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Army 3-Star: Potent New Auto Rifle Just for Close-Combat Troops

A Soldier assigned to B Co., 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division with a M249 light machine gun charges forward during small arms training at Smardan Training Area, Romania, July 5, 2018. (U.S Army/ Sgt. 1st Class Robert Jordan)
A Soldier assigned to B Co., 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division with a M249 light machine gun charges forward during small arms training at Smardan Training Area, Romania, July 5, 2018. (U.S Army/ Sgt. 1st Class Robert Jordan)

The Army wants to start fielding its Next Generation Squad Automatic Rifle as early as 2022, but the Cold War-era M249 Squad Automatic Weapon could remain in the arsenal for decades to come.

Army weapons officials recently awarded contracts to five firms to develop prototypes of the NGSAR. It will have to be five pounds lighter than the full-size M249 and fire ammo that's lighter and more potent than the service's current 5.56mm round.

But "this is not for every soldier," Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, principal military deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, told Military.com on Wednesday. "We are looking at it for 100,000 close-combat soldiers."

Right now, the NGSAR program -- a top priority for the Soldier Lethality cross-functional team -- is on target to be ready for initial fielding beginning in late 2022 or early 2023 at the latest, Ostrowski said.

One of the challenges facing manufacturers is the requirement for ammo that's more potent than the M855A1 5.56mm Enhanced Performance round and 20 percent lighter than traditional brass-cased ammunition.

Last year, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told Congress that the M855A1 will not defeat enemy body armor plates similar to the U.S. military-issued Enhanced Small Arms Protective Insert, or ESAPI.

"We know that the 5.56mm is not going to be the round of the future because we have issues associated with adversaries' body armor," Ostrowski said.

The solution will likely be a cartridge that uses lighter material than brass for the casing.

Textron has been working for more than a decade on next-generation light machine guns that fire polymer case-telescoped ammunition in its Lightweight Small Arms Technology program.

Other companies have found that standard cartridge designs made completely from polymer are not strong enough and are prone to damage during the extraction process. One solution has been to use brass at the base and polymer for the majority of the case.

"Some will probably come with a polymer case that looks just like a current 5.56mm round except there won't be as much brass; some will come with a polymer case that is of the non-traditional form ... We don't know. We are allowing [companies] to make that decision," Ostrowski said.

"We have given them our priorities and said 'innovate,' and these companies are doing it," he added.

The NGSAR prototypes are scheduled to be delivered by early next summer. From there, Army officials plan to evaluate the designs and refine the service's requirement for the new weapon. Companies will then compete to make the NGSAR for the Army.

Soldiers in non-combat arms units will likely continue to use standard 5.56mm weapons such as the M4 and the M249, Ostrowski said.

"Our 5.56mm is going to be in our inventory for a long time," he said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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