This is almost one year old article but still has something to say:
Issue Date: July 21, 2003
Your next rifle
?05 is target date for debut of replacement to the M16
By Matthew Cox
Times staff writer
The Army has a new rifle in its sights, one that could start replacing the venerable M16 in just two years.The staff at Project Manager Soldier Weapons is overseeing the final designs of the XM8 ? a highly versatile 5.56mm assault rifle intended to give soldiers a lighter, more reliable alternative to the battle-tested M16A2 and M16A4 rifles and M4 carbine.
Army weapons developers plan to have a prototype by the end of the summer and to begin testing in the fall.
The XM8 is a new approach in the Army?s ongoing effort to perfect an over-and-under style weapon, known as the XM29, that fires special air-bursting projectiles and standard 5.56mm ammunition.
The Army successfully tested a working prototype of XM29 in 1999 ? known then as the Objective Individual Combat Weapon. But four years later, the $50 million program has yet to produce anything new.
The Infantry Center at Fort Benning, Ga., wanted the weapon to weigh 14 pounds and be ready for soldiers by 2008. But the 18-pound weapon still is too heavy and bulky to meet those requirements.
But instead of scrapping the XM29, the Army decided on a new strategy ? perfect each of XM29?s components separately so soldiers can take advantage of new technology sooner. The parts then could be brought back together when lighter materials become available.
The components include a carbine that can fire 5.56mm rounds; a launcher that fires air-burst ammunition; the air-burst ammunition itself; and the fire-control system.
?The way we were doing it was, we were building a full system and we were going to field that and then do a second system and make it better and lighter and field that and then make a third version and field that, and I didn?t see that as a path to success,? said Lt. Col. Matthew Clarke, product manager for Product Manager Individual Weapons, who took over the XM29 program in November.
?When I get each little system working the way I want, I am going to start putting them back together as a complete system.?
The new acquisition strategy includes developing a stand-alone air-burst weapon, known as the XM25, for possible fielding in four years.
But the XM8 has first priority. In October, the Army modified the existing contract with Alliant Techsystems and Heckler & Koch Inc. to design the new lightweight assault rifle.
And Congress directed the Secretary of the Army?s office in its fiscal 2003 appropriations report last October to complete a cost-and-benefits analysis of the XM8 as possibly ?worthy of fielding on an expedited basis.? That report was completed in early June and is on its way back to both the House and Senate appropriations committees.
Officials from the Infantry Center are intrigued by the new approach to XM29.
?It does appear very logical. The XM29 was always designed to be a [modular] weapon,? said Jim Stone, deputy for the Infantry Center?s Directorate for Combat Developments.
While the M16 family, which includes the M4, ?has been a very good weapon,? Stone pointed out that it?s already 40 years old.
?While we are maintaining and improving the M4, we have to look ahead,? he said. ?For us to do nothing and say ?Gee, the M4 is doing great,? that would be irresponsible.?
True family of weapons
The XM8, weapons experts maintain, is a true family of weapons with different barrel lengths designed to address all the needs of an infantry squad.
While exact measurements are not available, the baseline model is expected to be lighter than the M4 carbine and no larger in size.
There?s also a sharpshooter model equipped with a longer barrel for increased range.
The need for sharpshooter weapons at the squad level became evident in Afghanistan. Elements of the 82nd Airborne Division requested M1As, a version of the old 7.62mm M14, for its long-range capability.
The squad auto-rifle version of the XM8 features a heavier barrel and high-capacity magazines.
All of the versions have a telescoping butt stock except for the commando variant, which is planned to have a shorter barrel for tight compartments such as inside armored vehicles and helicopter cockpits.
The XM8?s barrels ? of varrying length ? can be changed at the arms room to meet mission needs, Clarke said.
?We are trying to do the family of XM8, so I don?t have to buy four or five different weapons for the squad. I buy one weapon,? said Col. Michael J. Smith, project manager for PM Soldier Weapons.
The XM8 also is supposed to have a multipurpose optic that includes a red dot reticle, a backup sight that requires no power, an infrared pointer, an infrared illuminator and a visible pointer.
The existing M4 requires lots of add-ons to perform these tasks. Combining them reduces the weight of the weapon and the complexity to the soldier.
The multipurpose optic also will make training easier since there is only one optic to zero to the weapon instead of multiple devices. ?You take the gun out of the box, you zero the optic and you?re done,? Clarke said.
For special-operations forces, the weapon can be converted to fire 7.62-by-39mm, the same round as the AK47.
No bursts, for now
Soldiers testing the first 200 XM8s this fall will not be able to fire a three-round burst like they can on M16s and M4s. The rifles will have only a safe and a full-automatic setting.
The Army switched from full-auto to three-round burst in the 1980s when the service decided most soldiers did not fire effectively in the full-auto mode.
But weapons experts now say a soldier using three-round bursts is no more effective than one well-trained in the use of full-automatic fire, Clarke said.
Without that option, Clarke said, designers could leave out the special governor to create the three-round burst, making a simpler design that also would be more reliable.
The XM8 accessories will include a 40mm grenade launcher to replace the aging M203.
The new launcher still is a single-shot, breech-loader, but it will swing out to the side to allow for specialized rounds that require longer shell casings.
But the 40mm option may not last too long. Under separate development in the plan for the XM29 is the XM25 ? a stand-alone weapon that features 25mm air-burst technology.
The XM25, weapons experts maintain, would weigh less than 12 pounds with the fire-control system and would be chambered for a more powerful 25mm round.
The switch from 20mm to 25mm rounds means the new weapon will fire ammunition common to the XM307, a crew-served weapon that fires a long-range 25mm air-burst round.
If all goes well, it would be ready for testing in 2005.
While supportive of the idea, the Infantry Center does not want a return to a weapon similar to the Vietnam-era M79 grenade launcher, a single-shot weapon that left the grenadier with a limited capability to fight at close range, Stone said.
Like the XM29 prototype, the XM25 would feature a magazine that holds at least five rounds. In addition, there could be canister-style 25mm ammo, giving the weapon a sawed-off shotgun effect.
?We want to introduce a heck of a lot more capability than the M79,? Smith said. ?I?ll give [them] a five-round magazine, a three-round magazine, a 10-round magazine ? and give them the capability of different kinds of rounds and let them get into the close fight, not just the long-distance fight.?
Lethal air bursts
The Army began working with air-burst technology in 1994. It first was tested in the 1999 prototype for the Objective Individual Combat Weapon.
It relies on a laser range finder and a ballistic computer that calculates the range to a target with a push of a button and transfers the data to the electronic fuse built into the 20mm round.
When fired, the air-burst round has a range of 500 meters and is designed to explode directly above a target, raining shrapnel down on an enemy crouched behind cover.
Such a weapon, experts say, will give combat soldiers the ability to defeat enemy targets behind cover with greater precision than ever before.
?We do know that bursting ammo, especially when you can control the burst, is going to be an incredible increase to the lethality of a squad,? Stone said.
As it stands, the Army is a long way from taking advantage of that technology, because the XM29 program does not meet the Infantry Center?s 14-pound requirement.
?The technology is just not there,? said Clarke, explaining that the materials needed to lighten the weapon without losing effectiveness simply are not available. ?We searched for lighter-weight materials. They don?t give you the same capability as homegrown steel does, and that is the bottom line.?
Since the internal parts of the XM8 and XM25 already exist, the challenge has been creating the exterior shell to appeal to American tastes.
?[Heckler & Koch], the Europeans, they love blocky style weapons. Americans are all about curves,? Clarke said, describing how they brought in engineers from Porsche and Audi to come up with more streamlined designs.
If the Army does adopt the XM8, as many as 900,000 could be fielded through 2021, Clark said. The XM25 would be fielded in far fewer numbers beginning in 2007, depending on the needs of the Infantry Center, the proponent for the Army?s small-arms requirements.
The Army still plans to field about 22,000 XM29s ? enough for four per nine-man infantry squad ? beginning in 2012.
?When it is all said and done, my contact with the Infantry Center is still to provide them with an XM29,? Clarke said.
?What I am doing is offering up mature technology capabilities. The proof will be in the pudding when we pop some systems out there and let people use them ? that is the plan.?