Who thinks the next US infantry rifle needs to be heavy, complicated, incredibly expensive, based on unproven technology, and reminiscent of much-maligned acquisition programs like the Littoral Combat Ship and F35 Joint Strike Fighter? A retired two-star general named Bob Scales, that’s who.
If that name sounds familiar and you weren’t previously under his command or in the Army between the years of 1966 and 2000, it’s probably because Scales has been railing against the M4/M16 for many years. Scales has, in many other areas, put forth a number of thoughtful and well-reasoned opinions; his discussion of infantry rifles, which has been going on for years and most recently was the topic of a Senate hearing, unfortunately falls short of his discussions of other areas.
Here are four requirements Scales puts forth for the next infantry rifle: modularity, new calibers, stealth, and better precision. We’ll look at each of these requirements and evaluate them accordingly, then discuss other factors relating to the selection of a rifle for infantry use.
“Multiple weapons can now be assembled from a single chassis. A squad member can customize his weapon by attaching different barrels, buttstocks, forearms, feed systems, and accessories to make, say, a light machine gun, a carbine, a rifle, or an infantry automatic rifle.”
It’s as if Scales isn’t aware that this is already possible with the M16 and M4 family of weapons. However, as the great chaotician Ian Malcolm once put it, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Sure, you can plop a belt fed upper on an AR15 lower right now. Is the result a superior firearm when compared to existing inventories of weapons? Highly unlikely. And it seems that every time we’ve seen the argument that weapons can be customizable by the end user – most specifically, barrel or upper swaps between designated marksman and entry style carbines – are a good idea, they’re evaluated by the military and then quietly passed over when it comes time to cut a check. In addition to creating a logistical nightmare, the modifications to any platform which would allow quick change barrels result in a heavier and more complicated weapon which does not end up being utilized to its full potential by the majority of end users. Ask any infantryman if he’d like to carry several pounds of extra barrel around on the off chance that he wants to make his infantry rifle into a light machine gun in the field as Scales suggests and he’s likely to ask if you made it into the military on an ASVAB waiver, albeit somewhat less politely.
New calibers and cartridges
“The military must change the caliber and cartridge of the guns it gives infantry soldiers. [American firearms designer Eugene] Stoner’s little 5.56‐mm cartridge was ideal for softening the recoil of World War II infantry calibers in order to allow fully automatic fire.
But today’s cartridge is simply too small for modern combat. Its lack of mass limits its range to less than 400 meters. The civilian version of the 5.56‐mm bullet was designed as a “varmint killer” and six states prohibit its use for deer hunting because it is not lethal enough to ensure a quick kill.
The optimum caliber for tomorrow’s rifle is between 6.5 and 7 millimeters. The cartridge could be made almost as light as the older brass‐cased 5.56‐mm by using a plastic shell casing, which is now in final development by the Marine Corps.
Here, Scales blends myth and a lack of historical understanding with a glimmer of truth. Sure, 6.5 to 7mm infantry rifle cartridges exist, and they offer significant benefits in terms of ballistic or terminal effectiveness when compared on a one-to-one basis with 5.56mm NATO. But that last acronym is the key – NATO. We have standardized ammunition across all of NATO, ensuring commonality of everything from 9mm pistol cartridges to the 120mm cannon ammunition shared by the M1A2 Abrams and the Leopard 2A7 tank used by Germany. Should we choose to break away from 5.56mm, though, we’d be unable to share what is likely the most-produced cartridge in the world, the infantry rifle cartridge, with all of our major allies in the event of a conflict.
A small edge in ballistic effectiveness – and when one steps back and looks at the differences between 5.56 and Scales’ favorite, 6.8mm SPC, as compared to significantly larger cartridges like 6.5 Creedmoor or 300 Win Mag, they do become small – pales in comparison to the logistical benefit of being able to acquire ammunition from more than a dozen sources in the event of all-out war. The alternative is convincing all of NATO to dump 5.56 as well. We did it once before, with the switch from 7.62×51 to 5.56×45. It’s possible, but it would be an uphill battle requiring lots of other changes to weapons platforms as well. The only realistic caliber switch on the horizon would be going back to 7.62×51 – but that would be really dumb.
Where Scales really goes off the rails is his put-down of the “civilian version (.223) of 5.56” as being designed to kill varmints, attempting to paint the military cartridge with the same brush. On the contrary, 5.56×45 was designed as an infantry rifle cartridge, having been developed out of the SCHV (small caliber, high velocity) program of the 1950s. That study found that lower recoiling ammunition resulted in more hits than the existing, larger cartridges. Needless to say, physics and ballistics haven’t changed much in the last 60-70 years. Where 5.56 has been hamstrung is with ineffective projectile design, but that’s finally being addressed with various programs such as SOST and M855A1.
Scales trots out the old “.22 caliber projectiles are banned for deer hunting in 6 states” trope – hey, even more states ban hunting deer with rifles altogether. Should we equip our troops with hunting-legal shotguns or muzzleloaders so that they can also legally hunt deer in Ohio or Rhode Island?
Simply put, the idea that 5.56mm was designed to be anything but an infantryman’s best friend is false, as is the assertion that its range is less than 400m. Training is far more of a limitation in terms of long range effectiveness than caliber, but I didn’t see a discussion of that by Scales. Just throw money at defense contractors, he says! That’ll fix everything! Unsurprisingly, Scales sits on the board of directors of defense contractor Northrop Grumman.
It’s Scales’ last point on this matter – plastic cased ammo – that really starts to fall into the “transformationalism” trap. If you’re not familiar with that word as it applies to defense matters, the “transformationalists” have given us programs like the Northrop Grumman-built USS Ford with its failing Advanced Arresting Gear and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching System, the USS Zumwalt with its now-defunct Long Range Land Attack Projectile, and the F35 JSF with its, well, everything.
These are all programs that were contracted out before the technology was proven with the expectation that by the time the ship or plane entered service, all the kinks would have been worked out. As a result, we have a carrier well behind schedule that can’t reliably launch or land aircraft, a 7 billion dollar pocket-battleship-sized destroyer without ammunition for its two small guns, and a stealth fighter that can’t stealth or fight years after it was expected to enter service. We don’t need to add an infantry rifle to this list.
Prove plastic cased ammunition beyond a reasonable doubt; then we can talk about putting it in a service rifle. The fact that polymer/plastic ammo projects have been in the “final stages” for many years should give anyone pause before advocating that they be adopted by the military. Alternatively, let’s assume they work out better than anyone could have hoped – just as Scales claims this would result in 6.5 or 6.8mm ammunition lighter than 5.56, it also means far more 5.56mm could be carried for the same weight. Remember, Rommel didn’t say “The winner in a bayonet fight is he who has a rifle bore one millimeter larger than his opponent,” he said “The winner in a bayonet fight is he who has one more bullet in his magazine.”
“The Army can achieve an infantry version of stealth by attaching newly developed sound suppressors to every rifle. Instead of merely muffling the sound of firing by trapping gases, this new technology redirects the firing gases forward, capturing most of the blast and flash well inside the muzzle. Of course, an enemy under fire would hear the muted sounds of an engagement. But much as with other stealth technology, the enemy soldier would be at a decisive disadvantage in trying to determine the exact location of the weapons firing at him.”
This is one area where Scales and I see largely eye to eye, but it doesn’t take a whole lot to put a sound suppressor or silencer on a rifle, including the ones we have now. If hiding the location of a shot by visual means is of the utmost concern, though, I’d take a great flash hider like the AAC Blackout over a silencer mounted on an A2 or a muzzle brake. It’ll reduce flash to a greater extent. Side note: silencers aren’t a new development, contrary to Scales’ claims.
“Computer miniaturization now allows precision to be squeezed into a rifle sight. All an infantryman using a rifle equipped with a new‐model sight need do is place a red dot on his target and push a button at the front of his trigger guard; a computer on his rifle will take into account data like range and “lead angle” to compensate for the movement of his target, and then automatically fire when the hit is guaranteed. This rifle sight can “see” the enemy soldier day or night at ranges well beyond 600 meters. An enemy caught in that sight will die long before he could know he was seen, much less before he could effectively return fire.”
Here, Scales jumps on the transformationalism bandwagon firmly with both feet. He’s talking about products like TrackingPoint, which, even if produced on a massive scale, would likely triple or quadruple the cost of an infantry rifle, add significant weight, and most importantly, promise much while delivering little. It’s amazing, he says! The enemy will die before he could know he was seen! Meanwhile, in the real world, the TrackingPoint team finished nowhere near the top when competing in the Vortex Extreme in 2013 against shooters with conventional optics. As it turns out, there’s a lot more to making it through a course in the field and hitting targets than having a magic wand for a riflescope (note: TrackingPoint later set up their own competition with Taya Kyle using TrackingPoint equipped rifles against competition shooter Bruce Piatt using standard optics – TrackingPoint won their competition, unsurprisingly).
Of course, the vulnerability of these types of systems to interference has been previously established, and chances are that computer whiz kids with the backing of a state like Russia, Iran, China, or North Korea would be at least as good at finding ways to interfere with these “computer miniaturized” rifle scopes as the American security researchers who figured out how to do it in their spare time.
Lest you think I’m making mountains out of molehills regarding the weight and effectiveness of TrackingPoint’s firearms, their 5.56 rifle sold as a replacement for the M4A1 weighs 12 pounds.
At Whom Shall We Shoot With This Rifle?
But this brings up another point – who would we fight with this rifle? Are we, as General Scales once suggested, going to be killing large numbers of Russians with it in Eastern Ukraine? Are we going to hand it to Marines and tell them to storm some artificial reefs in the South China Sea? Are we going to continue to use it in low-intensity conflicts in the Middle East for the next century? Do Scales’ suggestions give us a one-size-fits-all master key of a rifle that will truly do anything? Or do his suggestions leave us with a rifle that would have increased weight, complexity, recoil, vulnerability to interference, and dependence on unproven technology?
Students of military history know that while technology has often proved critical in battles throughout history, the level of training, morale, and supply of a force often played a much larger role than the details of the weapons they employed. After a decade and a half of constant war, and with sequestration continuing to wreak havoc on training and readiness, what new funds can be diverted to the military should be focused on fixing the major issues facing the forces at the moment – not on fixing what ain’t broke – especially when those “fixes” have the potential to create even more problems for the military.
Based on purchasing only 100,000 rifles, Scales estimates that for a price tag of $100,000,000, we could equip all Army and Marine infantry with new rifles – that’s $1000 per rifle.
How he reaches this number is a mystery, for he advocates buying a new design that doesn’t exist which is based on unproven – worse, failed – optics technology and fires a bullet that isn’t in the military inventory out of a plastic cartridge case that is languishing in testing and, again, isn’t in the military inventory. How does Scales think the military can buy this new rifle which currently does not exist – not to mention a computerized optic and a silencer – for $1000 when recent ~100,000 rifle contracts for the well-established M4/M16 without an optic came out to $642 per rifle? Why does he ignore the massive costs of switching over to a new caliber and the logistical difficulties that would be experienced from such a change?
Scales also seems to be out of touch with the war that has been going on since the year after he retired. Scales claims that new rifles are only needed for the infantry and that the M4 and M16 will be fine for “non-infantry personnel in the unlikely event that they find themselves in combat.”
Scales’ obsession with providing just the infantry with a new rifle ignores that, while all combat troops (including infantry, armor, artillery, combat engineer, etc) do have higher casualty rates than non-combat troops, it is not an “unlikely event” that non-combat troops will find themselves in combat. Indeed, the “modern war” Scales decides the M4/M16 is not suited for has been marked by a drastic increase in non-combat troop involvement in combat. The MOS with the highest number of female deaths in Iraq at one point? Truck drivers.
He also seems to think that changing rifles will have a major effect on troop survival rates in combat. But studies of US military combat injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan show otherwise. One BCT deployed during the surge suffered a large number of casualties – but gunshot wounds represented only 9 percent of hostile injuries and that only 5.7 percent of those gunshot wounds were fatal. Meanwhile, 77.7 percent of all hostile wounds were due to IEDs and 7.6 percent of those wounds were fatal. In other words, gunfights result in only a fraction of the injuries sustained by American troops and those injuries are less likely to be fatal than the IED related injuries which make up the vast majority of combat injuries in modern war. The lethality of gunshot wounds has decreased from 33% in previous conflicts such as Vietnam to less than 5% in the Iraq and Afghanistan periods, largely due to better body armor and casualty evacuation protocols – but also because of a renewed enemy focus on killing Americans with explosives, not guns.
What does all of this mean? Well, Scales’ ideas for a new rifle are simply not grounded in the reality of the war American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines face every day. Their conflicts – infantry and non-infantry – encompass a wide variety of situations that would not be materially affected were they to carry a different rifle. Their deaths in gunfights pale in comparison to their deaths from other forms of combat which could be addressed with greater effect. Plus, every dollar spent on a new rifle is a dollar not spent on improving readiness, ensuring a high level of training, and maintaining equipment that does save lives. If advancing the capability of American infantry via new technology is the goal, putting that money into drones, electronic warfare, or even exoskeletons might yield more impactful results than incremental rifle upgrades. Contrary to Scales’ imagination, the sums of money involved in such a change would be breathtaking. Most important, the M4/M16 is a known item, while Scales’ paper rifle is a complete unknown.
Decisions on what makes a good infantry rifle should be limited to what is currently proven to work and be reliable in field conditions right now. Major General Scales means well, but if adopted now, many of his proposed changes would not save American lives – they would cost them.