge on the battlefield. The first units are planned to receive the winning systems by fiscal year 2022.