November 16, 2018 — In October, the US Army made an announcement that not only shook up things in 2018 but will continue to shake things up for years to come.
“Right now, the feedback looks like we are going to a 6.8 caliber round,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said recently.
The Army is looking for a new standard carbine and a new squad automatic weapon. Though the AR-15-based M16/M4 platform has performed well over the years and has benefited from upgrades to its modular construction, the fact remains that the design and its cartridge are based on fifty-year-old thinking. A lot of experience, in the combat zone and in the manufacturing world, has been gained over that time and the Army is looking forward at potential conflicts with modern mechanized opponents with high-tech weaponry and effective armor, something the War on Terror has not really been prepared for.
The M249 SAW, though not as old as the AR-15, is also due for replacement. Like the M16/M4, it has served American troops well but its time, too, has come. Both the new carbine and the new squad automatic weapon will fire the same 6.8mm round, but details on the cartridge are scarce.
Though the 6.8mm Remington SPC cartridge was developed in the early days of the Global War on Terror in response to concerns that the military’s standard 5.56 rounds were insufficient, a worry that goes back generations, the smart money is that the round that replaces it will not be the SPC. Though it performs well in some situations, such as in the short ranges of urban combat, it begins to fall off as the range increases. Initially popular with hunters, the SPC has come to have a questionable reputation as a game round, as well.
A new version of the cartridge, dubbed the SPC II, is loaded for higher chamber pressures and is beginning to make shooters forget about its less-than-stellar predecessor.
The Next Generation Squad Weapon program aims to develop both new guns. The rifle, referred to as the NGSW-R, will replace the M4 carbine. The M249 SAW’s replacement will be called the NGWS-AR, AR standing for Automatic Rifle. The plan is for a total of up to 250,000 weapons over a 10-year period.
This has the potential to really shake up the industry, and the aggressive procurement schedule means that it could all roll into regular production as early as 2021. Five manufacturers, AAI Corporation Textron Systems, FN America, General Dynamics-OTS, PCP Tactical, and Sig Sauer, have been selected to deliver prototypes and compete for the spoils. The solicitation notes that the contracts could be worth $150 million per year once production goes full-scale.
Talk about the 6.8 round is all over the place. The military requirements call for a general purpose round, not one designed specifically for long-range shooting or for automatic fire and little else is known publicly at this point. Polymer cases come up in a lot of discussions, but questions about a polymer-cased cartridge to deliver the pressure needed for armor piercing capability in a round 6.8mm in diameter make observers wonder. Gen. Milley claimed that the new round will “fire at speeds that far exceed the velocity of bullets today,” and to have velocities higher than a 5.56 with a much heavier bullet means that the recoil might be significant.
While the move to keep common ammunition between the two weapons makes perfect sense, the switch to whatever 6.8mm cartridge ends up being chosen will put the US Army at odds with not only the rest of NATO but with the US Marine Corps, as well. The Marines have begun adopting their own next-generation weapons, but they are all based on the existing 5.56 round.
Industry observers will be watching these developments closely, as technology and trends in the military have a way of quickly trickling down into the commercial market. For all we know, deer rifles a decade from now may be based on the same 6.8mm round the Army is looking at right now.