The Army is in the early stages of creating requirements for a new externally mounted weapon to replace both the M2 .50-cal machine gun and the MK-19 grenade launcher.
The idea is to simultaneously lighten the load of mobile attack forces while increasing their lethality and envelope of attack with a single system that achieves the offensive firepower, and desired combat effects, of both weapons.
"This will be one weapon with a totally different new type of ammo that is not yet even in the developmental phase," Laura Battista, product management engineer, told Scout Warrior in an interview.
Soldiers fire a .50 caliber machine gun at Camp Atterbury, Ind. | US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane
The effort is still very much in the early or conceptual phases, though future engineering and requirements initiatives plan to give shape, contours, and direction to the new weapon; as a result, Army officials did not yet specify a time frame as to when this might be operational. It is reasonable, however, to assume that requirements, designs, and then prototypes could emerge in the next few years.
The details of how this will be accomplished have not yet emerged, though the planning is to engineer a weapon that has the attack and suppressive fire ability of a .50 cal along with an explosive "area weapon" effect of a grenade launcher.
The new, combined-fires weapons would bring both logistical and tactical advantages. A single unit on the move could much more easily attack a wider range of targets with one weapon, laying down suppressive fire or attacking with machine gun fire and also achieving the effects of firing grenades at enemy locations when needed.
The Army will also embark upon a simultaneous excursion to develop a lighter profile barrel for the .50 cal.
"We will have many barrels that will lessen the logistic burden of having a spare barrel all the time," Battista said. "We are also hoping to save a lot of weight. We are hoping to save 16 pounds off of a 26-pound barrel."
The Army's .50-cal program is looking at a longer-term project to engineer a lighter-weight caseless ammunition that will reduce the amount of brass needed, Lt. Col. Paul Alessio, product manager for crew-served weapons, told Scout Warrior in an interview.
In addition, the Army plans to engineer a laser rangefinder, new optics, and fire-control technology for the .50 cal. Alessio said a new, bigger machine-gun mounted optic would most likely be put on the gun within the next five years.
A laser rangefinder uses an algorithm created to identify the exact distance of a target by combining the speed of light, which is known, with the length of time it takes the laser to reach the target.
The hot barrel of an M2 Browning .50-caliber machine gun. |US Army photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret
New lightweight .50 cal
The Army is creating a new, lightweight version of its iconic .50-caliber machine gun designed to better enable soldiers to destroy enemies, protect convoys, mount weapons on vehicles, attack targets on the move, and transport between missions.
The new weapon, engineered to be 20 to 30% lighter than the existing M2, will be made of durable but lighter weight titanium, Army officials said.
The emerging lightweight .50 cal, described as still in its infancy stage, still needs to be built, riveted, and tested.
The parts for the titanium prototypes will be built at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey and then go to Anniston Army Depot in Alabama for riveting and further construction.
"We always want to lighten the soldier load," Battista said. "A major requirement is to engineer a 60-pound weapon compared to an 86-pound weapon."
"We will procure 30 and then go into full-blown testing — air drop, full reliability, durability, maintainability, and government standard testing," Battista added. "We'll see how it did compared to the M2, and we will try to go to turn it into a program of record."
A US Army soldier with an MK-19 grenade launcher. | Photo by Sgt. Benjamin Parsons
An intimidating combat-tested weapon
The M2 crew-served machine gun, referred to as the "Ma Duece," was first introduced in the 1930s; it has both a lethal and psychological effect upon enemies.
"When enemies hear the sound of the gun, they tend to run in the other direction," Battista said.
The machine gun is used on Humvees, tactical trucks, M1 Abrams tanks, Strykers, some Navy ships, and several aircraft such as CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopters and UH-60 Black Hawks. The gun can also be mounted on a tripod on the ground by infantry in a firefight or combat circumstance; the M2 has a solid range and can fire at point targets up to 1,500 meters away and destroy area targets at distances up to 1,800 meters.
The .50 cal is effective in a wide variety of circumstances, such as convoy protection, air attacks, and attacks upon small groups of enemies on foot or moving in small vehicles. Several variants of the machine gun can fire more than 500 rounds a minute.
"It can be used for antipersonnel (enemy fighters) and also against lightly armored vehicles and light unarmored vehicles," Maj. Keith Muehling, assistant product manager for crew-served weapons, told Scout Warrior in an interview. "Any time you get into an up-armored (more armor) situation or reactive armor — it is not going to be very effective. It works against anything that does not have thick armor."
The Army owns what is called the Technical Data Package, or TDP, for the new lightweight .50 cal; vendors will have to "build to print" and execute the government's existing specs, Battista said.
The Army now operates 24,000 standard M2 machine guns and roughly 25,000 upgraded M2A1 .50-caliber weapons designed with numerous improved features. The improved M2A1 is, among other things, engineered with what is called "fixed head space and timing" designed to better prevent the machine gun from jamming, misfiring, or causing soldier injury, officials said. The M2A1 is also built to be more reliable that the standard M2; the M2 barrel extension can last up to roughly 25,000 rounds, whereas the M2A1 barrel extension can fire as many as 80,000 rounds, Alessio said.
The Army plans to have initial prototypes of the new lightweight .50 cal built by this coming summer as a preparatory step to release a formal Request For Proposal, or RFP, to industry in the first quarter of 2017, Alessio said. An acquisition contract is expected several months after the RFP is released.
The lighter weapon will bring additional an additional range of mission sets for soldiers who will be better able to transport, mount, and fire the weapon against enemies.
"If you are a top gunner and you are having to move this weapon around, it is on a pedestal tripod," Meuhling said. "If it is lighter, you are going to be able to traverse the weapon a little bit easier than a 20-pound-heavier weapon. That is one of the added benefits as far as getting it on and off the vehicle. If a soldier can do that by himself, that is an added benefit."
The M2 uses several different kinds of ammunition, including some rounds engineered to be "harder penetrating." The weapon also uses an ammo can with 200 rounds; a top cover can be lifted off and the links between rounds are spaced to provide accurate timing as they are dropped into the weapon, service officials said.