Jun 08, 2010 17:51 EDT
If fighting in Iraq was mostly about Close Quarters Battle, experience on the ground in Afghanistan is driving home the opposite imperative: marksmanship and lethality at range. US studies like the influential ďTaking Back the Infantry Half-KilometerĒ are driving that point home, and the trend is leading to shifts like fielding more 7.62mm M240 machine guns in place of 5.56mm M249 Minimis, and doubling the number of 7.62mm M14 EBR rifles
per infantry squad to 2.
The British are facing the exact same pressures. After a very poor start, their 5.56mm SA80/ L85 bullpup assault rifles have been improved by an H&K redesign. That may help with jamming and reliability, but it doesnít change the 5.56mm roundís fundamental ballistic characteristics, like its notable drop-off in lethality beyond 300 meters.
The Competition, and the Winner
In December 2009, The UK Ministry of Defence issued an initial GBP 1.5 million urgent operational requirements contract that would offer its troops a semi-automatic 7.62mm rifle with excellent accuracy, whose rate of fire and robustness made them usable within infantry squads, not just by specialized sniper teams. It had to demonstrate lethality in the 500-800 meter range, which is not uncommon in Afghanistan.
UK Ďsharpshooterí soldiers remain chosen men, who must complete a marksmanship course but are expected to conduct the full range of infantry tasks, and are considered a grade below sniper. Britainís new L115A3
.338/ 8.59mm sniper rifles left a lot of spare bolt-action L96s for sharpshooters to use, but that isnít a suitable choice in the kinds of firefights patrolling soldiers experience.
The winning ďL129A1Ē is gas-operated semi-automatic weapon with a 20-round magazine. Its single-piece upper receiver has free-floating, quick-change barrels available in 305 mm, 406 mm and 508 mm. The standardizing ďPicatinny RailsĒ on the top, bottom, and sides allow a wide variety of attachments, from sights to flashlights to grips, that can be replaced in the field with only basic tools. At 5 kg/ 11 pounds, itís close to the loaded weight of an SA80A2.
Janeís reports that 7.62mm competitors included H&Kís 417
, the FN-SCAR 17
used by US Special Forces, and Law Enforcement Internationalís winning LM7 design. Janeís added that Sabre Defense Industries had also entered the competition, but did not specify whether the product was a 7.62mm weapon. Sabreís weapons, like its M5
, publicly offer only 5.56mm, or 6.5mm Grendel options.
While intermediate calibers like 6.5mm Grendel and 6.8mm SPC offer far superior ballistics with the same magazines as 5.56mm weapons, the pressures of standardization have kept them out of the field. A MASS contract under Britainís long-term ammunition supply agreement may tweak the 5.56mm roundís performance, but it doesnít offer the step change required. The choice of heavier 7.62mm rifles and less ammunition carried, or 5.56mm rounds with less range and penetration but more rounds carried, remains.