Evolution of weapons for SOF operator
In January 2019, the international special operations forces (ISOF) community gathered at Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas, NV, to consider the latest technologies available in small arms. Organised by US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), the event coincided with the annual SHOT Show and provided industry with the opportunity to showcase a series of solutions capable of providing the most modern SOF units with the means of maintaining the tactical advantage across the contemporary battlefield.
The range day was announced on 13 June with an RfI regarding industry cooperation to provide the ISOF community with, “insight and perspective,” on emerging technologies capable of supporting future SOF capabilities.
According to USSOCOM officials attached to the Program Executive Office (PEO) SOF Warrior, the event provided US and international SOF forces with the chance to collaborate and consider ‘other challenges’ currently being considered across the full range of operational theatres, where mission sets range from counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency through to military assistance campaigns.
As industry sources explained to MT, the ISOF community continues to pay close attention to USSOCOM activities in relation to small arms solutions, with multiple partner nation forces already operating derivatives of the command’s staple M4A1 carbine, which is chambered for 5.56x45mm ammunition. Similar, the community also continues to mimic the current fashion for 7.62x51mm designated marksmanship rifles (DMRs), designed to provide operators with increased ‘stopping power’ and extended range.
However, as the PEO for USSOCOM’s SOF Warrior, Col John Reim, explained to MT: “Some of the tools we have developed and perfected over the latter 17 years aren’t as relevant [in the contemporary operating environment] so we need help in how we address those emerging and near-peer type threats, particularly as you look at the commercialisation and access to some of the commercial technology out there which our adversaries are leveraging; we are looking for industry help in how we address some of those requirements.”
As the office’s programme manager for ammunition and weapons, LtCol Mark Owens, USSOCOM continues to consider future strategies regarding exploitation of its existing portfolio of weapon systems, with specific emphasis on exploiting existing solutions in the marketplace.
Looking ahead to the ISOF Range Day in January, Col Reim described how, “…changing small things has massive effects on the tactical edge,” before emphasising why it remains so important to get the entire international SOF population to Creech AFB to share lessons learned, align multiple views and understand the future operating environment.
“Why is it important to get the entire international population there? […] In the past, we have looked at various different [small arms] technologies and in the future, we are going to put out solicitations to fit these observstions for key technology areas that we need to see examples of,” Col Reim added, while highlighting evolutions in form factor, weight and calibre selections, particularly in the area of carbines and assault rifles. “What we plan to do with our existing portfolio of weapon systems is to exercise the modularity and requirements that already exist,” he explained, before describing how USSOCOM was preparing itself for what could be the, “next revolution in small arms.”
Col Reim confirmed that USSOCOM will conduct an Engineering Change Proposal to modify the Sniper Support Rifle (SSR) to accommodate emerging 6.5mm Creedmoor ammunition, as it prepares for what many organisations expect to be a significant shift away from the NATO-standard calibre of choice – 5.56x45mm – to alternative calibre selections. “This next revolution in small arms may be imminent and we’ll certainly leverage that when it manifests,” he asserted. Defence sources confirmed that 6.5mm Creedmoor ammunition will also be considered at the ISOF Range Day, with particular focus on precision.
Illustrating the importance of ongoing collaboration with industry, Col Owens stated: “Over recent years, we have received a lot of help from industry and have got almost everything we have asked for. In the past year, we have asked for the domestic production of AK-47s with Century Arms building assault rifles for both domestic consumption and potentially, for our foreign allies.”
Arguably the most prominent upgrade programme in small arms technology of interest to the wider ISOF community is USSOCOM’s Personal Defense Weapon (PDW) concept.
In February 2018, PEO SOF Warrior awarded SIG Sauer a sole source contract to deliver a total of 10 PDW Conversion Kits, designed to upgrade the in-service 5.56x45mm M4A1 Close Quarter Battle Receiver (CQBR) carbine to a 7.62x35mm (300 BLK) PDW.
Featuring a replacement upper receiver and weapon stock and based on SIG Sauer’s MCX RATTLER weapon, the PDW conversion kit can be integrated onto the lower receiver of the M4A1 CQB in ‘a matter of minutes in field conditions,’ providing SOF operators with the opportunity to rapidly enhance lethality, dependent on mission requirements at the time.
SIG Sauer’s Director for Media Relations & Communications, Joel Harris, described to MT how the PDW variant features a 13.97cm barrel, which compares to the M4A1’s CQBR 26cm barrel; a total length of 67.9cm; and an all-up weight of 2.72 kg, thereby making it ideal for operation in confined spaces, where SOF assault teams require optimal levels of mobility.
NSWC Crane, in Indiana, is currently running an evaluation of the PDW conversion kit, with PEO SOF Warrior confirming to MT that it intends to publish an RFP for a wider procurement programme by the second quarter of 2019.
“Again, we are taking advantage of the modularity of our small arms portfolio,” Col Owens highlighted, while describing the M4A1 carbine as providing an ideal baseline for upgrades. “This allows us to take off the buffer and shorten the overall length of the weapon and also allows us to have very good reliability,” he explained, referring to the PDW conversion kit.
“We are looking for the [PDW] to be chambered in 300 BLK and looking for commercial devices we can drop on the M4, although this is not necessarily an upgrade [to] the M4. Instead, we are looking to optimise it for concealment and different types of operational deployment,” he concluded.
The PDW Conversion Kit also includes an MCX 5.56x45mm barrel; multiple weapon stocks in folding, skeleton, and telescopic configurations; SIG Sauer’s SRD suppressor (for 300 BLK); and, finally, Wilcox BOSS 300 BLK and SIG Sauer JULIET 4x magnifier weapon optics.
Meanwhile, NSWC Crane is also considering a series of next-generation technologies to assist small unit SOF teams with target acquisition. On 10 October, the agency awarded a contract worth up to U$21.2 million to Nightforce Optics to support USSOCOM’s Squad-Variable Powered Scope (SVPS) requirement, which aims to provide a single sighting unit capable of supporting CQB and longer range engagements.
Nightforce Optics’ solution is based on its ATACR 1-8X24 F1 which, according to a company spokesperson, has been designed as a ‘low power variable riflescope.’ The sight includes a 1X field of view and features a daylight-visible red dot sight, which company officials claim appears to provide a ‘more precise’ capability over open sights. Weighing 595g, the ATACR 1-8X24 F1 is 25.4cm in length.
However, the sight also provides up to 8X zoom capability to assist operators to ‘locate, identify and engage targets at the maximum effective range of most rifles.’ Deliveries are due to run through to 2023.
Elsewhere, USSOCOM’s small arms upgrade programme continues to be addressed with the Suppressed Upper Receiver Group (SURG) concept- a contract for which was also awarded to SIG Sauer on 7 August.
According to Mr Harris, the company is currently implementing a $48 million contract to supply an indefinite quantity of SURG appliqué kits to USSOCOM component commands over a five-year period. MT understands that USSOCOM could consider acquiring up to a total of 70,000 SURG upgrades over the contract period.
Similar to the PDW Conversion Kit, SIG Sauer’s SURG has been designed to upgrade the M4A1 carbine with a permanent suppressor integrated into the upper receiver of the carbine, which, according to USSOCOM’s solicitation, allows SOF operators, “continuous suppressed use on the battlefield.”
Defence sources confirmed to MT how suppressor technology continues to gain in popularity across ISOF communities, as well as more conventional force elements, with operators relying on them to optimise signature management on the battlefield. The suppression of sound and flash has proven invaluable in reducing interference of intra- and inter-team communications, as well as reducing the chances of physical and audible detection and identification by enemy forces.
According to Mr Harris, SIG Sauer’s SURG solution managed to successfully withstand the, “…stringent stress and torture requirements set by [US Department of Defense] for firing specifications, vibration, sound, and temperature requirements to ensure soldier safety […] The requirements set by DoD for the SURG procurement demanded significant improvements in reliability, thermal characteristics, and durability that went well above anything we are currently seeing in the industry.”
However, USSOCOM’s progression towards a SURG solution comes on the back of multiple programme delays, which saw the concept cancelled in 2016 due to overheating of technology demonstrators, which in turn resulted in mirage effects in the sight picture of the firer, particularly when firing M855A1 and MK318 Mod 0 ammunition types.
As Mr Harris told MT, the latest SURG solution now comprises a, “next-generation, modular upper receiver group that is interoperable with current lower receivers and is optimised for full-time suppressed operation with advanced heat mitigation technology to counter mirage effect.”
Early March USSOCOM announced Barrett Firearms was awarded an estimated $49,936,300, five-year, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity, firm-fixed-price contract for the purchase of advanced sniper rifles in support of the command. Fiscal 2019 research, development, test and evaluation funds in the amount of $387,234 are being obligated at the time of award. The work will be performed in Christiana, TN/USA and is scheduled to be completed by March 2024.
In Europe, several SOF commands continue to adopt small arms strategies similar to those being undertaken by USSOCOM.
As an example, SOF elements from Denmark and the Netherlands have become some of the first entities to procure undisclosed numbers of 7.62x35mm (300 BLK) carbines from SIG Sauer, as commanders seek to enhance the stopping power and lethality of operators conducting counter-terrorism (CT) duties at home and abroad.
Variants were used during Exercise Night Hawk in September by members of the Danish Special Operations Command, as part of a multinational training programme with ISOF partner forces. MCX carbines were used to support CT missions on land and at sea, Danish SOCOM officials confirmed to MT.
Elsewhere, the Czech MoD is considering the procurement of up to 350 carbines on behalf of the country’s Special Forces Directorate, which retains operational control of the 601st Special Forces Group (SFG) ‘General Moravec.’
The SFG, which is tasked with, “unconventional missions and direct actions to neutralise the enemy with specific individual engagement and unprecedented force,” is seeking a conventional design assault rifle based on the class AR-15 weapon, as opposed to a bullpup design in which the magazine housing is integrated behind the pistol grip in order to maximise barrel length in more of a short-barreled configuration. Examples include Israel Weapon Industries’ (IWI) MICRO-TAVOR (5.56x45mm) TAVOR 7 (7.62x51mm) and X95 (5.56x45mm) carbines, currently in use with undisclosed SOF units globally.
Publishing an RfI on 19 February, the Czech MoD announced it was expecting to begin a down-selection process for an undisclosed number of candidate carbines in March 2019, with an initial operational test and evaluation process conducted by operators from the 601st SFG. A final selection of the SOF-relevant carbine is expected to be confirmed by the end of the year, industry sources told MT. The MoD is expected to consider a variety of firearms ranging from 5.56x45mm up to 7.62x39mm in calibre, with options including the Czech Republic’s own 7.62x39mm CZ BREN 807 carbine, which was selected by France’s paramilitary GIGN CT unit in March 2017.
Providing enhanced lethality in a similar form factor to GIGN’s legacy Heckler & Koch HK416 in 5.56x45mm calibre, the BREN 807 features a total weight (unladen) of 2.9kg and measures 68.8cm in length with weapon stock folded. It relies on a gas-operated and short-stroke gas piston operating system, with rail adaptors integrated to the 12-, 3-, 6- and 9-o’clock positions of the weapon for the integration of tactical accessories including torchlights, laser designators and weapon sights. Finally, the BREN 807 features a 30-round magazine and provides operators with a maximum effective range of 600 metres.
Additionally, the MoD is likely to consider a variant of Sig Sauer’s MCX family of assault rifles. Options include the Sig MCX VIRTUS Short Barrelled Rifle (SBR), available in multiple calibres including 5.56x45mm and 7.62x35mm (300 BLK). Also reliant upon a short-stroke, gas piston operating system, the MCX VIRTUS SBR includes barrel length options between 22.9cm and 40.6cm, dependent on user preference.
Situated in Midrand, South Africa, Truvelo Manufactures (Armoury) is known world-wide as manufacturer of accurate barrels and has a reputation as designer and producer of some of the finest precision rifles available for SOF and green armies. According to Truvelo, their success in developing and machining highly-accurate barrels for other companies led to their development of a combination of its own barrel range and sophisticated precision rifle technology. The result of this combination is Truvelo’s sophisticated range of highly accurate, smooth-firing long range rifles and precision weapons are that are comparatively lightweight, strong, stable, adjustable and accurate.
Truvelo Armoury launched the AMR with Integrated Suppression (AMRIS) at the African Aerospace and Defence exposition in Tshwane / Pretoria in September 2018. Chambered for the 20x42mm round, weighing approx. 10kg and with a range quoted at 1000m, the sub-sonic secondary anti-materiel/sniper rifle has a Truvelo standard folding stock and can easily be carried in a backpack. When Gen. Steve Maloma, Head of South Africa’s Special Forces, heard about AMRIS and its APR capabilities during the launch event, his first question was: “How fast can I get them?”
Also carefully monitoring next-generation trends in special operations assault rifle technology is IWI, which continues to supply SOF units with small arms solutions both at home and abroad.
Unable to discuss development initiatives currently being investigated to support SOF units in the future operating environment, Ronen Hamudot, Corporate Vice President for Marketing & Sales at IWI’s owner, SK Group, explained to MT how SOF operators themselves continue to drive the small arms market: “SOF define highly demanding requirements, which later set the standard for other forces to follow […] We at IWI pay close attention to the hands-on feedback we get from these forces. That results in our constantly improving our assault rifles as well as our other products to meet the special abilities as defined by such forces.”
IWI’s most recent enhancements to its small arms arsenal includes the TAVOR 7, which was first promoted to the market at AUSA 2017 to provide SOF units with increased lethality and extended range.
Comprising a more powerful variant of the 5.56x45mm MICRO TAVOR and X95, the bullpup weapon design is available in 7.62x51mm calibre. With an unladen weight of 4.1kg, the TAVOR 7 measures 72.3cm in length and is can feature either a 43.2cm or 50.8cm free-floating, chrome-lined barrel for enhanced accuracy at longer ranges out to 800 metres. The rifle body itself is manufactured from impact-modified polymer materials. The rifles rely on a short-stroke gas piston operating system with four-position variable gas regular including an ‘off’ position which, according to Mr Hamudot, was specifically designed in response to emerging requirements from SOF.
The TAVOR 7 also features ambidextrous controls, including ejection port; charging handle; safety catch; and magazine release catch, and has integrated rail adaptor systems in the 3-, 6- and 9-o’clock positions for the addition of tactical accessories.
“When we make assault rifles suitable for Special Forces’ demands, we make them ready for other forces for when they face new challenges and the current changing needs. Any advancement aimed at them is later the basis for all other users. That, to us, makes assault rifles for special operations an extremely significant market,” Mr Hamudot stated, then went on to provide further details regarding IWI’s future development directions: “We believe this growing market will keep doing so in the foreseeable future. Therefore, in order to increase our market share, we dedicate research and development resources to ensure our rifles address the needed features. We address the weight factor as well as accuracy – both critical features in assault rifles for special operations. In our opinion, in the next five to ten years users will put their emphasis on even better accuracy; a longer life cycle; and uncompromising quality products.”
However, despite emphasising that IWI believes 5.56x45mm calibre will remain the primary ammunition of choice in the short to medium term, Mr Hamudot acknowledged developments in alternative ammunition types, concluding: “We see no change in the 5.56 calibre. Yet new calibres will keep being tested and introduced.”
Also seeking enhanced levels in lethality and range associated with requirements from the contemporary operating environment are Russian SOF, who are benefiting from continuous upgrades in small arms technologies as the Special Operations Command (SSO) builds its capabilities. At the Army 2018 exhibition near Moscow in August, the Kalashnikov Concern unveiled its latest assault rifle – the AK-308 – which represents a significant departure for the company’s traditional Russian-specific 5.45x39mm and 7.62x39mm assault rifle calibres.
The AK-308 has been designed with NATO standard 7.62x51mm calibre in mind, with the prototype on display based on Kalashnikov’s legacy AK-103 and AK-12 assault rifle designs. According to a company statement, the AK-308 is being “prepared for trials” with the Russian Armed Forces and MT understands that operators from the SSO will be included in any initial operational and test evaluation.
The AK-308 can accommodate a 20-round magazine and, in unladen configuration, weighs a total of 4.3kg – marginally heavier than IWI’s TAVOR 7 in the same calibre. The rifle, which measures 104.5cm with weapon stock retracted or folded and 110.5cm when fully extended, features a 41.5cm barrel.
The development of the AK-308 follows the certification of Kalashnikov’s 5.45x39mm AK-12 and 7.62x39mm AK-15 assault rifles by Russian SOF and conventional units over the course of 2017.
“New rifles were developed by Kalashnikov according to the requirements set during the RATNIK [soldier modernisation] programme that originally sought new tactical and combat equipment for Russian Special forces. Both AK-12 and AK-15 rifles have successfully passed all tests, including field trials by various units of [the] Russian army and in various climate zones,” a company statement read. Both rifles are available in short-barrelled variants, designated AK-12K and AK-15K, designed to support the CQB requirements of Russian SOF.
The AK-308 dramatically extends the maximum effective range of the AK-12 and AK-15 from 400 to 600m, with operators carrying just an additional weight of approximately 0.5kg over lighter-calibre solutions.
Similar to USSOCOM’s SURG and PDW requirements, the Indian MoD is also pursuing one of the world’s largest SOF-specific assault rifle requirements, although procurement efforts continue to be hampered by ongoing delays.
The MoD has been seeking a CQB assault rifle or carbine for Indian Para SF units since 2010 as part of an ‘urgent operational requirement,’ which has yet to come to fruition. Industry sources told MT how the requirement has grown from an initial demand for 45,000 weapon systems to a current figure of 93,895. An updated RFI was published on 13 June 2017, with Para SF units demanding a CQB carbine weighing less than 3kg.
SIG Sauer‘s SiG 716 rifle and Caracal‘s CAR 816 close-quarter battle (CQB) carbine have emerged as the lowest bidders for the Indian Army’s requirement for equipping its soldiers with a new rifle. The SiG 716 finished with the lowest quote (L1) for the army’s fast track procurement of 72,000 new automatic rifles, while the CAR 816 finished L1 in a separate bid for 94,000 carbines.
The SIG 716 G2 7.62x51mm riflewill replace the indigenous INSAS assault rifle, which are to be retired soon, having beat two contenders, Caracal and Israeli Weapons Industries (IWI), and the new carbine will replace the 9mm Sterling carbine, which are being gradually phased out, beating Thales and MKU. Contract negotiations are expected to last over three months before a deal can be signed and the rifle manufacturers have to deliver their weapons within a year. Full story here.
Indo-Russian Rifles Pvt Ltd (IRR), a joint venture (jv) of the Indian Ordnance Factory Board and Rosoboronexport and Kalashnikov – both entities of Russian state corporation Rostec – has opened a plant at Corva, Uttar Pradesh, for production of the Russian AK203 rifle, Rosoboronexport announced on 3 March. Full story here.
Republic of Korea
Elsewhere, the K2C carbines is being considered by the Republic of Korea’s (RoK) SOF components, including the Army Special Forces Command and Naval Special Warfare Command. Additionally, SOF are also evaluating S&T Motiv’s K1A 5.56x45mm short-barreled rifle which, according to company literature, has been specifically designed for special operations units.
Weighing 2.78kg, the K1A provides a light-weight solution for SOF seeking to optimise mobility in the confined and congested operating areas associated with CQB and urban warfare. The conventional AR-design weapon, which features a 26.3cm barrel, relies on a direct impingement gas operating system and measures 83.8cm with three-position weapon stock fully extended.
Manufactured from forged aluminium alloys, the K1A has a maximum effective range of 400m, according to company officials. The carbine includes ambidextrous controls and can be fired in semi-automatic, three round burst and fully automatic settings.
MT understands RoK SOF have been observed conducting field trials with the K1A as part of CT training at home, using the weapon with red dot and infra-red sighting systems as well as suppressor technology.
Finally, in South America, Uruguayan SOF components are seeking carbine upgrades for the National Army. MT understands this initiative will support ongoing upgrades to the ‘Scorpion’ Special Counter-Terrorism Company (CEAT).
Requirements, which were published on 19 September, call for tactical accessories capable of being integrated on board HK’s 5.56x45mm G36C carbine, currently the primary personal weapon system of choice for Uruguayan SOF. Accessories demanded by the army include integrated rail adaptor systems, that would then turn each weapon system into a modular solution which could be upgraded in line with operational mission requirements.
Additionally, the army is seeking to procure tactical foregrips, designed to enhance marksmanship in close combat environments and ‘blue-bolt’ conversion kits, allowing operators to fire simulated paint rounds during training serials.
The carbine remains the primary weapon system for SOF organisations around the world, providing operators with the capability to support the full spectrum of mission sets. However, as the USSOCOM development roadmap has illustrated, conventional assault rifle designs continue to be enhanced in order to meet emerging requirements from across an increasingly complex operating environment, in which more and more continues to be demanded from SOF units conducting CT, direct action, special reconnaissance and military assistance tasks.