During the Cold War the focus was on armoured warfare, but today the priority has shifted to infantry operations in urban terrain. The increased importance given to infantrymen has brought about a number of improvement programmes in order to make them more efficient and include them into the networked system through a number of future soldier programmes. While this development is mostly centred on command and control assets, the offensive system still remains the assault rifle.
On examining the various programmes it clearly appears that most base the lethality element on existing rifle models or on derivatives in which engineering is mostly conventional. Replacing current standard ammunition (the world standard being the 5.56 x 45 mm in Nato nations, with some countries still using Soviet 7.62 x 39 or 5.45 x 39 mm ammo) is a no-go issue, as it would entail excessive costs. This does not mean that the 5.56 mm calibre is the optimal solution. In Iraq it is not uncommon to meet American soldiers sporting AK-47 rifles as the 7.62 mm round is widely being considered to be more effective to penetrate both brick walls and foliage. Statistics show that most firefights take place at short range, typically less than 100 metres, which leads to the question of the validity of a high velocity round with more than 400 metres range. As current opponents seldom wear any armour protection, even the penetration notion does not justify keeping such rounds in service. The debate becomes even more heated regarding machineguns. Nevertheless, the standard calibre will quite probably remain the same for many years to come.
This does not mean that the assault rifle world is static. In the past the basic infantryman was equipped with an individual weapon equipped with iron sights but the recent affordability of image intensification (II) devices, the advent of 'red dot' sights and the increasing use of laser pointers (often in the infrared (IR) spectrum and used in conjunction with night vision goggles) have changed the scenario. The standard rifle fire control system is no longer an eyeball Mk.0, but a complex system that considerably improves accuracy and allows soldiers to fight 24 hours a day.
Everything comes at a cost, not only in terms of money, but also in weight and size. Most of such systems must be attached to the front half of the rifle, which considerably shifts the centre of gravity and thereby downgrades ergonomics. The excellent but heavy MIL-STD 1913 rail known as the Picatinny is becoming the standard interface (although a Nato working group is looking for a new lighter rail).
As no major breakthroughs are foreseen in the engineering, mechanical and ballistic fields, the current effort is focussed on producing a weapon that integrates most of the sighting items by considering the rifle as a system, thereby avoiding today's 'Christmas tree' effect.
The current main replacement programme is the US Ground Soldier System. The former XM29 Objective Individual Combat Weapon dual 20 mm and 5.56 mm calibre programme was abandoned. Essentially a semiautomatic grenade launcher with an underbarrel-mounted assault rifle/sub-carbine, it was cumbersome and heavy while 20 mm grenades ran into serious problems with their time-fusing system. The US military decided to opt for a different solution by separating the assault rifle, currently named XM8, from the grenade launcher known as the XM25, but with a calibre increased to 25 mm. However, the latest rumours reveal further doubts and the adoption of the XM8/XM25 duo is far from certain.
The US Army is looking for a nondevelopmental multi-configurable 5.56 mm modular weapon system which shall include four variants: the Special Compact (SC), the Carbine, the Designated Marksman (DM) and the Light Machine Gun (LMG). All need to function in both semiautomatic and automatic firing modes, with the LMG primary firing mode being full auto. The SC variant will provide soldiers with an enhanced close quarter battle arm with effective lethality through to 150 metres. The Carbine will be the standard issue individual combat weapon with an effective range out to 500 metres. The DM variant will provide accurate fire at longer ranges as well as offering an automatic fire capability, while the LMG variant will have a suppressive fire role up to a range of 600 metres. The SC, Carbine and DM versions should have an 80 per cent parts commonality while a 50 per cent parts commonality is required between LMG and the other variants. Different barrels will be available, each variant will include a resident multipurpose sight enabling rapid and effective engagement of stationary and moving targets, both with...