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Personal infantry weapons: old weapons or new hardware in the coming decades?

Personal Infantry Weapons

Despite current shifts in world affairs, infantrymen will continue to need effective personal weapons, whether armies are engaged in peaceful deterrence, low-intensity warfare or global conflicts. Generally, infantry weapons have received only marginal attention in defense budgets, but since some 60 to 80 million assault rifles and some 8 to 11 million machine-guns have been built since the early 1950s they cannot be dismissed lightly.

Budgetary allocations for the 1990s will determine if old calibers and weapon types or new hardware will dominate personal weapons procurement in the coming decades. These decisions will not only affect the infantry's effectiveness but the small arms industry.

Given the past emphasis on heavy forces commentators have questioned the utility of such basic weapons as rifles and machine-guns. But ground warfare since 1945 demonstrates that reports of obsolescence were premature. Soldiers equipped with small arms and provided with proper training have had and will continue to have a significant impact on both low-intensity and larger scale conflicts. With the reduced likelihood of a superpower conflict in Europe, it is an appropriate time to look at the present status and future prospects for small arms.

The Falklands conflict (1982) reminded military leaders that in an age of electronic warfare, high technology weapon systems and nuclear stockpiles, decisive battles and skirmishes can still be won by relatively small groups of men equipped with the infantry rifle, general-purpose machine-gun (GPMG) and bayonet. Such individual fighters are successful when they follow the age-old infantry tactical doctrine of "closing with the enemy and destroying him by fire and manuever".

Such "British" lessons have been reinforced by US experiences in the 1983 "Urgent Fury" and the 1989 "Just Cause" operations, by French encounters in Chad, and by other armed forces that have fought local conflicts during the past four decades. Likewise, the Iran-Iraq war showed that men equipped with small caliber weapons are still essential in modern combat.

Thus, in future conflicts, military planners must anticipate a continued major role for the infantry. After a century of technological evolution, currently available kinetic energy infantry weapons represent a very mature technology in which further advances are likely to yield only marginal improvement. Such gains are likely to be purchased at a much greater unit cost. Even so, better small arms are still being sought by designers and manufacturers in order to stay in business and by the infantrymen to gain an edge on their enemy.

Three Generations

Better small arms are usually defined as ones that improve the chances of hitting the target, and into the bargain incapacitate it. Although most major armies have gone through three families of small arms since 1945 (a wartime generation, an immediate post-war 7.62 mm generation, and a current 5.56 mm/5.45 mm generation), users and developers have often approached the creation of each generation of new weapons from very different perspectives. (Exceptionally, the Bundeswehr possesses two of the three generations [World War II caliber and 7.62 x 51 mm NATO caliber] and appears to have skipped the 5.56 x 45 mm NATO caliber, so can go directly to a caseless ammunition weapon.) Infantry planners seek new ammunition/weapon systems of reduced weight and longer life expectancy (i.e., simplicity, ruggedness, reliability) on the logistic side, and of greater firepower on the performance side. Within the small arms profession, the emphasis in research and development (R&D) has generally been on creating mechanical systems that provide improved probability of hitting the target ([P.sub.h]) and greater killing power ([P.sub.k]). Because of the different approach to infantry weapon problems in most nations, there has been a lack of crossfertilization of ideas between developers and users, although this has improved in the 1980s.

"Full Power" and

"Intermediate Power"

Reviewing forty years of R&D there are some clearly discernible infantry weapons trends. First, weapons have been reduced in size and weight. Secondly, at war's end, the world's major armies employed small arms that shot "full power" ammunition ranging in caliber from 6.5 mm to 8 mm. Most of these cartridges predated the 1914-1918 war. Building on hardware created by the Wehrmacht, the Russians, British, Belgians, Americans and others sought to develop "intermediate power" cartridges ranging from 7 mm to 7.62 mm.

As the shift from "full power" to "intermediate power" weapons began, the Russians were the first to exploit the tactical advantages offered by the new ammunition concept. After trying self-loading carbines shooting their model 1943 7.62 x 39 mm cartridge, they introduced a postwar generation of small arms, the 7.62 x 39 mm Avtomat Kalashnikova (AK47.) assault rifle series and the 7.62 x 39 mm Ruchnoi Pulemet Degtyareva (RPD) belt-fed light machine-gun, in their infantry squads. At platoon and company level their support machine-guns and sniper rifles continued to use Model 1891 7.62 x 54 mm rimmed "full power" ammunition. In successive order they fielded Ruchnoi Pulemet 46 company machine-guns (RP46), Stankovyi Pulemet 43 (SG43 or Goryunov) medium machine-guns and Pulemet Kalashnikova (PK) GPMGs.

These small arms were tailored to a fighting doctrine calling for infantry armed with automatic weapons to act in support of armored forces. Substituting 7.62 x 39 mm "intermediate power" assault rifles for World War II 7.62 x 25 mm pistol caliber submachine guns, Soviet tacticians planned to use such weapons at ranges of less than 400 meters. When used in conjunction with their 7.62 mm support machine-guns and heavier vehicle automatic weapons, Soviet squads could defeat enemy positions by delivering overwhelming firepower.

While Soviet planners knew exactly how to employ their infantry weapons, NATO did not. Lacking a clearly defined infantry tactical doctrine, NATO's armies did not fare as well when developing their first generation of post-1945 infantry weapons. NATO's attempt to standardize an infantry cartridge and rifle, as a result of American political pressure, ended in the adoption of a shorter, but still "full power" 7.62 x 51 mm cartridge. None could agree on a standard rifle.

Largely due to its heavy recoil, the adoption of the 7.62 mm NATO cartridge prevented the development of a true assault rifle. Instead, the British, Belgians, Canadians and several other NATO armies selected Fabrique Nationale's Fusil Automatique Leger (variously known as FAL, L1A1 C1, Gewehr 1, etc.). The Germans, Danes, Greeks, Norwegians, Portuguese and Turks chose the Gewehr 3 (G3) (Spain has its own CETME version of that weapon). The United States adopted a product-improved version of the 7.62 x 63 mm M1 (Garand) rifle as the 7.62 x 51 mm NATO M14 rifle. None of these self-loading rifles were suited to full automatic fire.

FN's FAL is by far the most widely used post-war rifle; it has been used by 94 different countries and manufactured by at least 15. Heckler & Koch's G3 has been made in 18 places and used by at least 64 countries. Even the short-lived US M14 has been used by at least 23 nations and manufactured in Taiwan. A much smaller number of Beretta BM59 rifles has been used by some eight nations and manufactured in three.


On the machine-gun front, several NATO armies adopted FN's 7.62 mm NATO Mitrailleuse d'Appui General (MAG), while the remainder (excluding the US) chose NATO caliber versions of the World War II MG42 (the latest versions being designated MG3). The MAG has been used by 80 different nations and manufactured in nine countries. MG42/MG3 type GPMGs have been made in eight countries and been fielded by at least 32 military forces. The United States developed its own GPMG, the M60, to fire NATO ammunition. It has been made in the US and Taiwan and has been employed by at least 38 nations. In the 1970s the Americans replaced their unsuccessful M73/M219 armor machine-guns with MAGs for armored fighting vehicles. These basic machine-guns will remain standard in many armies through at least the year 2000.

Assault Rifles

The rifle inventories of NATO's forces would most likely not have changed but for the appearance of Eugene M. Stoner's 5.56 mm AR-15 rifle, derived from data gathered in an American operations research project called SALVO. That study revealed several obvious points. First, one needs to know the tasks to be accomplished before starting a new weapon development project. Secondly, the distances at which soldiers have engaged enemy targets with small arms since 1939 were much shorter than previously thought, most firing being at ranges of less than 300 meters. This "fact" took many years to find acceptance by many military men, who had been raised in a target-shooting culture that rewarded precision shooting at ranges out to 1000 meters. Third, Project SALVO disclosed that the stress of combat and the movement of both target and rifleman made it extremely difficult to get an aimed shot at a specific target. In fact, an analysis of wounds suffered indicated that a person was more likely to be hit by a random projectile than by one purposely aimed at him.

SALVO data suggested that the volume of rifle fire was more important than its accuracy. In the United States Project SALVO began what is now nearly 40 years of experimentation with weapons mechanism that would produce high rates of fire with smaller than traditional bullets (mostly around 5.56 mm). The American M16, all of the European 5.56 mm rifles and the current American "Advanced Combat Rifle" (ACR) candidates trace their origins back to Project SALVO. This is also true of the Soviet 5.45 x 39 mm AK74 series, which its designer, M.T. Kalashnikov told the author, was inspired by the success of the M16 rifle in Vietnam.

From 1967, when the US Army adopted the 5.56 x 45 mm AR-15 as the M16A1 rifle (with its 3.56 gram projectile), until 1980 when NATO standardized an improved version of that cartridge as the 5.56 x 45 mm NATO (with a 4 gram bullet), the rate of rifle adoptions in that caliber was moderate. Since 1980, the pace has quickened world-wide. Where there were only four basic 7.62 mm NATO caliber rifles built in large numbers, there are now at least 165.56 mm types for sale. The M16-type is the most widespread rifle, some 67 countries having used it and at least seven having manufactured it. The accompanying table provides comparative data for the manufacture and adoption of major military assault rifles produced during the last four decades.

Kalashnikov's assault rifle is still the all-time champion in terms of total numbers made (35 to 50 million) and in the number of countries that have built it (14 plus three derivative models). The Chinese and the Czechs have also built domestically designed assault rifles to fire the 7.62 x 39 mm cartridge. In the Warsaw Pact, in addition to the Russians, the East Germans, Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians have built 5.45 mm versions of Kalashnikov's AKM. The People's Republic of China makes a 5.45 mm-type weapon for export. While all other W.P. countries may cut down their production of the AK74, the Russians are continuing apace with the manufacture of an updated version, which has all-black plastic furniture.

Concurrently with the development of 5.56 mm and 5.45 mm rifles, several NATO and W.P. armies began experimenting with companion machine-guns in those calibers. This led to the adoption of FN's Minimi as the 5.56 mm NATO M249 squad automatic weapon by the US armed forces, as the 5.56 mm NATO C9 light machine-gun by the Canadian armed forces as well as its selection by nine other armies. There is a look-alike copy made in S. Korea (the K-3). Since the appearance of the Minimi five other 5.56 mm machine-guns have been fielded in somewhat smaller numbers. These include Chartered Industries of Singapore's Ultimax 100 (used by four armies), Heckler & Koch's HK13/HK23 (4), CETME's Ameli (2), Steyr's AUG SAW (2) and Royal Ordnance's L86A1 SAW (2).

In the Soviet bloc, the belt-fed 7.62 x 39 mm RPD light machine-gun was supplanted by a magazine-fed 7.62 x 39 mm RPK based upon the AKM assault rifle. More than three dozen countries still use it. Simultaneously with adoption of the 5.45 mm AK74, the Soviets introduced the companion 5.45 mm RPKS74 squad support weapon.

What Does The Future Hold?

Recent political charges are likely to have important repercussions on infantry weapons and on the small arms market. First, West European and North American armies will decrease significantly in size. Thus, the required number of new-generation small arms, as well as heavier equipment, will be smaller. Such a downsizing will increase the cost.

The reduction in force sizes will also limit the amount of business for major arms factories. This appears at a time when competition in other traditional sectors of the small arms market has stiffened. One problem has been a glut of low-price (about $ 100 apiece) Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Some old business rivals in Eastern Europe may soon be gone. Several nations have indicated that they will alter their small arms export policies. Czechoslovakia's government will reduce exports and more carefully scrutinize future sales. East Germany reportedly will close its main assault rifle factory in Wiese on 30 June 1990. Romania and Bulgaria, formerly leading suppliers to anti-government and terrorist groups, are likely to alter their policy on small arms distribution. But the Soviet Union, China and North Korea remain to satisfy old East bloc clients. New manufacturers such as Cuba and Iraq stand ready to continue logistic support for insurgents and terrorists.

Western companies such as Fabrique Nationale, Heckler & Koch and Colt now have to worry that by licensing manufacturers in other countries they have set up their own most serious competitors, all of whom have lower overheads in the form of state-owned facilities and lower labor costs. Added to which, nearly all of them wish to generate hard currency by selling the small arms they make.

A Shrinking Market

If shrinking markets and tougher competition were not bad enough, traditional arms manufacturers must realize that in view of the maturity and quality of the weapons they previously built, it will be difficult to convince their smaller and less affluent armed forces to adopt new designs - a crucial problem facing the US Army and developers of its Advanced Combat Rifle candidates. Even if one of the four companies (AAI Inc., Colt, Heckler & Koch, and Steyr-Mannlicher) comes up with a rifle that is sufficiently superior in performance to the 5.56 mm M16A2 rifle, it appears less and less likely that a smaller US Army with a reduced budget will be in a position to purchase a next-generation rifle. First, the Americans will need only a small number, probably something of the order of 35 000 to 75 000. Therefore, each rifle will be very expensive. Secondly, if it fires a new cartridge (that is, something other than 5.56 x 45 mm) the change in ammunition will be an added expense.

The F.R.G. faces the same dilemma with its G11 (the original version of H&K's ACR candidate). Heckler & Koch have always hoped that after selling their 4.92 x 33 mm caseless ammunition weapon to the Bundeswehr they would also sell it elsewhere. In addition to the United States military market they have had their eye on replacing rifles used by other NATO armies. Now H&K and the Bundesamt fur Wehrtechnik und Beschaffung are faced with a Bundeswehr that may soon be half its current size. Out of economic considerations other potential customers such as Denmark and Norway are likely to retain their 7.62 mm G3s, as will Greece and Turkey, who are actively engaged in marketing their own G3s.

There is the possibility that the US armed forces may purchase M4 carbines (a shortened version of the M16A2) as a personal defense weapon (PDW) in place of some 9 x 19 mm M9 Beretta handguns, and they may apply some elements from Colt's ACR (a modified M16A2) to a still further product-improved M16A2 (an M16A3) as an upgrade rifle.

Is there any good news in the small arms market? In the realm of specialty weapons (PDWs, sniper weapons, silenced weapons, combat shotguns, optical sights and related fire-control systems) there will be some steady business for regular and special operations forces. Fabrique Nationale and GIAT have taken the lead in defining new PDW-types that fall between traditional handgun and submachine gun concepts. FN's 5.7 x 28 mm FN P90, in addition to being a unique design, also represents a major marketing project to ensure that the firm can survive in the marketplace of the 1990s. While the P90 PDW is a very interesting approach, should it fail to catch the imagination of its military customers FN might cease to exist. GIAT's 5.7 x 25 mm Arme de Defense Rapprochee (ADR) is not born out of the same urgent concern for survival, but from a similar desire to place a new weapon on the market for military customers who need a weapon that is more powerful than a 9 x 19 mm pistol and less burdensome than a rifle or submachine gun.

Precision Weapons

Counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency units have a requirement for sniper weapons and silenced weapons. In recent years the Russians have fielded two new silenced pistols for clandestine operations: the two-shot 7.62 x 62.8 mm that uses a special silent (piston-operated) cartridge, and the more common 9 x 18 mm that looks like an overgrown Makarov pistol. Throughout the world there is a limited but continuing business in developing and manufacturing such weapons, but it generates work for small specialty manufacturers and is not the sort of venture that can keep a major manufacturer alive.

Sniper rifle sales represent a larger market, but they still tend to be handbuilt and made in the few hundreds or thousands. Three current examples are the 7.62 x 51 mm NATO PM sniper rifle built by Accuracy International for the British Army, the 7.62 x 51 mm NATO M24 sniper rifle made by Remington Arms Inc. for the US Army, and the special 8.58 x 71 mm RAD Model 602 SASR manufactured by the Redick Arms Company.

As the military undertake more and more police-type tasks, such as anti-drug activities, there is more business for shotgun makers. There have been some special R&D projects such as the one in the US that produced the AAI and Heckler & Koch 18.5 mm (12 gauge) Close Assault Weapons (CAW) and more traditional models such as the 18.5 mm SPAS family created by Luigi Franchi of Italy.

Aiming Sights

Optical sights are a fruitful area for further research. They offer easier target acquisition, thus improving weapon performance. The British mount the L9A1 Sight Unit, Small Arms, Trilux (SUSAT) by United Scientific Instruments on their 5.56 mm L85A1 rifle, and the Canadians use the Wild-Leitz sight on their C7 rifles (a M16A2 variant) and on their C9 (Minimi) machine-guns. The US Army is currently exploring the optical sight field through a number of experimental projects, including the ACR program, at Fort Benning and conducting optical sight tests at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

In addition to conventional optical sights with varying powers of magnification, there are special units such as the Trijicon ACOG family that super-impose an illuminated dot over the target. These sights are used with both eyes open during the sighting process. Additionally, image intensification and thermal imaging sights for night time use are beginning to be considered for more widespread combat applications. However, such electronic equipment is usually even more expensive than the basic weapon.

How many PDWs, rifles, and machine-guns are likely to be sold during the 1990s? Considering that older weapons will wear out and need to be replaced, that armies may still adopt a 5.56 x 45 mm generation weapon, and that some nations are starting up production of their own rifles (e.g., Nigeria/FAL and Cuba/AKM), it is projected that about 150 to 300 thousand machine-guns will be procured in the West during the 1990s - an annual procurement rate about 25% to 50% of that of the last 35 years. Sales of newer generation 9 x 19 mm pistols will probably fall somewhere between one and two million. If new PDW designs are successful, the number of rifles and handgun sales might be reduced but totals are not likely to vary greatly. It remains to be seen if this is enough work to keep all firms alive. If not, the 1990s may see a number of long-existing small arms makers pass into the history books.

PHOTO : FN's 5,7 x 28 mm P90 is a bold marketing project aimed at carving a new nichein the small arms market of the 1990s.

PHOTO : Two bench mark rifles for the 90s: the US 5.56 x 45 mm NATO M16A2 (shown with M9 bayonet); and the 5.45 x 39 mm AK 74 (here in E. German MPiKM574 version).

PHOTO : The Saco Defense Inc. M60E3 lightweight version of the standard M60 GPMG, a product - improved model.

PHOTO : Winner of the Swiss Army's Stgw 90 competition was the Swiss firm SIG's SG 550, weighing 4.1 kg and with an overall length of 772 mm and 20-30-round magazine.

PHOTO : Developed jointly by Steyr and the Austrian Army, the 5.56 mm AUG is a highlyversatile weapon of bull-pup design which is in widespread service.

PHOTO : Trijicon's 4 x 32 Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG), shown here on the 5.56 mm M16A2, is being tested on AAI's ACR candidate, the baseline version.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Armada International
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Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Ezell, Edward C.
Publication:Armada International
Date:Jun 1, 1990
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