In yesterday’s press conference announcing SIG SAUER’s victory in the Next Generation Squad Weapon competition, Army officials said America’s likely future adversaries were a key factor in the final choice. The XM5 (a variant of the SIG MCX) and the XM250 machine gun run the recently-developed 277 SIG FURY hybrid steel/brass cartridge. It’s some spicy stuff.
The round’s 80,000 psi pressure can push a 135-grain bullet to velocities of 3,000 feet per second. Hunters and long-range aficionados using magnum ammo won’t find that velocity number inconceivable, but it’s a lot more impressive when you consider that it’s coming from a 16-inch barrel and the cartridges fit into a standard AR-10 magazine. Plus, the ammunition weighs less than .308 Winchester rounds, allowing soldiers to carry more of it than they could if they were using a traditional magnum rifle.
On top of that, there’s the new XM157 self-adjusting optic the Army chose to go with the XM5 rifles. The Vortex product can send and receive data both with a soldier’s augmented reality (IVAS) system and with other soldiers’s gear and even military aircraft. But, why is the military going for such a big upgrade now?
Near Peer Threats
During the press briefing, Brigadier General Larry Q. Burris, the Army’s Soldier Lethality Cross-Team Director, said their goal was to achieve a “clear, decisive, and sustainable overmatch against our near-peer adversaries.” He said that’s “more urgent and relevant today than at any time in recent history.”
Let’s unpack that. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “near peer” adversary is a country with a large industrial base and military capabilities close(ish) to that of the United States. In other words, we’re not talking about fighting insurgents and goat herders. We’re talking about China.
Before their poor performance was exposed for all the world to see in Ukraine, we would have been talking more seriously about Russia in the same way. Still, while they’ve shown how poorly trained and equipped they are, they may yet learn lessons, improve, and become a significant threat again in coming years.
Even against poor insurgents, though, the M4 rifle was starting to show its limitations. Improved rounds helped make the M4 and other 5.56x45mm weapons more capable, but the military found they had bascially reached the physical limitations of the platform. To wring more performance out of it would require changes to the laws of physics, and as we know those laws aren’t easily amended.
With big adversaries and small insurgent forces both outperforming it, the M4 was definitely overdue for replacement.
What Are Near-Peer Forces Using? Will The New Round Have An Advantage?
Russia hasn’t made any significant changes to their rifle systems since 1974, but China is a different story. They moved from 7.62x39mm to their own proprietary 5.8x42mm round, which has a numbers edge over 5.56. They adopted a bullpup rifle design that looked very sci-fi, but they’ve more recently started moving to something more conventional, the QBZ-191.
Russia’s 5.45x39mm round doesn’t have an advantage over the 5.56. It was Russia’s attempt to follow what other countries were doing, and produce similar outcomes with only minor differences. Moving to the new 6.8×51 round will put the U.S. significantly ahead of Russian troops in terms of both effective range, energy on target, and the ability to aim more quickly. Russia doesn’t have money for a major upgrade program, and they don’t have a mature and vibrant civilian firearms market to lean on the way the U.S. Army does, so this isn’t likely to change any time soon.
China’s round has advantages over the 5.56x45mm. Ballistic numbers are hard to come by, and knowing whether those ballistic numbers are accurate or communist party propaganda is even harder, so take this with a grain of salt.
What we do know from doing the math, though, is that Chinese rifles fire a heavier bullet at greater energies than older 55 grain U.S. 5.56 designs. The best 5.56 rounds (hotter 62 grain rounds and 77 grain rounds) close the gap and are probably of similar performance. The Chinese rounds could have a slight edge in energy on target advantage at longer ranges than U.S. 77 grain rounds if they’ve managed to get some more pressure out of the latest versions of the cartridge.
Moving away from 5.56 to the 6.8×51 completely changes all of that. With weights almost double and speeds a little better than the Chinese rounds, there’s no question who will have greater range and more energy on target at longer ranges. Unlike Russia, China has more financial might and could conceivably come up with an improved rifle in the coming years to stay competitive.
But, like the Russians, they don’t have the ability to ask companies already selling a broad variety of firearms to civilians to come up with new designs and compete for the business the way the U.S. did. Their state bureaucracies probably can’t make the changes necessary for short development cycles. At best, they’re five years out from being where the U.S. is today, and at worst, over a decade.
Allies Need To Get On Board
American allies in Europe and Asia are facing the same potential enemies the United States was thinking about when they started this process. The EU, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia all have money, but effectively destroyed their civilian firearms markets during the last century and can’t come up with new rifles they way we did. There’s no reason, however, that they can’t give SIG a call and get U.S. help in joining the effort.
Having rifles that give them a decisive advantage over Russia and China would be particularly important for Taiwan, as they face the highest probability of needing to use them against mainland forces in asymmetric warfare. As we learned from the press conference announcing the XM5, though, the United States can’t supply the guns or any ammunition until we’ve got our own troops equipped and supplied with ammunition. That means it won’t happen any time soon.
Like everyone else, Taiwan could decide to buy in now to get their own ammunition production going and get a good reserve of ammunition built up. That’s a move they’ll want to give some serious consideration.
The time for U.S. allies to make the leap along with us is now, not years from now.