As militaries continue to field increasingly sophisticated equipment, and digitisation across the battlespace becomes the norm, it’s easy to overlook the innovations still taking place in the fundamental – and sometimes basic – technologies of warfare, which do not venture into the realm of zeros and ones.
This is particularly the case for small arms ammunition, which despite being around for centuries and a core requirement for troops – along with food and water – is still subject to continual engineering developments that aim to increase lethality, while also decreasing the burden for the soldier in terms of weight and load.
The 5.56mm cartridge has been the standard option for small arms calibres for several decades since its introduction by the US with the M16 rifle in the 1960s and its consequent standardisation across NATO. However, recent conflicts have exposed shortfalls with the round.
Fit for purpose?
While the ammunition does provide several advantages, including a high muzzle velocity and low weight – allowing troops to carry significantly more rounds than if equipped with heavier 7.62mm cartridges – many have questioned whether 5.56mm is really the optimum choice for NATO armies today especially as near-peer armies field newer-generation body-worn armour, which includes ceramic strike plates, and as engagement ranges increase beyond the effective range of 5.56mm. Together, that means that the round no longer has the stopping power desired to effectively neutralise enemy combatants.
Of course, this worry is not new and has been the subject of many debates and scientific studies, not least when the ammunition was moving towards NATO standardisation. However, with the reasons mentioned above, many now consider the 5.56mm as potentially obsolete, meaning that squads have ultimately lost an all-important overmatch capability.
The US Army is leading the way when it comes to finding alternative solutions, including new calibres and lighter weight technologies, which is explored in more depth in the Oct/Nov issue of Land Warfare International.
The service has expressed an interest in a new Interim Combat Service Rifle, with solicitations stating that it will be chambered in 7.62mm, rather than 5.56mm. Nevertheless, there are still questions concerning weight and the efficacy of this more powerful ammunition against modern ceramic armour.
If there is an eventual switchover to 7.62mm, or even an intermediate calibre such as 6.5mm, by the US Army, it would conclude an almost 50-year relationship with the 5.56mm round that began with the fielding of the M16.
Active protection systems are another hot topic in the land warfare domain. In the future, this could supplement existing armour technologies – both active and passive – and provide an extra layer of protection to vehicles in order to increase survivability.
APS technologies can sense incoming threats and automatically dispense a countermeasure, which in a ‘hard-kill’ configuration comprises an explosive projectile fired from the host vehicle, destroying a missile before impact. The equipment has already been fielded by the Israelis and is likely to be in service with the Russian and Chinese armies in the very near future.
Much like the ammunition debate, there’s a worry in some circles that near-peer adversaries (Russia and China) could steal a march on the US in this domain, meaning that the US Army loses another aspect of its overmatch capabilities. APS could reduce the effectiveness of anti-tank weapons including shoulder-fired weapons, as well as new-generation tank munitions being fielded.
In an attempt to catch up, the US Army has tested several APS technologies this year, including the now-famous Trophy system from Israel, and there’s a possibility that the service could announce the purchase of APS equipment for fielding very soon. Shephard understands that fielding APS remains a key priority for service chiefs and recent testing has only served to strengthen that stance.
Yet even if the US Army decide to invest in APS, there will still be challenges when it comes to full integration with vehicle mission systems, which is a concern for all armies today as platforms become more digitised.
Ammunition and APS occupy two ends of the technology spectrum, one decades-old technology and the other a new and highly advanced system. However, both flag up areas where Western technological and tactical advantage is slowly eroding, and this doesn’t stop at APS and ammunition. There are a whole host of technologies where this is the case, demonstrating that Western overmatch can no longer be taken for granted.