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In an ongoing, concentrated effort for the past decade, small-arms modernization is nothing new in the Army. But while modernization isnt new, the outcomes continually are new technology, new and better weapon systems, updated enablers, and a continued assessment of Soldiers needs to improve lethality on the battlefield.
We are constantly working to improve the equipment we provide to our Soldiers, said Maj. Art Thomas, the Lethality Branch chief. Its important we provide decisive overmatch capability for our Soldiers on the ground against all threats in current and future environments. Our modernization efforts are focused on ensuring we maintain and increase our advantage at all levels. When it comes to our Soldiers, I want them to have the upper hand over the enemy at all times. It should never be a fair fight.
Modernization is a full-spectrum effort, of which small arms is just a part, said Matthew Walker, deputy director of the Lethality Branch.
Basically if theres something out there thats going to make a Soldier more lethal, then its our responsibility to attempt to get it, he said.
The Armys small-arms modernization effort balances performance, reliability and durability, weight, safety and affordability, Thomas said, while pursuing development and acquisition of new weapon systems as well as improvements to existing ones.
A case in point is the M4, he said, the Armys primary individual weapon. Though its been in service since 1994, it isnt the same weapon Soldiers used nearly two decades ago.
The M4 has undergone more than 90 engineering improvements since it was first fielded, Thomas said. One of the most important improvements was the addition of the Picatinny rail system, which provided a standardized platform for mounting optics and enablers that give Soldiers an edge in combat. The ability to mount day optics and laser aiming devices has allowed our Soldiers to achieve increased accuracy and lethality on the battlefield. Thanks to ongoing and continuous feedback from Soldiers across the Army, and the assessment and modernizations that followed, the M4 is a completely different weapon system today than what was fielded 18 years ago. In terms of combat effectiveness and reliability, the M4 is right where we need it to be for our Soldiers.
The weapon has had other recent changes that reflect the ongoing process of small-arms modernization.
The M4 carbine has just been upgraded to the M4A1, which gives the Soldier a weapon with a heavy barrel and a full-auto trigger, said Maj. Aron Hauquitz, lead for the Small Arms Section, Lethality Branch. The heavier barrel allows for the weapon to maintain a higher rate of fire for a longer period of time, giving Soldiers an edge in an extended firefight. The full-auto trigger allows for a better and smoother trigger in the weapon, giving Soldiers a more accurate system to engage the enemy with.
Another significant update is the medium machine gun, which Hauquitz called the main casualty-producing weapon a platoon owns extremely reliable but very heavy.
The M240B, still in use when mounted, weighs 27 pounds.
What weve had them do is replace the steel receiver with a titanium receiver and drop its weight down to 21 pounds, Hauquitz said, and then put a shorter barrel and a collapsible stock on it. It made it a lot more ergonomic, a lot more removable, but (it) retains the same reliability. So we took a really good weapon system and just made it better.
But modernization is about more than just the weapons Soldiers use.
While we continue to improve the capability of our weapons, this is only one part of the story, Thomas said.
Lethality and combat effectiveness is a function of the Soldier, weapon, enablers sights, optics, lasers, suppressors and advanced fire-control systems ammunition and training: SWEAT. In order to achieve the maximum effect, we must consider each of the elements of SWEAT. One recent example of this is the fielding of the M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round, which we have shown to have consistently superior terminal effects over the standard ball round.
When Army leaders look at modernizing weapons systems, including small arms, their enablers are also evaluated. Hauquitz cited the recent development of a fixed, 4x power optic that attaches to the M4 and M4A1.
Each enabler attached to the weapon provides an increase in capability, he said. For example, the M150 Rifle Combat Optic provides Soldiers with an increased probability to identify targets at longer ranges and an increased probability of hit at all ranges.
New or upgraded weapons and enablers, Walker said, are fielded like other equipment is across the Army as rapidly and efficiently as possible.
Changes to current systems are reviewed based on a three-tiered process that includes formal assessments by Army leaders, post-combat surveys from recently deployed Soldiers and direct reports from the field, Hauquitz said.
Ultimately, it all comes back to the Soldier.
Training is the most important component, other than the Soldier, in achieving a combat effect, Hauquitz said. Materiel solutions will never make up for a well-trained Soldier with a quality weapon in combat. Science and technology help the requirements writers to understand the art of the possible when developing the next generation of small-arms weapons.