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Infantry support weapons in an era of uncertainty; armies and manufacturers ponder weapons needs.

Infantry Support Weapons in an Era of Uncertainty

Modern infantrymen need more than rifles, machine-guns, and hand grenades to overwhelm their combat enemies. Providing infantry with support firepower is a long-standing concern, but the post-1945 proliferation of armored fighting vehicles and artillery systems for delivering bursting munitions makes the infantryman's job more dangerous and difficult. Today appropriate support weapons are still essential.

As occupiers of captured enemy territory and defenders of friendly turf, infantrymen need man-portable support weapons, beyond their customary personal arms, that permit defeat of contemporary battlefield targets.

Such infantry support weapons pose unique problems for developers and users. First, participants in the acquisition process need to know the targets infantrymen are likely to encounter. Second, infantry support weapons intended to be used by smaller tactical units (squads and sections), especially in low-intensity conflicts (LIC), must be man-portable, because in combat operations, despite the peacetime promises of staff officers, heavier support weapons are often in the wrong location when needed. Third, ammunition and its packaging must be of a practical weight so that fighters can carry their own supply.

Stated differently, men of small fighting units have their own organic supporting weapons/ammunition, because they cannot gamble their lives on other organizations for heavy weapons support. If they do they will generally discover that the hardware is elsewhere when needed. Combat threats facing infantrymen (targets to be destroyed) may have changed during the last 90 years, but basic support weapon issues have not. The key to the puzzle is provision of effective firepower that can be used and moved by men on foot.

The Threat

Defining the targets infantry units are likely to encounter on future battlefields continues to be a difficult task. In the era of massive ground force deterrence in Europe (1945-1989), most war-fighting organizations (such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact) planned for the worst. Thus from the 1960s to the 1980s, US Army planners saw their infantry forces, riding aboard combat vehicles, fighting alongside 50 to 60-tonne main battle tanks to counter similar forces attacking from the East. Soviet military thinkers viewed their problem in a similar fashion. Their infantry forces would accompany armored units to engage NATO units.

While a grand clash between NATO and Warsaw Pact ground forces never materialized, actual fighting elsewhere, during the era of deterrence, revealed a very different scenario. From the Falklands to Grenada, from Angola to Panama, real wars of the post-1945 era have generally been fought with "light" as opposed to "heavy" ground forces. Although in the aftermath of the "Revolution of 1989" commanders of NATO and Warsaw Pact armies still may be slow to change their doctrinal mindset, the challenges facing them have altered significantly.

The Weapons

Infantrymen in low-intensity conflicts have found need for several types of support weapons to supplement their personal weapons:

* Heavy caliber machine-guns (12.7 mm to 15.5 mm) for direct fire against enemy emplacements and utility to lightly armored vehicles.

* Heavy caliber sniper rifles (12.7 mm to 14.5 mm) for long-distance precision fire against enemy communications, electronic and other high-value equipment.

* Bursting munitions systems for use against exposed or lightly protected enemy forces at ranges between that of the farthest reach of the hand grenade (30-40 meters) and the middle range of smaller caliber mortars (300-400 meters).

* Shoulder-fired anti-armor/anti-bunker systems for use against heavier armored vehicles.

There are existing systems and also developmental items for each of these categories. Until recently infantry support weapon development and acquisition were moving fairly rapidly. But this may slow as a consequence of all the political changes of the past year. Thus, the extent of difference between a 1990 and year 2000 arsenal of support weapons might not be as great as anticipated just 12 months ago. The following look at support weapons summarizes the present status and reflects on possible changes.

Heavy Machine-Guns

Unlike their 5.56/5.45 mm and 7.62 mm counterparts (having effective ranges between 600 and 1000 meters) 12.7 mm (.50 caliber) and larger machine-guns can be used with lethal effect at ranges out to 1500 meters. Until the 1970s, there were only two 12.7 mm ground machine-guns used world-wide; the 12.7 X 99 mm US M2 Heavy Barrel Browning Machine-Gun (M2 HB) and the 12.7 X 108 mm Degtyarev-Shpagin Heavy Machine-Gun (DShK38 and the modernized DShKM). Over a 68-year period over two million Browning guns were built, while about half that many DShKs have been made since 1938. Browning's gunis employed by at least 82 armies and DShKs serve with some 53. As with rifle caliber machine-guns, it is not uncommon to find both US and Soviet 12.7 mm guns employed in some ground forces, especially where there has been a recent power or client-provider relationship change.

Most commonly, 12.7 mm and larger caliber machine-guns are mounted on tanks as coaxial and flexible weapons, and on various other vehicles as support weapons. Less frequently, because they are so heavy (38 kg for the M2 HB and 36 kg for the DShKM guns alone), they are used on ground mounts to support infantry movements.

Both the Browning and Degtyarev-Shpagin machine-guns are quite powerful and reliable weapons, but good performance and life expectancy were bought at the price of extra weight. As far back as 1938, American ordinance officials tested lighter versions of the 12.7 mm Browning machine-gun for infantry use. Due to the modified gun's weight (complete it weighed 48.6 kg) it was still too heavy for most foot soldier applications. Recently, manufacturers in several countries have reexamined the idea of lighter 12.7 mm machine-guns.

In the United States, impetus derived from appearance of Light Infantry Divisions and increased concern about tailoring forces to fight in a LIC environment, led both Saco Defense Inc. and RAMO Manufacturing Inc. to create lighter models of Browning's M2 HB machine-gun. Saco's "Fifty/.50" weighs 25 kg; RAMO's lightened gun tips the scales at 26.72 kg. To date neither has been sold in significant numbers.

While DShKMs continue to be built by the People's Republic of China (Type 54) and by Pakistan's Ordnance Factory, the Soviets have switched to the 12.7 mm NSV machine-gun. As with Browning M2s, DShKs mounted on vehicles were no problem, but they were too heavy for the infantry. When used as ground guns they were either mounted on a wheeled mount or on a heavy tripod. The Soviet Union's search for a lighter weapon embodying sheet metal stampings in place of machined assemblies, led to a gun designed by a team consisting of G.I.Nikitin, Yu. M. Sokolov, and V.I.Volkov.N Nikitin, and Sokolov had worked with M.T.Kalashikov on his PK general purpose machine-gun. As a result, their NSV 12.7 mm machine-gun has many features similar to ones found in Kalashnikov's GPMG.

More than 10 kg Lighter than a DShKM, the NSV has been made since the early 1970s in both tank and infantry models. The infantry NSV on its tripod weighs just under 43 kg. While still far from light, it is a weapon system that can be hand-carried by a small team of men. Soviet doctrine specifies that two men will move it from one firing position to another. A special two-man sling-type carrying system has been created to facilitate its use as an infantry support weapon.

Weight reduction was achieved by elimination of such elements as the DShK's barrel cooling rings. Resultant weight of the 12.7 mm NSV machine-gun brings it within a few kilograms of the goal weight set by the US Joint Service Small Arms Program (JSSAP) for a light .50 caliber machine-gun.

Although the NSV has an external resemblance to the 7.62 X 54 mm R Kalashnikov (PK) GPMG, it has a totally new locking system, incorporating a side sliding breech-block. The NSV ground gun is fired on the Stepanov-Baryshev 6T7 tripod, its trigger group, cocking mechanism and shoulder stock being integral to a separate cradle. In the infantry role it employs mechanical sights (graduated in 100-meter increments from 400 to 2000; DShKM sights go from 0 to 3300). A x3 to 6 variable power, illuminated reticle telescopic sight may also be used, and the reticle has a distance scale to assist range estimation. The 12.7 mm NSV gun reportedly has the reliability and durability of the DShK series.

Engineers in the People's Republic of China developed the Type 77 as a light 12.7 mm infantry gun. Weighing only 58 kg on its tripod, it has a considerably modified DShK locking system, while its tube-type gas operating system is similar in concept to Sweden's Ljungman and America's M16 rifles.

This system cut weight by eliminating the piston rod assembly. But by decreasing the weight of the reciprocating components there was a slight rise in rate of fire; about 100 more shots per minute than a DShKM. Furthermore, weight was trimmed by making longitudinal flutes in the barrel's exterior. To compensate for the gun's reduced weight, and to control movement during firing, a recoil brake was added. This device also decreased the muzzle flash so distinctive of 12.7 X 108 mm machine-guns.

Unlike the DShKM, with its fixed barrel, Type 77 and NSV guns have quick-change barrels. The Type 77's non-optical rear sight is graduated in 100-meter steps from 0 to 2400. A x 2-power illuminated reticle optical anti-aircraft sight is also available. The modified Type 85 has a shorter receiver for mounting inside vehicles. Both guns are intended for export as well as for domestic use.

Despite the availability of more powerful, and heavier, 14.5 X 114 mm Soviet KPV (49.1 kg for gun alone) and Fabrique Nationale 1.5 X 106 mm BRG (40 kg) machine-guns, many armed forces know that 12.7 mm weapons still have an important place on the battlefield. It is significant that Soviet and Chinese armies intend to employ 12.7 mm weapons as infantry support guns. Given increased demand for such weapons and a desire to export, we may see these new these new-generation Soviet and Chinese heavy machine-guns more frequently. As improvements are made in 12.7 X 108 mm ammunition - for example, the Chinese Saboted Light Armor Penetrator-type (SLAP) armor-piercing projective - we shall see extended field life for these weapons.

In the West, similar important technical advances in 12.7 mm ammunition are coming. Examples are the 12.7 X 99 mm Saboted Light Armor Penetrator (SLAP) developed by Olin Corporation in the United States and Norway's Raufoss A/S Multipurpose (MP) high explosive projectile. The latter was standardized by the US Navy as the MK211, MOD 0 Armor-Piercing Incendiary cartridge.

After a nearly 11-year struggle, the .50 caliber (12.7 mm) SLAP in both armor-piercing (XM903) and armor-piercing tracer (XM962) are nearing standardization by the US Marine Corps. Although performance details are classified, it is known that these high velocity (ca. 1250 m/s) long-range (ca. 2000 meters) tungsten sub-caliber projectiles have greatly superior armor-piercing performance compared to that of existing AP projectiles, thus making them effective against targets such as the Soviet BMP.

12.7 mm Sniper Rifles

Special Applications Sniper Rifles (SASR) for long-range sniping are a spin-off of ammunition improvement projects. Rifles of this caliber class are not new, but current applications are. Early in World War II, such 12.7 mm to 15 mm anti-armor weapons soon became obsolete when AFV armor thickness exceeded the penetrating capacity of their projectiles. Wartime Soviet 14.5 X 114 mm PTRD and PTRS anti-tank rifles have been used in recent wars to good effect against APCs by various "liberation" movements, but both have limited capabilities because they lack optical sights. In the 1980s there was a renaissance of 12.7 X 99 mm sniper rifles, especially when coupled with MP projectiles, because they could defeat expensive [C.sup.3.I] equipment. Although international agreements preclude intentionally shooting personnel with 12.7 mm weapons there is likely to be a temptation to do so in the heat of combat.

Darlings of special operations forces, SASRs are mostly manufactured by small specialty gun companies that struggle from contract to contract. The first gun of this type to see use in the US Special Operations community was the Model 500, which was manufactured at first by Jerry Haskins, a well-known American designer of high quality hunting rifles. After passing through "production" at several firms, 12.7 X 99 mm, 12.7 X 108 mm and 14.5 X 114 mm models of this single-shot weapon (now lighter, and called the Model 600) are being offered by Redick Arms Development Company of Rogers, Arkansas.

It was being made by the Daisy Manufacturing Company, Inc., but the 12.7 X 99 mm Model 600 lost a cost competition for an American special operations follow-on procurement tranche to the M-88 .50 caliber SASR built by G. McMillan & Company, Inc. of Phoenix, Arizona. These two rifles have also competed internationally against the 11-shot self-loading "Light Fifty" M82A1 SASR made by Barrett Manufacturing Company, Inc. of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. While the latter can deliver greater firepower than its single-shot rivals, it tends to be less accurate at extreme ranges (1000 to 1500 meters). All 12.7 mm SASR are in the same approximate weight class: about 14.5 kg.

Steyr-Mannlicher of Austria introduced a mock-up of their Project 5075 Anti-Materiel Rifle late in 1989. This 20 kg 5-shot self-loading weapon will fire a 36-gram saboted fin-stabilized projectile at 1500 m/s out of a 15 mm smoothbore barrel from a proprietary plastic cartridge. As with the Barrett "Light Fifty" SASR, the Steyr AMR has a long recoil-operating mechanism. Steyr predicts that their projectile will penetrate 40 mm of armor at 800 meters, and that it will have an effective range between 1500 and 2000 meters. For all large bore SASRs, the key to optimum effectiveness is the sighting system, an element in all existing models that must be given additional attention.

Grenades and Grenade-Launchers

More and more military organizations are specifying infantry munitions that are more effective than conventional bullets. Increasingly, such forces are turning to bursting munition systems as the answer for attacking exposed or lightly protected enemy forces. During the 1970s and 1980s, 40 X 46 mm SR cartridge grenade-launchers gained popularity as support weapons because they filled the gap between hand grenades and small caliber mortars. In the process they replaced an older generation of rifle-launched grenades. Today more than 30 countries use the US M79 grenade- launcher, while nearly two dozen have M203s mounted on their M16 rifles.

While the United States no longer make the M79, Daewood Industries of South Korea and Rung Paisal Industry Company Limited in Thailand currently build it. Colt's Manufacturing Company, Inc., Daewoo (K202), and a Thai company make the basic M203, and a detachable version (the PI-M203) is being fabricated by RM Industries of Miami, Florida. West Germany, Norway, Uruguay and several other countries use Heckler & Koch's stand-alone HK 69 (Granatpistole 40 mm) and rifle-mounted HK 79 launchers. Other weapons using the 40 X 46 mm cartridge include one from Argentina, the CIS-40-GL made by Chartered Industries of Singapore and single and six-shot launchers sold by Armscor of South Africa.

Poor fuzing of American-made 40 mm ammunition has always plagued users of these launchers. The failure-to-explode rate with American 40 mm grenades often exceeds 40%. This shortcoming led the Bundeswehr to underwrite development of the DM91 40 mm cartridge by Diehl of West Germany, which has a time-delayed self destruct element in the fuze. If the fuze fails on impact, it will detonate after 8 seconds. Other non-US sources of 40 mm ammunition include ARGES of Austria and Korea Explosives Company, Ltd. of South Korea.

In the mid-1970s, Soviet forces introduced a 40 mm grenade-launcher attachment (BG-15) for the 5.45 mm AK74 and AKS74 assault rifles. Inspired by American success with the M203 launcher, their device employs two types of pre-rifled caseless HE fragmenting munition that contain the launching charge in its base. The BG-15 has a maximum range of 400 meters, and an effective range of about half that.

From the soldier's perspective the necessity for a special launcher was the greatest shortcoming of 40 mm grenade cartridges. Only a man with the launcher could fire grenades, and when his ammunition was expended his launcher was dead weight. After several years in limbo, renewed emphasis has been given to rifle grenades.

The first of the new-generation rifle grenades were a family of 35 mm to 40 mm Bullet Trap Rifle Grenades (BTRG) developed by MECAR of Belgium. BTRGs allow riflemen to launch grenades with standard ball cartridges instead of requiring use of a special blank cartridge. The bullet trap, an alloy plug in the launch tube, halts the projectile before it reaches the explosive payload. When NATO standardized the exterior diameter of rifle muzzle devices at 22 mm, grenade makers could develop families of grenades launched from the muzzle of any modern rifle. In recent years, MECAR has made major sales of its BTRGs to a number of countries such as Israel and Indonesia.

Success with MECAR's grenades led Israeli Military Industries (IMI) to develop their own family of BTRG munitions, which on average are heavier than either MECAR's or Luchaire's. Greater weight allows IMI grenades to deliver larger payloads to the target, but the tradeoff is heavier recoil impulses to the rifle.

As an alternative to the BTRG approach, Fabrique Nationale of Belgium in the mid-1980s created their TELGREN (telescoping rifle grenade) that allows a bullet to pass through a hole in the warhead. Also, the launch tube, manually extended before firing (290 mm overall), retracts into its pre-firing position (190 mm) upon launch to provide additional fragments when the HE charge detonates. FN may have entered the market too late for the TELGREN to be favorably considered by the US military.

The US Marine Corps has been studying BTRGs since 1987. Just as the Marines expect to complete their evaluation by the end of 1990, the US Army is gearing up for a similar study (Advanced Rifle Grenade Munitions-ARGM) that is funded ($1.09 million) through the Congressionally mandated "soldier/marine enhancement program". All parties agree that BTRGs show promise, and the trick is to get them to the troops before they disappear into a bureaucratic "black hole".

The 40X53 mm high velocity MK19 MOD 3 grenade-launching machine-gun (GLMG) is a project so jeopardized. Started in 1966, the MK19 program has gone through many twists and turns since. Over 800 MOD 0s were built and used during the Vietnam war. Some 600 MOD 1s were sent to Israel during the October 1973 war. Changes derived from combat experience led to the MOD 3, which the Marine Corps requested for its troops in 1982. Initial MOD 3s were built at the Naval Ordnance Station in Louisville, Kentucky. Since 1983 Saco Defense Inc. has been the prime contractor.

A number of problems have plagued the MK19 program (manufacturing and performance), but user enthusiasm has never faltered. Although US Army light forces and all USMC requirements will be fulfilled, further Army acquisition of MK19s was terminated as part of the Cheney budget outback. The Marines will receive about 2800 MK19s by the end of FY92, and the Army will get about 4200, which is less than half the number originally called for. Reportedly this will save $130 million between 1991 and 1994.

From the start, the MK19 has been viewed as a major means of improving infantry firepower. At 34 kg it is 4 kg lighter than a M2 Browning machine-gun. It can launch high Explosive Dual Purpose (HEDP) grenades against targets as far away as 2200 meters. In addition to delivering antipersonnel fragments, the M430 HEDP projectile's shaped-charge element can defeat all armor of the Soviet BMP-1 AFV.

The US JSSAP has plans to develop a lightweight mount (14 to 16 kg) to enhance the MK19's utility as a foot soldier's weapon. It also has been suggested that the pre-World War II machine-gun cart be revived as a means of moving the MK19 and its ammunition in combat. Individual 40 mm rounds weigh nearly 3 times that of single 12.7 X 99 mm cartridges, with each 25-round box weighing 10 kg.

Because there is strong worldwide interest in a 40 mm GLMG that Saco has not been able to satisfy to date, Chartered Industries of Singapore is now offering its C1540 AGL version. This weighs 33 kg and has a rate of fire of 325-375 shots per minute. In addition, Empresa Nacional Santa Barbara de Industrias Militares of Spain recently introduced their AGL-40 GLMG which weighs only 28 kg, plus 15 kg for its mount. The AGL-40's 220 shot per minute rate of fire is slower than the 375 s.p.m. of the MK19.

In the mid-1970s the Soviets began fielding their own GLMG, the 30X29 mm AGS-17. Although the gun weighs only 18 kg, the complete system is 53 kg. It has a maximum range of about 1750 meters. The Chinese have made a few copies of the AGS-17 and the MK19 MOD 3 GLMGs to test alongside their domestic 35 mm Type W87 automatic launcher. Trials were scheduled for summer 1989, but no information on their outcome has been released.

In the United States there may be new grenade systems down the road. Developmental work continues by two contractors (Battle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio and CAMDEC of Tustin, California) as part of the JSSAP-funded Grenade-Launcher Fighting System (GLFS), which is intended to create shoulder-fired weapons that will rival the MK19-type systems in range and performance. Likewise, JSSAP R & D contracts soon to be let for the Advanced Crew-Served Weapon System (ACSW) project could address improved grenade munitions as well.

Rocket-Launched Munitions

Although there is less and less expectation that infantrymen will defeat main battle-tanks with manportable shoulder-fired rocket systems, such weapons can be effectively used against other low-intensity conflict battlefield targets. During the 1970s and 1980s a wide variety of shoulder-fired rocket systems were developed to "up-gun" the technological capacity of such old timers as the US 66 mm M72 LAW family and the Soviet 40/85 mm RPG-7 launchers. As applique, explosive reactive and other improved tank armors appeared, these shoulder-fired weapons became viewed more and more as systems to defeat enemy field fortifications and improvised urban shelters. For example, the 89 mm warhead of Luchaire's LRAC 89 can penetrate 1.3 meters of reinforced concrete, while Matra's 112 mm APILAS can defeat two.

Most of the larger rocket launchers fall in the 8 to 11 kg class, which makes them less suitable as a weapon in addition to the soldier's basic personal weapon. Although the smaller diameter rocket munitions (Luchaire's 58 mm WASP 58, 66 mm M72 LAWs, FFV Ordnance's 74 mm Miniman and 84 mm AT4, and the Soviet's 64 mm RPG-18) do not have the explosive power of their bigger brothers, their 2.36 to 6.7 kg weights make them more reasonable for a soldier to add one or more to his combat burden of weapons, ammunition and other equipment.

In FY90 the US Marine Corps is devoting $2 million of its $12 million Soldier/Marine Enhancement Program fund toward bringing the Brunswick Corporation Rifleman's Assault Weapon (RAW) to the point that it can finally be standardized. This rocket-powered 140 mm High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) spherical warhead is launched from a special attachment fitted on the M16 rifle. While it can reach out to 2000 meters its practical effective range is about 200 meters. The Marines intend to employ this bunker-buster in place of traditional explosive satchel charges (it can breech 305 mm of reinforced concrete). Where the latter required an individual to make up the charge, run to the wall to be breeched, ignite the fuse and then return to cover, the RAW allows riflemen to shoot this 1.27 kg explosive package straight at the target. This is the only weapon system included in the USMC Soldier/Marine Enhancement Program. The remainder of the program centers on cold weather equipment.

Recoilless Rifles

Long a favorite of many armies, these weapons usually fall into two classes; too old, or too heavy. One popular exception is FFV Ordnance's 84 mm M2/M3 Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle, which weighs 9 kg. Its munitions average 3 kg each. Recent acquisition of the M3 version by the US Army Rangers (the USMC adopted it earlier) brings the number of user countries to more than 20. In US service the M3 will replace the obsolete 90 mm M67 recoilless rifle.


Firepower support that infantrymen can carry on the battlefield is readily available, and better systems are in the offing. Technological solutions may be found that will permit still further reductions in the weight of such hardware, a key issue for men burdened with a backbreaking load. Technology is not the problem. Fighting doctrine is the sticking point.

For 40 years Western fighting doctrine has been based nearly exclusively on a clash of heavy forces. Although military planners give lip service to the idea that "low-intensity conflict continues to be the most likely form of violence", they generally see such battles being won by heavy forces after light forces have temporarily held the line. Thus we hear calls for "high-tech" materiel for LIC environments.

Technology alone does not win LIC battles. They are won by the right material at the correct juncture in time. Tanks and heavy artillery may help in LIC scenarios, but even if the "heavies" are available the eight to ten men fighting as a foot unit cannot rely upon them to fight their battle. The infantryman's effectiveness and survival will ultimately be decided by the skill with which he uses the weapons he has carried with him to his moment of truth.
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Author:Ezell, Virginia H.
Publication:Armada International
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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