June 21, 2005
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By Philip A. Quigley
Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series of articles on current and future U.S. military combat gear from the perspective of the needs of the grunts.
Throughout history, generations of infantrymen have been defined by the weapons of their trade.
Fortunately for today's soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are about to inherit a true rifle for 21st century warfare: the XM-8.
First, some background: For World War I soldiers, their rifle was the flawed Springfield 1903, with its delicate sights and poor ergonomics. The World War II and Korean War infantryman had his trusty and reliable M-1 Garand, one of the first gas-operated semi-automatic infantry rifles. Vietnam veterans had one of the best rifles conceived for the infantrymen and one of the worst – the venerable M-14 and the M-16A1, respectively. The M-14 was a well-liked battle rifle. It was accurate: the standard Marine infantryman could reliably hit targets out to 500 yards and more. The M-14 was a man-stopper. With its new 7.62mm NATO (.308 Winchester round) shooters could effectively hit and eliminate the enemy, and since the rifle was magazine-fed and the round weighed less than the .30-06., each rifleman could carry more ammunition than his World War II counterpart.
Then came the M-16A1. Vietnam veterans groan in disgust at the memory of this deeply flawed rifle. Those who served since then in places like Grenada, Panama, Operation Desert Storm, the Balkans and our two ongoing conflicts should groan as well.
In its original configuration, the M-16A1 had three settings: safe, semi-automatic, and full automatic.
The Pentagon brass decided the average infantryman would waste ammunition in high-stress firefights, so they decided to do away with the automatic mode and reconfigured the M-16A1 for “burst” instead of full automatic. This weapon had good, bad and ugly features. The good was that the rifle was magazine-fed and the standard infantryman could carry far more ammunition than a rifleman armed with the M-14. The bad was that it fired a .223 caliber round that had poor man-stopping abilities (the high-velocity, low-mass round often went clear through the target without knocking him down or incapacitating him). Then the ugly: The M-16A1 was prone to jamming due to early ammunition problems and as a result it required high maintenance in the field to ensure proper reliability.
After several years of controversy, the Army came out with the M-16A2 version, which fixed the M-16's ammunition problems. Designers added a chrome-lined barrel and chamber, reconfigured the magazine to increase its capacity, and permanently configured the rifle for safe, semi-automatic and burst modes.
Today's generation of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan currently equipped operate this weapon in many configurations, from the flattop A3 configuration with its removable carry handle (to allow the use of sniper-style optics); the A4 configuration with a removable carry handle and Rail Interface System (RIS) Picatinny mounting rails for weapon-mounted lasers, lights and reflex optics. Finally, there is the ever-popular M-4A1 carbine version of the M-16, which serves as the Personal Defense Weapon (PDW) for support personnel and as a combat weapon for Special Operations Command (SOCOM) troops using the SOPMOD M4 (Special Operations Modification M4) kit with various combat refinements and accessories.
But the refinements to the current variants of the M-16A2 battle rifle have not overcome its inherent design weaknesses, including:
* It still uses a complicated gas-system and requires high maintenance in the field.
* Sand, dirt, water, and crud will almost always cause the weapon to jam or fail to feed (just ask the survivors of the 507th Maintenance Co. from Operation Iraqi Freedom).
* Adding multiple tactical accessories makes the rifle too heavy.
* It is complicated to zero the factory sights, and even more difficult to zero laser sights and optics.
Lastly, the rifle is not ambidextrous. Left-handed shooters have no choice but to learn how to fire the weapon from a right-handed stance.
And don't get me started on the 5.56mm NATO round (I'll save that topic for another article).
Of numerous options under study to replace the aging M-16, the most promising is the newly developed Alliant Techsystems Corporation (ATK) and Heckler & Koch (H&K) team venture, the 5.56mm NATO XM-8 Lightweight Assault Rifle.
Prototype XM-8 infantry rifle with PEQ-4 infrared (IR) laser target illuminator
The XM-8 was initiated in 2002 as a spin-off of the XM-29 Objective Individual Combat Weapon (OICW) program, which had started in 1986 after the Army Infantry School at Fort Benning decided the “modernized” soldier needed a weapons system that could be modified and optimized for various combat situations.
In 1989, the Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) published the “Small Arms Master Plan” researched and written by the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC). The document concluded that the future infantry weapon must “utilize the latest developments in computers and visual technologies, as well as in the small arms, and combine both high explosive warheads and traditional bullets fire capabilities in a single weapon, that should be fielded circa 2000.”
Thus far, the XM-8 fits these qualifications in spades, although sadly, it is still chambered in 5.56mm NATO. (More grinding and gnashing of teeth by infantrymen past and present.)
The central issue, however, is this: The XM-8 was designed and built with the full participation of the U.S. Army Infantry Center – for the Army, a truly revolutionary step. As of Jan. 3, 2005, the U.S.-based joint venture between ATK and H&K to manufacture and deliver the 5.56mm NATO XM-8 Lightweight Modular Carbine System has been underway.
The XM-8 is similar to the H&K G36 Assault Rifle and is similar to that rifle in design and functioning. It has a semi-automatic action, with a fully-automatic version designated as the replacement for the M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW). The XM-8 features a short piston stroke, gas-operated action, with rotating locking bolt. Barrels are quickly detachable, and will be available in several sizes, ranging from 9.5 inches for the crewman/PDW version, a 12.5-inch barrel for the standard infantry version, and two different 20-inch barrels (one for the sharpshooter/sniper version and a heavier barrel assembly with built-in bipod for the SAW role). The entire construction is modular and built around the polymer receiver with bolt group.
Likewise, the rifle's magazine housing are designed for modularity and compatibility with the various types of rifle models. They range from a standard plastic 30-round magazine that can be clipped to the side of other 30-round magazines to provide the shooter with multiple magazines at his disposal; to the 100-round Beta C-Mag dual drum setup for the SAW version.
Also, various shoulder stocks can be installed in seconds for different combat roles. The standard shoulder stock is a telescoping six-position adjustable stock. There is also a metal retractable stock for the PDW variant, and also a fixed stock for the sharpshooter/sniper variant.
The receiver is fitted with a proprietary sight rail/carry handle, with a 1/1 Integrated Sighting Module (ISM) made by Brashear (the 1/1 means there is no magnification on this optic). The ISM is designed for the standard, compact carbine, and PDW configurations, but not the sharpshooter/sniper or SAW variants. The optic is a battery-powered red-dot reflex sight that is designed for the operator to use both eyes open for quick target acquisition.
The ISM has a built-in ranging reticle, infrared (IR) laser pointer, and IR target illuminator. Also, each XM-8 comes factory zeroed at 300 meters (damn metric system), saving the soldier valuable training and weapons maintenance time. The sharpshooter/sniper version comes with a 4X Advanced Magnified Optic. The sight has the same built-in ranging reticle, IR laser pointer, and IR target illuminator as the ISM, but has 4X magnification.
The XM-8 in all its variations comes complete with Picatinny Components Attachment Points (PCAP), so the operator can mount the M-8X Tactical Illuminator flashlight made by Surefire and other similar tactical devices. The fore-end can be removed to accommodate the XM-320 40mm grenade launcher module or the C-More Modular Assault Shotgun System compact 12-gauge semi-automatic, magazine-fed shotgun.
Unlike the M-16, the XM-8 requires little cleaning, due to its newly designed interior system that doesn't blow gases back into the receiver and their carbon-fouling elements into the receiver during firing. Instead, about 90 percent of the gases created during firing are vented through a gas port under the front of the barrel; the other 10 percent are used to cycle the weapon. This new design reduces average cleaning time from the 12-minute average for the M-16 to about four minutes. Also, the XM-8's gas system enables the rifle to properly function even if the action has been filled with sand, dirt, water and crud.
And left-handed shooters rejoice: the XM-8 it is ambidextrous.
Accessories for the XM-8 include the Camillus-made bayonet with sharpening stone, multiple position mounting sheath for MOLLE gear, and a removable wire cutter. Also, Otis Technology, Inc. is making the cleaning kit complete with bore brushes, a bore snake, CLP lubricant, and a lens brush/cleaner.
I like what I am hearing thus far about the new rifle system.
From my experiences, what a soldier in the field needs is an adept weapon that is lightweight, easily maintained, accurate, and dependable.
Yes, the XM-8 has a lot of bells and whistles, but in current combat operations heavily oriented toward nighttime raids and fighting, and increasingly taking place in urbanized settings or in adverse terrain and weather conditions, some of those bells and whistles seem essential.
All in all, the XM-8 has much potential. It is now being tested by the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center and being fielded at the National Training Center and U.S. Army Infantry Center, among others.
If this rifle lives up to its potential, the U.S. armed forces will soon have a new weapons system for the grunts to fight with that is a marked improvement over the flawed M-16 with which they have long struggled.
The next step, of course, is for the average grunt to field it and put his stamp of approval on it. If all goes well, the troops should see it in their unit armories as early as 2008.
DefenseWatch Contributing Editor Philip A. Quigley Jr. served as an enlisted Marine combat scout during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is pursuing a post-military goal of writing about contemporary defense issues. He can be reached at HawkmanPQ@aol.com . Send Feedback responses to firstname.lastname@example.org .