Commenter (and blogger in his own right) ExUrban Kevin asks:
The Army is looking to replace the M4/M16, (see Defense Link article here, read the whole thing) , but others seem to think the #1 priority for infantrymen should be upgraded body armor such as Dragonskin.
Which is more important to the infantry, and why?
I’d have to say that a new weapon would be the better investment. Having said that, the US is buying improved body armor. The current state of the art is known as Enhanced Small Arms Protective Inserts or ESAPI. Just this month, the Army signed a $6 billion dollar series of contracts to buy the next generation, called XSAPI. These are not the Dragon Skin vests that made such a brouhaha a couple of years ago. This is an enhancement to the ceramic plates that are inserted into a vest.
Now, as to replacing the current weapon, we’ve taken a peek at that issue before. A lot of what is going on here is political. To replace all the M-16/M-4 weapons in the inventory would cost a lot of money. When there’s a lot of money involved, Congress wants to have more involvement than might be good for the process. In addition, Congress is more than a little peeved with the way the Army has been buying small arms lately.
When the M-4 was first designed, it wasn’t thought of as a replacement for the M-16, but rather as a niche weapon for Special Forces. Congress wasn’t going to be upset by a rather small purchase. But then when people in the Army started seeing how handy the M-4 was compared to the M-16, more and more units started wanting it. Pretty soon, the Army was buying more and more M-4s. All without having a major competition open to other defense contractors. Pretty soon, we were talking real money here. Leaving aside for a minute the question of whether the M-4 was the best weapon available, there are always Congressmen who want to see a competition because they represent companies that might be able to get a piece of the pie. That alone gives the Congressmen a vested interest in seeing competition. And often, Congress has a lot to say about how the competition is structured, which has a lot to say about who wins.
While the Army insists the M-4 is a perfectly good weapon, that doesn’t mean it is the best available at a reasonable cost. There are any number of folks willing to give their opinion on what should come next. If you spend any time around gunbloggers, you’ll find out pretty quickly that there are thousands of differing opinions.
From here, we’ll work on the assumption that the M-4 should be replaced. That leaves us with a couple of options. One, we can just replace the M-4 with another 5.56mm weapon, or we can adopt a new cartridge as well. Many folks think the 5.56mm is just too small a round for modern combat. The old 7.62mm round is probably too large for a carbine, but there is a lot of interest in a 6.8mm round.
One of the big knocks against the M-16/M-4 family is that it uses a system called “direct impingement” to cycle the weapon. Gas is tapped by a small hole under the front sight, directed via a stainless steel tube, and then strikes the bolt and bolt carrier directly. This causes carbon to build up rapidly and the weapon needs frequent cleaning and judicious use of lubrication. Most semi-automatic and automatic rifles use a piston system, where the gas instead strikes a piston that drives a rod connected to the bolt to cycle the weapon. While this reduces carbon buildup, it does mean more parts and weight.
One piston powered weapon that has already seen limited use by Army Special Forces is the HK416. Instead of a whole new weapon, they’ve built an upper receiver that can be swapped out with the M-4’s existing upper and viola!, a new weapon.
It is popular, requires little new training for soldiers, and can be in production quickly. Another option would be the FN SCAR, an entirely new weapon that Special Forces is buying to replace their M-4s and HK-416s.
While the video shows the weapon in both calibers, my understanding is that currently the Special Forces are only buying the 5.56mm.
The other path would be to switch to an entirely new round, possibly the 6.8mm SPC. This option gets to be a whole lot more expensive, as you not only replace the weapons, you have to buy a bunch of new ammo as well. And, there is almost no chance that the rifle caliber would change without changing the caliber of the Squad Automatic Weapon. You’d end up having to replace all the M249s, at whatever that cost is. And no one knows what the cost would be. There’s no 6.8mm version of the SAW, and no assurances that a version would work that well. Time will tell.
So, what do you think?