The perceived shortcomings of the 5.56 x 45 mm Nato SS109/US M855 round in the US armed forces-led campaign in Afghanistan has provoked the fiercest debate about the optimum calibre for assault rifles since the US Army decided that the 5.56 mm M193 cartridge would supersede the Nato 7.62 mm cartridge as the standard calibre for its assault rifles 40 years ago. The pressing demands of the Global War on Terror, which is being fought largely in urban areas in Iraq, mean that new and upgraded 5.56 mm assault rifles will equip the American military forces and their Nato and non-Nato allies for at least another generation. However, these will be augmented by a more generous allocation of 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm marksman/sniper rifles than has previously been the case, this to achieve precision engagements at ranges out to 800 metres. Efforts are also underway to field air-bursting 40 mm and possibly 25 mm shoulder-launched grenades to defeat targets in defilade.
From the mid-1990s the US Army has funded the Objective Individual Combat Weapon (OICW) project to develop a weapon combining a 5.56 mm rifle and 20 mm (later 25 mm) grenade launcher with a sophisticated full-solution fire control system to replace the 5.56 mm M16 rifle/M4 carbine families and the M203 40 mm under-barrel grenade launcher. Alliant Techsystems (ATK), Heckler & Koch (HK) and Brashear were teamed on the project. To expedite a new weapon into the hands of troops fighting abroad the army restructured the programme in 2002 with the intention of first fielding the HK modular XM8 5.56 mm carbine family, then the ATK 25 mm Airburst Weapon System and finally the XM29 Integrated Airburst Weapons System (as the OICW was renamed). The service later abandoned this strategy and announced its intention to seek an 'Increment 1' 5.56 mm small arms family consisting of a carbine, a special compact weapon, designated marksman weapon and a light machine gun (LMG) capable of firing standard US M855 and M856 ammunition. Notifications to this effect were issued and twice suspended.
The army's present strategy is to sustain and improve its existing family of small arms in the near term (to two years) through the increased issue of the Colt M4 carbine and related accessories, field a replacement for the FN Herstal 5.56 mm Minimi LMG (type classified as the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon) in the medium term (two to five years) and look for a new family of small arms in the long term (beyond five years). This was good news for Colt Defense and also Knights Armament, which produces the Modular Weapon System (MWS) kit for the M16/M4 and the Special Operations Modification (Spomod) kit for the M4A1 carbines used by various US Special Operations Command (USsocom) units. Both kits include MIL-STD 1913 (Picatinny) rails, forward grips, various day and night sights, lights, laser points and other accessories. The award of an $ 80.7 million contract by the US Army to Knights in January 2005 was followed in February 2006 by a $110.8 million award for the MWS.
Colt received a $ 242,468,789 firm-fixed-price multi-year contract for M4/M4A1 carbines in June 2006. The company is not scheduled to complete an October 2003 $123 million contract for 124,803 M4/M4A1 carbines until the end of September. The M4/M4A1 carbines and the M16A4 rifles now being delivered to the US Marine Corps are the fourth generation of the M16 to enter service following the Vietnam War vintage M16 and improved M16A1, and the M16A2 fielded in the 1980s. Present generation M16s/M4s are 'flat-top' weapons that incorporate the MIL-STD 1913 rail on top and can be fitted with additional rails from the MWS or Sopmod kits at the 3, 6 and 9 o'clock positions. The basic M4 carbine measures 838 mm in length with the stock extended (757 mm retracted) and weighs 2.52 kg without magazine fitted, while the M16A4 is 990 mm long and weighs 3.987 kg with a loaded 30-round magazine.
The M16 family is the most widely used 5.56 mm weapon, in service with more than 50 countries. In May 2005 Colt boosted its design and production capabilities when it acquired Canadian firm Diemaco (now Colt Canada), which produces the C7 family, a derivative of the M16A2, for the Canadian, Danish and Dutch armed forces and various European special forces units. Colt Canada is competing with HK in Norway's 5.56 mm assault rifle competition.
The USsocom (Socom) will soon take delivery of low-rate initial production (Lrip) examples of its new 5.56-mm/7.62 mm Special operations forces Combat Assault Rifle (Scar) from Belgium's FN Herstal. After watching the US Army's tortuous efforts to field a new rifle Socom developed a joint operational requirements document for a new family of small arms in 2002, as it was convinced that the only way to field a 'weapon designed for SOF by SOF' was to manage the programme itself. In January 2003 the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Crane (NSWC Crane), Indiana released a 'Source Sought Announcement' to industry and, after briefings and discussions with ten small arms manufacturers in mid-year, released a solicitation to industry the following January. Competing designs were delivered for evaluation in June 2004 and on 5 November Socom awarded FN Herstal an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract for up to 84,000 5.56 mm Scar-L (Light) weapons and 15,000 7.62 mm Scar-H (Heavy) weapons. The fiscal year 2007 defence budget includes $ 1.8 million for 600 Lrip examples of each variant for operational testing with full-rate production expected to begin in FY08. The Scar project manager is justified in describing the project as, << the next evolutionary step in small arms development at a revolutionary pace >>.
The requirement was influenced by the experience of American special operation forces units in Afghanistan, as they appreciated the advantages of the M4A1 when operating in caves and other close terrain but also identified the need for a more powerful cartridge than the Nato 5.56 mm round in certain situations. The Scar-L is optimised for Nato 5.56 mm ammunition while the Scar-H is an open architecture design that will accommodate changing calibres from the standard Nato 7.62 x 51 mm configuration. The initial calibre change is expected to the Russian 7.62 x 39 mm calibre, which would allow SOF combatants to use 'pick-up' 7.62 mm Russian standard ammunition found in operational situations.
The Scar-L can be fitted with a 254-mm close quarter combat (CQC) barrel, a 355.6-mm standard barrel and a 457.2 sniper variant (SV) barrel, while the Scar-H has 330.2, 406.4 and 508 mm barrels. The CQC barrels are intended for use at combat ranges up to 200 metres, while the standard barrels are designed for combat at 300 to 500 metres and the SV barrel is intended to engage targets between 500 and 800 metres. The user is able to change barrels in less than five minutes with the aid of a special wrench. Both weapons are fitted with Picatinny rails at the 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock positions that are compatible with 'nearly' all of the components of the Sopmod kit and the new 12-gauge XM26 Modular Accessory Shotgun System. The third element of the Scar project is the 40 mm Enhanced Grenade Launcher Module (EGLM) that can be fitted to the 6 o'clock rail on both Scar rifles in any barrel length configuration. The Scar's modular design provides 90% ergonomic compatibility and 60% parts commonality between the two rifles.
As special operations units from each of the services gain experience with the Scar no doubt this will influence the services when they seek replacements for M16/M4 series weapons across the force structure. Besides the worldwide military community FN Herstal believes the weapon offers << interesting potential for law enforcement and commercial applications >>.
FN Herstal has secured two major orders for its new 5.56 mm F2000 Modular Assault Weapon System, which was introduced in 2001. The Saudi Arabian National Guard selected the weapon in 2005 and Slovenia became the first Nato country to adopt the F2000 as its standard assault rifle with the 2006 purchase of 6500 weapons following a year-long competitive evaluation. Deliveries to Slovenia will be completed by the end of this year. The weapon has also been acquired by the special forces of several countries, including Belgium. Modularity was a primary objective in developing the bullpup weapon. The F2000 is fitted with a x1.6 optical sight which can be removed to expose a Picatinny rail while the forward hand guard can be removed so attachments such as 40 mm grenade launcher, laser aiming modules and a 12-gauge shotgun can be mounted. A computerised FCS which is now under development can be added to the standard sight unit for use with both the 5.56 mm and 40 mm weapons. The F2000 is 694 mm long and weighs 3.6 kg with an empty magazine.
HK will be watching closely for an opportunity to revive its XM8 design, which was derived from HK's G36 rifle which entered service with the Bundeswehr in 1995 following the cancellation of the company's 4.73 mm G11 rifle with its unique caseless ammunition. Although the weapon is conventional in layout, HK has made extensive use of polymer-based plastics to reduce weight and has emphasised a modular design. The standard rifle measures 998 mm with the butt extended, 758 mm with the skeleton buttstock folded and weighs 3.6 kg without magazine. In service with German special forces is the G36K, which measures 860 mm in length (615 mm folded). Incorporated in the G36's integral carrying handle is a x3 optical sight with a x1 red dot sight mounted above. The translucent 30-round plastic magazines can be clipped together on the rifle to facilitate rapid changes. The AG36 40 mm under-barrel grenade launcher was developed for the G36 and has subsequently been bought by the British and US armies. The G36E export version of the weapon features a x1.5 optical sight in place of the standard sight. A light support weapon is also available with a heavier barrel and bipod. The G36 is also in service with the Spanish Army, the Portuguese Marines, the Norwegian Coastal Ranger Command, various special forces units and last year was selected to equip the Latvian Army. In June 2006 HK announced that it would end production of the HK33 and HK53 5.56 mm assault rifles and concentrate solely on the marketing of the G36.
Later this year Israel Weapon Industries (IWI), formerly the Small Arms Division of Israel Military Industries, will complete the delivery of an initial batch of 15,000 5.56 mm Tavor Tar-21 (Tavor Assault Rifle--1st Century) bullpup assault rifles to the Israel Defence Force. The Tavor was selected by Israel in 2003, following an evaluation against the M4 carbine. Recruits began training on the new weapon in mid-2006 and two brigades are now equipped. In 2004 the Indian Army ordered 3074 rifles to equip special forces units and is considering the local production of the Tavor to equip additional special forces and airborne units. The Republic of Georgia has also received an undisclosed quantity for its special forces with additional orders expected.
IWI has worked closely with the IDF Ground Forces Command since 1993 to develop the Tavor as a replacement for the IDF's American M16s and M4s, and IWI 5.56 mm Galil assault rifle. Great emphasis has been given to ergonomic design, ease of maintenance and growth potential. Extensive use is made of polymer materials. A red dot reflex sight, which incorporates a red dot laser target designator, is fitted to the standard rifle. The Ctar-21 Commander Tavor, the version selected by the IDF, is 640 mm long, has a 380-mm-long barrel and weighs 4.15 kg with a loaded 30-round magazine. Other versions include the 720-mm-long Tar-21 Tavor, the Mtar-21 Micro Tavor which is 590 mm long and the Star-21 Sharpshooter Tavor, which is essentially the standard rifle fitted with a bipod and a rail to accommodate a variety of day or night telescopic sights.
The Royal Malaysian Army, which since the 1980s has used the Steyr-Mannlicher 5.56 mm Aug-A1 assault rifle built locally by SME Technologies, announced in 2006 that will replace these weapons with the M4A1, ending speculation that it would be the launch customer for the Austrian firm's A3 upgrade. The Aug was the first bullpup design to enter military service when it was introduced with the Austrian Army in 1978 and has since become the most widely fielded bullpup with almost one million weapons produced in Austria, Australia and Malaysia for customers in more than 25 countries. The basic modular design, which incorporates a x1.5 optical sight in the carrying handle, can be converted to four different variants by changing the barrel: a 626-mm-long short rifle intended for paratroopers requiring a compact weapon features a 350 mm barrel, a carbine (714 mm, 407 mm), the standard assault rifle (805 mm, 508 mm) and the heavy-barrelled light machine gun (915 mm, 621 mm), which features a bipod. An A2 model was introduced in 1997, which, along with other improvements, features a removable Picatinny rail to accommodate more powerful day and night sights. Since 2004 Steyr-Mannlicher has been producing the Aug A3, which has rails in the 3, 6, 9 and 12 o'clock positions and an interface for the M203 or Swiss Sig 40 mm grenade launchers. Thales Australia, which produced the Aug under license for the Australian and New Zealand armies, is developing a Metal Storm barrel attachment for 40 mm grenades, intended to meet the requirements of the Australian Army's Advanced Individual Solider Weapon project.
Singapore Technologies Kinetics developed its 5.56 mm Sar 21 bullpup design in the late 1990s for the Singapore Armed Forces. As is common in most modern designs extensive use is made of composite materials and high-strength plastic to reduce weight. In the standard model a x1.5 optical sight is integrated in the carrying handle and an infrared dot or visible red dot can be mounted in the hand-guard at the customer's request. Variants include the Sar 21 sharpshooter with a x3 sight, Sar 21 P-rail with the standard sight mount replaced by a MIL-STD-1913 rail, the Sar 21 Modular which incorporates a top rail and also side and bottom rails in place of the standard forestock, the Sar 21 GL which can mount the Singapore Technologies single-shot Cis 40GL 40 mm grenade launcher or the M203 and an LMG with a heavier barrel and bipod.
South Africa's Denel Land Systems unveiled its 5.56 mm CR 21 (for Compact Rifle for the 21st Century) bullpup weapon ten years ago in anticipation of a South African National Defence Force requirement to replace its Vektor 5.56 mm R4 and R5 assault rifles. However, Denel suspended the project when it became clear the South African forces did not have enough money to acquire a new weapon. Instead, they are defining the requirements for an upgrade to the R4 and Denel will no doubt leverage some of its CR 21 development work for use on this project.
In September 2006 the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a possible arms sale to the government of Iraq that includes 50,750 M16A2s, 50,750 M4 carbines and 35,437,500 5.56 mm rounds. This will begin the transition away from the Soviet-era 7.62 mm AK small arms series.
The Soviet-designed 7.62 x 39 mm AK series, and its many license-produced and pirate copies, remains the most widely used rifle globally in spite of the fact that the Russian Army fielded the 5.45 x 39 mm AK-74 from the mid-1970s as a replacement. A new 5.45 mm design, classified as the Avtomat Nikonova 94 (AN94) in 1994, was intended as the replacement for the interim AK-74 range but has yet to go into series production because of Russia's budget constraints. A novel feature of the rifle is its two-round capability with a cyclic rate of 1800 rds/min as a means to minimise dispersion and ensure the incapacitation of soldiers wearing combat body armour. On full automatic the rifle has a rate of fire of 600 rds/min. The Izhevsk Arms Factory, selected to produce the AN-94, offers the Kalashnikov 'hundred' series consisting of five baseline versions: 5.56 mm Nato calibre AK-101 and Nato 7.62 mm AK103 assault rifles, the 5.56 mm Nato AK102, Russian 7.62 mm AK104 and the 5.45 mm AK105 'short assault rifles'. As yet, there are no major buyers for the new Century Arms series.
Several armies have modernised, or plan to modernise, their existing 5.56 mm weapons in parallel with 'future soldier' projects. In late 2006 the Netherlands announced plans to upgrade 30,000 of the 50,680 C7 series rifles and 1400 C8 series carbines that Colt Canada delivered in the mid-1990s. The company is undertaking an extensive modernisation of the Canadian Army's C7/C8 families. In early 2006 HK formally completed a five-year, 112 million [pounds sterling] upgrade of the 5.56 mm SA80 small arms family when the last of 178,000 rifles and 12,000 Light Support Weapons were formally handed over to the British Ministry of Defence. In 1995 HK, then owned by BAE Systems, was asked to examine improvements to the L85A1 rifle and the L86A1 LSW, which had been plagued with reliability problems since entering service in the late 1980s. Although the only noticeable external difference on the A2 standard weapons is a larger cocking handle the weapons have been extensively rebuilt with many of the internal working parts replaced with redesigned components of superior quality material. The L85A2/ L86A2 are expected to remain in British service until about 2020 and will thus be incorporated in the Future Integrated Soldier Technology system.
France's Nexter produced approximately 400,000 5.56 mm Famas F1 bullpup rifles for the French Army and export customers Djibouti, Gabon, Senegal and the United Arab Emirates. The design is one of the few bullpups that does not incorporate an optical sight as a standard feature. Production was superseded in the mid-1990s by the Famas G2 (for second generation) which, although intended primarily for the export market, was bought by the French Navy. Instead of the 25-round magazines used with the F1 the G2 accepts 30-round magazines compliant with Nato Stanag 4179. Nexter is upgrading the French Army's Famas rifles as part of the Fantassin a Equipement et Liaisons Integrees (Felin) soldier system developed by Sagem and currently being delivered to the French Army. As a first stage Nexter is converting 19,000 rifles to the low-profile configuration, enabling the weapons to accept a variety of optical devices. The full Felin configuration incorporates a man-machine interface, a second grip and a new day/night sight.