It’s almost 3 in the morning, and I’m lying awake in bed thinking about small arms. I’m trying to put everything out of my mind so I can go to sleep and wake up in the morning, go to the range, and bring you some raw ballistic data. So of course what pops into my head is an almost complete article about just why the Army’s latest whizzbang rifle program is doomed to collapse in a heap. All I have to do is write it.
Here I am.
Let’s take things back to first principles here. A question: Why don’t we expect the proverbial Rifleman to shoot down fighter jets? They are surely a threat to him, flying high above the battlefield with the capability to deliver ordnance that could snuff out his life far more easily than a Taliban machine gunner behind the trigger of a PKM. Yet on the list of targets the Rifleman is expected to engage and destroy, fighter jets are not normally among the rest. The reason is simple: It hasn’t been very practical for a single man with a rifle to shoot down a military aircraft since the 1920s. We laugh at the Japanese Type 99’s anti-aircraft sights, and that weapon was designed in the 1930s. Of course, it would be nice for him if the Rifleman could shoot down F-15s, but such notions are, and probably ever will be, fantasy.
Machine guns of course are far lower on the totem pole of godlike ordnance than Eagles or Falcons, so our reductio ad absurdum remains incomplete without a study of those weapons, as well. Yet, machine guns themselves also far outweigh the capability inherent in the rifle and the teenager behind it. A properly positioned machine gun is not only a difficult weapon to dislodge, but a deadly accurate one as well. Long-range ambushes like those seen in Afghanistan surely reap the benefits of advance preparation: PKMs are dialed in with impacts on rocks hours or days in advance, and enjoy the support of RPG-7 warheads airbursting at their maximum range. This is heavy ordnance! And what of the rifle?
At the 2017 Association of the United States Army conference in October, I attended a presentation given by a fellow from ARDEC. He told us in the audience about a magnificent new sighting system he was working on that would allow even unskilled shooters to make hits on steel at over 1,000 meters. It was a gigantic sight, deep within the prototype stage still, and it contained a laser rangefinder, altimeter, and many other electronic devices that were coupled to a disturbed reticle that put the dot directly on the target and guaranteed a first round hit, every time. Later, I read articles about CSA Milley’s speech at the conference (which I did not attend) where he promised a “10x improvement”. Now we are faced with the NGSAR program, which promises a 1,200 meter effective range. The impression is strong that the Army brass have seen these same ARDEC sighting experiments, and have also seen LSAT demonstrations, and have put two-and-two together. Ahah! There’s our 10x improvement.
But as I think about this, I wonder: Where are these magnificent sights? If they are just around the corner for the Infantry, where are they being used elsewhere? The nearest I can find is the M1 Abrams tank, which uses a broadly similar system coupled with high velocity flechette (APFSDS) ammunition to achieve a high hit probability even when moving at high speed. Yet no snipers are using sights of this type. Wouldn’t they be first? It was, after all, many decades between the first use of magnified optics on sniper rifles and their fielding as standard issue kit for the Rifleman. The Army wants us to believe that 10x improvement is right around the corner, that the rulebook about what the Rifleman can and can’t do will soon be re-written as the power of American technological might once again breaks the very ground we stand upon. Yet, the Rifleman is almost always the last to reap these kinds of benefits. If it were right around the corner, wouldn’t it already be out there, in the field, being used by someone?
It would be nice, of course, if the Rifleman had such powerful optics that his weapon could effortlessly guide him to making a perfect killing shot against an entrenched machine gun the better part of a kilometer or more away. It would be nice if he could shoot down fighter jets, too. I certainly hope CT ammunition succeeds, and I hope advanced optics are developed, perfected, and fielded. By no means am I against this innovation. I am not against exploring it, nor testing it, nor fielding it, nor paying for all of the above with my tax dollars. Yet, if I am to believe that the US Army will in a few short years have an automatic rifle that handles like a carbine and zaps medium machine guns off the field at smallbore artillery ranges, I need to see more than some promising tests of a concept demonstrator optic. I need to see it being used by those up the food chain from the Rifleman himself. What a benefit this technology would be to snipers! If it were nearly there, just a few more years, surely they would be all over it, right? Maybe it’s not hard to imagine that, soon, they will – but how many years after that will it be until it reaches that proverbial Rifleman, and will the battlefield then be anything like the same as it is now?
We’ve seen, time and again, the Army’s hubris in product development. Hardly ever, it seems, can they be content to simply develop the next logical thing. M4A1+ (or M4A2, or whatever name you like) has been the obvious Right Answer since the mid-2000s, yet still not every Carbine in the service has an auto switch, much less an enhanced trigger, free float rail, and the rest. In that time, XM25 – itself a scaled back version of the bogglingly ambitious XM29 OICW – has been cancelled, ICSR has been cancelled, and it wouldn’t surprise me if NGSAR itself was cancelled before reasonable upgrades to the rifles already in the fleet are made.
Someday, the next big thing will happen. Futuristic optics that give the Rifleman capabilities heretofore barely dreamed of could be that big thing; it wouldn’t shock me. Yet, I have more faith that the Army has once again bitten off more than it could possibly chew, and that such optical sorcery is still decades off for the Rifleman, than I do that the Army can successfully leapfrog their regular infantry over not just those of every other nation in the world, but also our own special forces, sniper teams, and even tanks, by 2035.
And I don’t think that wishes make horses.