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Tuesday, Nov. 08, 2011

New light machine gun aims to ‘SAW’ Soldier loads

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Nearly 20 Soldiers participated in a two-week assessment of a prototype light machine gun to demonstrate its potential impact on mission effectiveness and to help engineers develop possible improvements to the weapon and its unique ammunition. The evaluation sought the warfighter’s perspective after enduring a series of strenuous combat performance drills with the weapon.

It had taken six years to get from a concept to a fully functioning weapon that was ready for evaluation, but Kori Phillips, a project management engineer in the Joint Service Small Arms Program, said it was well worth the wait.

“This is exactly what we have been waiting for,” Phillips said. “This is what we need to move forward.”

The Soldiers’ feedback will be used to influence the user community to develop a Capability Development Document. A CDD is required before the system can transition to a program of record and enter the Engineering and Manufacturing Development phase of the acquisition life cycle.

This would be the next step needed for the program to move forward toward an eventual fielding of the weapon to Soldiers in the field.

The light machine gun is part of the Lightweight Small Arms Technologies program, which is managed by the JSSAP, part of the Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.

The LMG is a gas-operated, cased telescoped light machine gun. It is air-cooled and belt fed with selectable semi-automatic and fully automatic fire and fires from the open-bolt position. Its rate of fire is approximately 650 rounds per minute.

The JSSAP team hopes that the LMG will eventually replace the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, knows as a SAW, as the standard issue machine gun used by Soldiers in combat zones.

Getting to know the weapon The machine guns and their operators were tested through automatic rifleman tasks and operational scenarios. The purpose was to assess how the lighter machine gun affects the Soldiers’ ability to effectively engage targets from various firing positions after completing tasks that induced physical stress and an elevated heart rate. The weapons were also evaluated on their suitability regarding portability, safety, compatibility with Soldier equipment, durability in challenging environments, ease of use, and impact on Soldier mobility.

“We ran Soldiers through with both weapon systems and timed them to look at how much faster they could complete the course with the lighter weapon and to gain subjective feedback on mobility and portability issues while they negotiated the obstacles,” said Maj. Matthew Bowler, a military adviser to the small arms program.

After each event, Soldiers filled out surveys to share opinions about how they felt physically, any issues or malfunctions they experienced and other feedback.

On the first day of the second week, the Soldiers marched six miles in full combat gear, including body armor, a 50-pound rucksack and a basic load of ammunition for their respective weapons. Half carried the 
SAW and the other half carried the LMG.

After the road march, the Soldiers started firing their weapons to measure the effects of muscle fatigue and stress while firing.

Infantryman Sgt. Brandon Vega saw an increase in accuracy when firing the LSAT after the march compared to the SAW.

“The first six round bursts were within the size of a quarter,” he said. “Then I got three on top of one so I was impressed with that.”

According to a 2005 study, the average fighting load for the SAW gunner is 79 pounds. That is nearly twice the weight a Soldier should carry, according to Army doctrine.

“The Soldier carries too much weight so anything we can do to reduce Soldier load increases the Soldier’s effectiveness, his capability on the battlefield and his survivability,” Bowler said.

The weight reduction provided by the LMG would have a significant effect on the SAW gunner, the most heavily burdened Soldier in the squad.

With a basic load of 1,000 rounds, the light machine gun and its cased telescoped ammunition is 20.4 pounds lighter than a traditional SAW with the same amount of standard, brass-cased ammunition.

During the assessment, more than 25,000 rounds were fired from eight prototypes. The suggested rate of fire for machine guns is three to five round bursts, eight to 10 round bursts at the most. This gives the gunner time to readjust his aim and helps keep the barrel from overheating as quickly.

A high rate of fire increases the possibility of a “cook-off” — when the propellant is unintentionally ignited by the heat in the weapon chamber, firing a round unexpectedly and causing a significant safety hazard. Because of the design of the chamber, the LMG is very unlikely to experience a cook-off, Phillips said.

Overall, the Soldiers’ comments were positive. However, no decision has been made on whether the LMG will eventually be fielded.

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