During Thursday’s hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley spoke before the Senate and answered questions about the Army’s readiness and future modernization efforts. One of the concerns raised by the hearing’s members was that of the inability of current US Army small arms ammunition to penetrate current Level IV-type hard ceramic plates, such as the Army’s own E-SAPI plates. A transcript of a conversation between General Milley and Senator Angus King is given below:
King: “…One of the things we learned [from the hearing on the 18th] was that the current M4 caliber ammunition will not penetrate the newly developed body armor of our adversaries, which is to me a disaster in waiting. Your thoughts on a new weapon and how do we do the procurement in a timely and cost-effective way, and avoid some of these problems that we’ve had in the past. First do you think this is an important area of attention, and second can we pull it off in a reasonable amount of time at a reasonable cost?”
Milley: “I think yes and yes. I think it is critically important. 70% of American casualties are ground forces, typically infantry, special forces type units or units performing infantry missions, and the small arm and the other equipment to include body armor SAPI plates, and so on is critical, and we oughta be providing the very very best for our soldiers that our nation can provide. The 5.56 round, we recognize that there is a type of body armor out there that it doesn’t penetrate – we also have that body armor ourselves – and that adversarial states are actually selling that stuff on the Internet for about 250 bucks. So, yes, there’s a need, and there’s an operational need, and we think we can do it relatively quickly. The key on any of these things is not so much the rifle, it’s the bullet. It’s the ballistics of the bullet, and down at Fort Benning, we’ve done some developmental work, we think we have a solution that we know we have developed a bullet that can penetrate these new plates, so-
King: “Does this bullet require a new rifle?”
Milley: “It might, but probably not. It could, it could be chambered – the bullet can be chambered in various calibers – I don’t want to get into the technicals of ballistics, but it can be modified to 5.56, 7.62, or, uh-”
King: “Is there a possibility of an off the shelf, an existing rifle that could be an upgrade to the M4?”
Milley: “Yes. There’s several options out there.”
King: “And that would be an option, I-”
Milley: “There’s absolutely options out there.”
King: “I commend that option to you.”
Elsewhere on the Internet, there seemed to be confusion about what Milley’s statements mean – with the Army Times even claiming Fort Benning had introduced an entirely new 7.62mm armor-piercing round for the M4. In the full context of the statement, this is clearly not true. Milley is plainly referring to a new projectile design which could be manufactured in different sizes for any number of rounds – explicitly including 5.56mm. It’s entirely possible, for example, that the bullet he is referring to is an improved version of the Army’s M995 and M993 tungsten-cored armor-piercing ammunition which have been in service for over two decades. However, the context makes it seem more like the Army has developed a new variety of armor-piercing projectile which would be an improvement over the existing tungsten-cored ammunition. Later in the briefing Milley elaborated when questioned by Senator Jack Reed:
Reed: “Just one quick follow-up question with respect to small arms: To what extent if we adopt a new round would it impact the inter-operability of our relationship with NATO countries and the rounds that they have, and related to that is what would it cost us to refurbish the worldwide stockpile, which is now 5.56 and 7.62?”
Milley: “Right, and those are all part of the analysis that we’re doing down at Benning, but just to put your mind at ease a little bit, what we’ve developed is a 7.62 bullet. So, it’s not something that’s not in the inventory anywhere. We’ve developed a pretty effective round down at Fort Benning. We think that we can get that into production here in a year or two, and get that fielded out to the force. It is 7.62, not 5.56, but not everybody necessarily needs – uh – this idea that the entire Army needs the same thing all the time is not necessarily true; there are some units, some infantry units that are much more highly likely to rapidly deploy than others, and conduct close quarters combat, that we would probably want to field them with a weapon – a better grade weapon – that can penetrate this body armor that we’re talking about.
Reed: “And, uh, but would this round be inter-operable with NATO allies?”
Milley: “I, uh, I should probably owe you a specific answer – I think yes. It’s a 7.62 round, so I think the answer is “yes”, but let me get a specific ballistics answer.
Reed: “Thank you, sir.”
The proliferation of and ease of access to hard ceramic body armor is indeed a growing problem for small arms ammunition designers, but the solution is not as simple as just a “new round”. In order to penetrate such armor out to combat distances with conventional projectiles, a new caliber would have to be far, far larger and more powerful than anything currently carried by the Infantry today. Such a round – which would have to be in the .300 Remington Ultra Magnum or even larger – would be impractically large and powerful for infantry use. Therefore, other solutions must be explored, such as different core materials (e.g., tungsten or depleted uranium) or different projectile designs (e.g., flechettes).