Seeking to maintain the tactical advantage over enemy combat ants. the global SOF community continues to consider upgrades and next-generation developments in the area of small arms and light weapons.
In particular, SOF components are seeking to focus heavily on improvements to assault rifle inventories, particularly in regard to lethality, precision, reliability and weight, as the defensive capabilities of enemy opponents across the contemporary operating environment (COE) continue to increase.
In northern Iraq and Syria, for example, combatants from the so- called Islamic State (IS) and other such adversaries are equipped with night vision capabilities as well as anti-tank munitions and armored platforms.
This is the reason why even the worlds most advanced special operations commands are considering evolutionary increases in assault rifle technology, including ammunition enhancements.
However, as expressed by SOF specialists associated with NATO working groups tasked with developing future small arms technologies across the alliance, the current assault rifle market appears rather stagnated with regard to operating mechanisms and form factors.
Indeed, SOF units have a limited choice of selection between AR configurations, where the magazine housing is located in front of the pistol grip, or bullpup designs, which feature a magazine housing to the rear of the grip, as well as various caliber sizes and ammunition types relevant to their operating environments.
Speaking to SOF, sources associated with NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHO) in Mons, Belgium, explained how AR and bullpup designs provided operators with various “pros and cons” for different mission sets. These range from close protection and CQB through to MOUT and conventional operations.
Bullpup designs provide operators with a smaller form factor weapon, allowing for more covert carriage. However, many operators feel uncomfortable with this set-up. particularly as the majority of international special forces use AR configurations such as the M4, one such source explained.
But with a bullpup, you have the ability to house a longer barrel in a shorter weapon system, making it ideal for both short- and longer-range engagements. As with everything in the SOF environment, requirements are operationally driven.
USSOCOM remains at the forefront of weapons developments with its Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which retains operational control of force elements including the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D) and the Naval Special Warfare Development Group.
JSOC published its wish-list across the small arms inventory in July 2016. 1st SFOD-D became one of the first units globally to adopt Heckler & Koch’s 5.56x45mm HK416 in place of Colt Defense’s M4 carbine.
According to the solicitation, JSOC is pursuing options regarding suppressed upper receiver group (SURG) technology, with industry participants invited to take part in an open day in November 2016. The decision to continue consideration of such technology follows the cancellation of a USSOCOM tender for SURG on 15 April 2016 for undisclosed reasons.
SOF teams conducting operations in confined spaces sometimes require suppressed, sub-sonic weapons to reduce collateral damage as well as red dot sights for rapid engagement such as Aimpoint.
Defense sources associated with the technology explained to SOF how the postponement of the program had been due to a lack of maturity in existing equipment and the failure to counter overheating issues which had been blamed for “mirage effects” over the sight picture of the barrel.
Designed to allow suppressed assault rifles to run longer and in a cleaner fashion, SURG comprises a replaceable upper receiver group which can be fitted by way of a two-pin attachment to legacy M4A1 carbines. Currently, operators can fit standalone suppressors to the flash eliminators of firearms.
A carbine fitted with SURG would allow operators to reduce the recoil, noise, flash and dust management of assault rifles, particularly relevant to operations in confined spaces, while “addressing the operational requirements of the suppressor and enhancing operational effectiveness and [SOF] suppressor survivability over the current inventory of weapons with suppressors,” the solicitation reads.
Options include Gemtech’s Suppressed Bolt Carrier, which can be inserted into the upper receiver group of an assault rifle/carbine to provide bolt assembly integration with suppressors.
According to a company spokesperson, the Suppressed Bolt Carrier features multiple settings for suppressed and unsuppressed operation of the rifle, thereby negating any further and permanent modifications to the weapon system.
“No longer will you need to change gas blocks, buffers, or any other components. Not only that, but with the Suppressed Bolt Carrier, there is a reduction in carrier speed and less felt recoil, bringing the cyclical rate of the suppressed rifle down to unsuppressed levels. And in some systems, testing has shown that it can actually bring it lower than unsuppressed levels,” the spokesperson added.
The global SOF market for assault rifles remains competitive and busy with multiple force elements either finalizing agreements or unveiling requirements over the past 12 months. The most recent solicitation comprises a requirement from Ger many’s Special Forces, which are seeking a replacement for in-service Heckler & Koch 5.56x45mm G36 assault rifles.
Elements from Germany’s Special Forces Command, the Kommando Spezialkrafte (KSK) and Kommando Spezialkrafte Marine (KSM) units, are seeking the procurement of approximately 1,750 assault rifles in NATO- standard 5.56x45mm caliber configuration.
The request for proposals was responded to by industry on 9 February 2016 with a down-selection of preferred partner expected to be announced before September 2017. The contract, worth approximately €11 million (US$11.8 million), requires deliveries to be made from September on-wards through to mid-2019, the solicitation explained
Other requirements call for a semi-automatic and automatic fire selector capability as well as capacity to house a 360-degree rail adaptor system for the integration of accessories including tactical torch lights, laser designators, red-dot sights and optical gun sights.
The selected weapon must also be capable of housing a suppressor and feature ambidextrous controls, a capability which remains integral to operators in the COE. As NSHQ sources explained to SOF, operators are trained to shoot left- and right-handed in case primary shooting hands are injured during a firefight.
Such training also allows operators to make the optimal use of cover by protecting more of the body behind obstacles. The solicitation also calls for a maximum weight of 3.8kg in unloaded configuration with a maximum length of 90cm.
Qualification tests will feature a total of 40 weapon systems, with the winning solution capable of firing more than 10,000 rounds before changing barrel. Additionally, upper receiver groups must have a life cycle of more than 30,000 rounds.
Industry sources suggested to SOF that the solicitation has attracted interest from companies, including Czeska Zbrojovka, Colt Defense, FN Herstal, Heckler & Koch and SIG Sauer.
German SOF components are understood to be considering a variety of options including SIG Sauer’s MCX, selected on 23 November 2016 by the Netherlands Maritime Special Operations Force (NL MARSOF) in 7.62x35mm AAC Blackout caliber.
A total of 200 weapon systems were procured alongside two million rounds of ball, subsonic, lead-free frangible ammunition, with defense sources suggesting to SOF that the Dutch Army’s Korps Com- mandotroepen (KCT) are also considering procurement of the MCX.
The gas-operated weapon is available in 5.56x45mm and AAC Black out calibers with a change of bolt carrier assembly, barrel and magazine. “The MCX stands as the first rifle built to be [suppressed] from the ground up. It also accepts a broad array of accessories, enabling you to build a complete weapon system for any scenario or environment,” a company official explained to SOF.
Operators require an ambidextrous weapon system which can also be used one-handed.-SEE IMAGE: Norwegian FSK operator on ladder conducting a method of entry serial as part of an MOUT training exercise.
The ambidextrous MCX is also available in SURG configuration. The weapon can be switched between subsonic and supersonic configurations, dependent upon the attachment of a suppressor. It also features a 360-degree rail adaptor system for accessories.
Other options include Czeska 7brojovka’s Bren 2 A2, which is also an ambidextrous solution. Unveiled to the Asia-Pacific market on 2 November 2016, the Bren 2 A2 fires 5.56x45mm ammunition. Using a 207mm barrel, the weapon system features a foldable stock providing operators with a maximum length of 725mm.
With an unladen weight of 2.76kg, the Bren 2 A2 takes 30-round capacity magazines. Developed in collaboration with the Czech Republic’s 601st Special Forces Group, the Bren 2 A2 retains the capability to feature an integrated suppressor.
Additional competition is expected to come from the HK416 as well as FN Herstal’s FN Special Operations Combat Assault Rifle-Light (SCAR- L) which has been deployed in limited numbers to US Army Special Operations Command force components over recent years.
Also seeking to tap into growing demand from the SOF market is Colt Defense, which at the AUSA exhibition in Washington, DC in October 2016, unveiled the Sub Compact Weapon. Designed as a short-barreled carbine for CQB, the 2.85kg weapon features a 10.3in barrel with collapsible stock.
According to Matt Fehmel, international sales director at the company, the weapon’s 710mm length makes it ideal for covert carriage as well as operations in confined spaces. Meanwhile, USSOCOM is pursuing another small arms initiative aimed at identifying and developing an indigenous manufacturing base in CONUS capable of manufacturing small arms systems normally associated with development in Russia, China and elsewhere.
According to a solicitation, published on 3 May 2016 on the Federal Business Opportunities website, the Command is looking for an inventory of: 7.62x39mm assault rifles, similar to the Kalashnikov AK-47; 7.62x54mmR sniper rifles, similar to the Dragunov SVD; 7.62x54mm.R belt-fed machine guns, similar to the PKM; and heavier options including 12.7x108mm machine guns like the DShK and a 14.5mm heavy machine gun, similar to the KPV.
These so-called “Non-Standard” weapons, according to sources associated with the Command, could be manufactured to not only equipment partnering forces in various areas of operation around the globe but also USSOCOM force elements who might want to operate in more discreet profiles.
Many such mission profiles require teams of operators to naturally blend into local environments, either posing as conventional or indigenous forces. As one source described to SOF, using the most common assault rifle known to the world provides one course of action to SOF teams seeking to lower their profile in theaters.
AK-47 assault rifles, for example, also require less maintenance in comparison to Western-manufactured small arms solutions, making them particularly suitable for expeditionary operations in austere environments.
Additionally, this USSOCOM solicitation has been reinforced with a similar requirement for supporting Non-Standard ammunition, with the Command seeking information on the possibility of CONUS-manufactured 7.62x39mm and 7.62x54mmR ball rounds.
The solicitation was unveiled in April 2016, with a USSOCOM spokes person stating: “The purpose of this sources sought announcement is to obtain market research knowledge that will enable the buying command to make appropriate decisions and to gain knowledge of potential qualified sources interested and capable of performing the work.”
Options include US-based manufacturer Century Arms, which has designed the Red Army Standard 47 (RAS47) assault rifle. The gas operated, semi-automatic weapon relies upon a long-stroke gas piston and has been chambered to fire 7.62x39mm ammunition.
The rifle also features a rail adaptor system for the integration of tactical torchlight, laser designator or optical gunsight with a 16in barrel, allowing for maximum effective range out to 800m. However, it lacks any adjustable or collapsible buttstock, making the 37in rifle difficult to use in CQB in confined spaces.
Australian Special Forces operating in Afghanistan highlight the requirement for longer range assault rifle technology with integrated 4X optical sights and suppressors. Australian forces are known as some of the best scouts in the world and have been credited with rescuing US forces pinned down in the desert. Historically, their armament evolved from .303 to 7.62mm SLR giving incredibly effective desert fighting, and later moved to the NATO 5.56mm AUG STYER and M4 platforms.
Tests covered a variety of magazines including Magpul’s PMAG, FAB Defense’s Ultimag, Promag Industries’ AK-A1 and Tapco’s Intrafuse solutions, most of which feature the capability to house up to 30 rounds.
The international SOF community looks set to continue evolving with the integration of next-generation sensors and optical gunsights, designed to enhance the lethality and precision of small arms solutions.
Allied to improvements in ammunition, including alternative caliber types such as 6.5mm and 6.8mm, these remain the areas most likely to optimize small arms capabilities in the near future as well further development of tactics and techniques, and / programs and concepts of operations.
SOF units are beginning to utilize smart sensors integrated into assault rifles in order to reduce logistical burdens on small arms inventories and armories as well as enhancing training regimes, SOF has learned.
On 19 January, FN Herstal unveiled the FN SmartCore enhanced shot counter technology at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, comprising a self-powered solution for its family of FN SCAR weapon systems.
The FN SmartCore is an integrated unit, housed inside the lower receiver of the weapon to detect rounds shot. This is achieved by counting the number of times the rifle’s bolt re-cocks, company sources explained “The FN SmartCore shot counter uses fully automated software to provide precise information about a firearm. This includes the number of shots (blank, live and dry firing being discriminated), its base location, whom it is issued to and its operational condition,” they noted.
Describing how the system automatically collects and collates this information. FN Herstal pointed out how such data could be produced either automatically or upon request “with absolutely no impact on the user’s mission”.
“Any data is transmitted wirelessly at short range only and upon request, ensuring it is undetectable and there is no unintentional emission,” it was added. The system can be integrated into 5.56mm FN SCAR-L and 7.62mm FN SCAR-H configurations as well as 5.56mm and 7.62mm FN Minimi light machine guns (LMGs).
“The FN SmartCore plays a vital role in the [company’s] small arms management solution. Using this comprehensive solution dedicated to military and security forces increases operational availability of weapons, reduces life-cycle cost, provides accurate and up-to-date information on in-and-out movements of the weapons and guarantees shared information through a network”.
“All of these benefits combined contribute to the smart small arms management,” company literature explains. The system will be pitched to SOF customers in the Middle East during the IDEX event in Abu Dhabi, UAE on 19 February.
Similar technology is already in service with Israeli SOF in the form of the Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) E-Log system. Designed to assist in the “preventative maintenance” of armories, it is one method of reducing the frequency of poorly maintained weapons systems in unit inventories.
Product manager for E-Log at IWI, Eliran Modan described how multiple force elements around the world continue to suffer an “epidemic” of weapon failures due to poor maintenance. Additionally, the system is designed to reduce the number of small arms going missing.
“E-Log provides logistics in the 21st-century way. While preventative maintenance requires a transformation of thinking, we already see the market’s acknowledgment of its big advantages and willingness to implement significant necessary changes.” Modan explained to SOF.
The E-Log centers on a smart sensor component, integrated into the weapon system, which is capable of recording the number of shots fired. Information is then disseminated to an end-user device which signals when replacement parts should be ordered and fitted to firearms.
Finally, a data management system feeds back all his information into a data center for the wider coordination of armory repays, checks and other activities, Modan highlighted. Additionally, the E-Log allows SOF operators to record training regimes with that particular weapon system, as well as the pro portion of rounds fired by themselves should a rifle be shared with other personnel.
The E-Log can be integrated onto the full family of IWI small arms products, which includes the Tavor X95 and /GE assault rifles, as well as Negev machine guns, the GL40 underslung grenade launcher and Dan sniper rifle.