Development of New Assault Rifle to Speed Up

A strategy change at the Program Executive Office, Soldier has speeded up the development of a potential replacement of the Army's assault weapons.

Lt. Col. Matthew Clarke, project manager for individual weapons at the Picatinny, N.J., research facility said the Army has ordered 200 XM8's for the Army Test and Evaluation Command to test during the last quarter of the year.

The heart of the weapon is the kinetic energy portion of the Heckler & Koch XM29 -- known as the objective individual combat weapon -- successfully tested four years ago.

The XM29 is an integrated dual-munitions bursting weapon. It has an over and under barrel with a fire control. The top barrel fires bursting munitions using a fire control that programs the round, telling it where to explode.

"It knows where to blow up," Clarke explained. "The fire control has a ballistic computer with a range finder allowing it to program the round to within one meter of its target."

The bottom portion of the weapon is a 5.56mm assault rifle.

The original requirement called for the weapon to pull apart, providing separate assault and bursting munitions weapons.

When Clarke arrived at the center nine months ago the $50-million project had produced nothing for the field, even though the prototype proved successful years earlier.

Analyzing the progress, Clarke and his staff made a major strategy shift to get a new generation of arms to the field. They moved from what he defined as an "evolutionary approach" to "spiral development."

Under the evolution strategy, developers planned to build a complete system, then improve on it. The first built would be about an 80 percent solution. The second about 90 percent and the third would be 100 percent.

"That approach bothered us because it would take too long to get new technology in the soldiers' hands," Clarke explained.

Under the spiral approach, the team broke the system into subsystems. This allows the parts to mature individually before being integrated into a single system.

This tack will put the technology in the field years before it could have been done under the original approach, Clarke said.

While the project manager emphasizes a lot of scrutiny remains before the XM8 could become the new generation assault rifle, he's confident the evaluations will be positive.

That confidence stems from H & K's initial test against an assault rifle system similar to the one being used in the MX8. Testers fired several hundred thousand rounds through a variety of different weapons. For instance, they took 10 weapons and fired 10,000 out of each weapon without cleaning them. Of the ten weapons tested there was only one mechanical failure. Additionally, the weapons' accuracy shifted less than 5 percent from factory specifications.

"Such a firing would wear out the weapons currently in our inventory," Clarke said.

The Test and Evaluation Command will use two types of testing -- developmental and operational -- to ascertain the XM8s viability.

Developmental testing is similar to what Consumer Reports magazine would do, Clarke explained.

"We will super-cool the weapon. We will fire it to failure to see what breaks," Clarke explained. "We'll drop it, we'll put chemicals on it to see how it reacts. That will provide the hard data to build a case for reliability, availability and maintainability, or not."

At the same time, testers will bring soldiers into the loop for limited operational testing.

"We will get soldiers to use the weapons in harsh conditions and get their opinions," Clarke continued.

"The proof will come when we start testing," Clarke said. "We have some theoretical numbers, but we will build weapons and we will test them hard. And, if the system is not significantly better than the existing weapons it's not going anywhere."

Discussions in forum on the Infantry Web site show some infantrymen question the value of fielding a new assault rifle delivering the same 5.56mm rounds already in service. They question the gain. Clarke, however, sees a lot of value added.

The XM8 is designed so the user -- either in the field or at the unit -- will be able to switch out barrels. It will come with different barrel lengths ranging from an assault weapon to an automatic rifle version.

"That means commanders will have the ability to tailor their weapon systems to day or night, like we do today, and for specific functions for soldiers throughout the unit," Clarke explained.

Moreover, using the same weapons platform reduces the logistics burden of using various weapons. Today, the M4s and M16s have only about an 80 percent commonality in parts. The XM8 we will have a 100 percent commonality.

The key is integrating functionality and improving modularity, reliability and durability while reducing weight, Clarke said.

"We'll either do it or we won't," he said. "If we do it and the Infantry wants it, then we will continue. If not, we won't."

"If everything goes green light across the board," Clarke said. "The weapon could begin reaching the field as early as the middle of fiscal year 2006."