Army ditches search for 7.62 battle rifle — for now

Multiple sources are reporting that the Army has put on hold its search for a new battle rifle to field to troops in overseas operations that fires a heavier round than the service’s current weapon.

The Army has been facing pressure from Congress and some in the service to field a larger caliber rifle to troops fighting ISIS and other militants who use Russian-made weapons and body armor. Defense officials have said the American M4 carbine and its variants fire a 5.56mm round that cannot penetrate new Russian-designed armor and that the answer was to field an immediate supply of rifles chambered in 7.62mm.

The M110 SASS is the Army’s current 7.62 compact sniper rifle. Some service leaders pushed a version of this rifle for more deployed troops to penetrate Russian-made body armor. (U.S. Air Force photo/Justin Connaher)

“We recognize the 5.56mm round, there is a type of body armor it doesn’t penetrate. … Adversarial states are selling it for $250,” Army chief Gen. Mark Milley told lawmakers in May. “There’s a need, an operational need [for a 7.62 rifle]. We think we can do it relatively quickly.”

But less than two months after the Army issued a request from industry to provide up to 50,000 7.62 battle rifles, sources say the service has pulled the plug on the program, citing internal disagreements on the true need for the rifle and cost savings. The shelving comes as the Pentagon is finalizing a broad-based report on the military’s small arms ammunition and what the future needs of the services are given the existing threats.

Some insiders say the service is leaning toward a rifle chambered in an entirely new caliber that has better penetration and fires more accurately at longer distances, and that pursuing an “interim” solution is a waste of time and resources.

“There are systems out there today, on the shelf, that with some very minor modifications could be adapted to munitions that we’re developing at Fort Benning that could be used to penetrate these SAPI plates that our adversaries are developing,” Milley said in May. “It’s not necessarily an either or proposition on that one. I think there’s weapons out there that we can get, in the right caliber, that can enhance the capability of the infantry soldier.”

Other experts say most hard body armor can withstand multiple hits from both 5.56 rounds and 7.62 ones, so spending limited funds on a new rifle in a caliber that current body armor can already resist is simply spending good money after bad.

So for now, it looks like the Army is going to stick with its M4 for now. But with the service holding off on buying an interim 7.62 rifle, it could be that soldiers might be looking at a whole new rifle platform a lot sooner than they thought.