The U.S. Army has issued a solicitation for a new, more powerful rifle that would replace the M4 carbine. The solicitation popped up on the FedBizOps web site on Friday, August 4th. Interested gunmakers have one month to provide a sample rifle and 210 rounds of ammunition for an Army competitive evaluation that could eventually lead to up to 50,000 rifles procured.
The solicitation states, “The Army has identified a potential gap in the capability of ground forces and infantry to penetrate body armor using existing ammunition.” The Russian Ground Forces’ new body armor, part of the Ratnik soldier equipment program can reportedly stop the equivalent of an armor piercing .30-06 caliber rifle bullet. The proliferation of ceramic body armor means that even non-state actors such as the Islamic State could some day field body armor capable of stopping high-powered bullets.
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To address the gap, the Army has announced it will purchase the “Interim Combat Service Rifle” (ICSR) which will be chambered in 7.62-millimeter, similar to the civilian .308 Winchester round. The ICSR will use the M80A1 Enhanced Performance Round (EPR). The M80A1 uses a lighter projectile with a hardened steel penetrator to penetrate advanced body armor and then fragment, causing multiple wound channels.
Moving to a new, 7.62-millimeter rifle will be a radical departure for the U.S. Army, which has used a 5.56-millimeter rifle since the mid-60s, first with the M-16, then the M-16A1, M-16A2, and now M-4 carbine. The Army used 7.62-millimeter rifles before it was convinced that the lighter weight of the smaller round had serious advantages. 7.62-millimeter ammunition weighs considerably more than 5.56-millimeter ammunition, resulting in each soldier being able to carry up to 50 percent fewer rounds. The Army now apparently believes the 5.56 round is too small to deal with current body armors.
According to a May document, the Army wants the ICSR to be capable of semiautomatic or fully-automatic fire, have either a 16 or 20-inch barrel, a collapsible buttstock, a rail for attaching lasers and optics, and weigh less than twelve pounds without an optic. As described, very few weapons could fulfill the ICSR requirement. A fully-automatic version of the civilian AR-10 rifle would be ideal—the gun would be very similar to the M4 carbine, allowing troops to transition to it more quickly. The gun most similar to the M4 is the Heckler and Koch 417 A2. The HK417 is the 7.62 version of the Marine Corps’ M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle, which serves alongside M4s in marine infantry units. Another consideration would be the Fabrique Nationale SCAR 17 rifle, also a 7.62 rifle. U.S. Army Rangers use a 5.56 caliber version of the rifle, the SCAR 16.
One interesting part of the Army’s solicitation: It asks that a suppressor be provided with any rifle submitted for consideration. The Army may be looking to follow the Marine Corps’ lead in experimenting with suppressors on the battlefield. Earlier this year hundreds of Marines were outfitted with suppressors to test how quieter weapons could enable better battlefield communication and coordination.
Is this changeup to larger, heavier rounds (and rifles) necessary? Blogger Nathaniel Fitch at The Firearm Blog doesn’t think so, and points out that the M80A1 Enhanced Performance Round doesn’t penetrate advanced body armors any better than existing 5.56 rounds. Instead, as Fitch says, the Army “seems to be banking on its yet-undescribed XM1158 ADVAP round,” technology which could be adapted to both 5.56 and 7.62 rounds. And if the tech can be adapted to the 5.56 round that fits in the Army’s M4 carbines, what’s the point of buying an entirely new rifle anyway?