Army won’t field deadlier Corps round
Army won’t field deadlier Corps round
April 2, 2010
Special Operations Command and now the Marine Corps are fielding a deadlier 5.56mm round, but the Army says soldiers can’t have it. Instead, the service is holding on to its dream of environmentally friendly ammunition.
Army ammunition officials are on their third attempt at redesigning the Cold War-era M855 5.56mm round by adding a better-performing, lead-free bullet.
The service had to halt the M855A1 Lead-Free Slug program in July when the new bullet failed to perform under high temperatures . The setback delayed fielding by nearly a year.
The newest version of the green round is in the live-fire test phase, and Army officials said they are confident it will be ready for combat use by June.
The Marine Corps, however, doesn’t share this confidence. The Corps has dropped its plans to field the Army’s M855A1 and approved the new SOST round for Marines to use in Afghanistan. SOST, short for Special Operations Science and Technology, is SOCom’s enhanced 5.56mm round . It isn’t green, but it is deadlier than the current M855 round and it’s available now, Marine officials say. The Corps’ decision to purchase about 2 million SOST rounds in September illustrates the growing frustration with the M855’s performance on the modern battlefield.
The M855 was developed in the 1970s and approved as an official NATO round in 1980. In recent years, troops have widely criticized it. They complain it is ineffective against barriers such as car windshields and often travels right through unarmored insurgents, with less than lethal effects.
Jason Gillis, a former Army staff sergeant, first witnessed the M855’s shortcomings in 2004 on the streets of Baghdad. He was a squad leader with 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, on patrol when a vehicle began speeding toward his unit.
After several warnings, “both of our M249s opened up instantly, forming a crisscross pattern of tracer that met at the vehicles engine compartment and windshield. Within seconds, riflemen and grenadiers were executing magazine changes while the vehicle kept rolling and finally stopped 10 meters from my lead troops,” Gillis recalled in an e-mail to Army Times. He is now a freelance writer who often focuses on military small-arms issues. “Assuming the driver was most likely riddled beyond recognition, we were all astounded to see the driver emerge from the vehicle completely unscathed,” Gillis wrote.
“Closer inspection revealed that the M855 ammunition had failed to effectively penetrate the vehicle’s windshield despite the fact over 400 rounds were expended at extremely close range and on target.”
Other soldiers say they like the M855 because it’s lightweight, but wish it had more punch. “The idea of being able to carry 210 rounds [basic load] is quickly overshadowed by the fact that it takes more than one and even more than two rounds to drop the enemy,” Staff Sgt. Charles Kouri, 82nd Airborne Division, told Army Times.
Army going ‘green’ Army officials acknowledged that the M855 “has not been providing the ‘stopping power’ the user would like at engagement ranges less than 150 yards,” according to a June 17, 2005, Project Manager Maneuver Ammunition briefing.
Ballistics experts maintain, however, that no bullet is perfect and that it is highly unlikely any bullet will cause an enemy to drop every time after just one shot. “There is not a bullet in this world that will do that,” said Dr. Martin Fackler, the former director of the Wound Ballistics Laboratory at the Letterman Army Institute of Research and a combat surgeon during Vietnam.
“Even if you take the guy’s heart apart, he can still shoot back at you for 15 seconds because he’s still got enough oxygen in the blood in his brain to do it.”
Still, the Army pushed forward with two priorities: to find ammo that performs better and is also lead-free. As part of a larger effort to study bullet lethality, the Army began revamping its green bullet program, an effort that began in 1996. The first attempt featured a tungsten-nylon blend that didn’t perform well and proved to be almost as harmful to the environment as lead.
Another attempt, with the M855A1 LFS, appeared to be the solution. The new round was made of a bismuth-tin alloy with a steel penetrator. Army officials said the M855A1 provided more “consistent performance” than the M855 round, and performed better against barriers such as windshields and car doors.
The Army has spent about $32 million on the LFS program since fiscal 2007. The Army had planned to start issuing the first of 20 million M855A1 rounds last August, until an 11th-hour problem surfaced when some of the bullets did not follow their trajectory or intended flight path. The slug proved to be sensitive to heat.
The latest setback led the Army to search for a new lead-free slug material and prompted the Marine Corps, which was interested in the M855A1, to go with SOCom’s new 5.56mm round instead. “We put our money toward SOST because of the lead-free failure,” said Chief Warrant Officer-5 Jeffrey Eby, the Corps’ senior gunner. “That lead-free bullet in the last six months just fell apart on them under extreme heat.”
More accurate round SOST rounds have similar ballistics to the M855 round, meaning combat troops don’t have to adjust to using the new ammo, military officials say. Using an open-tip match round design common with some sniper ammunition, SOST rounds are designed to stay on target better than existing M855 rounds after penetrating windshields, car doors and other objects.
Compared with the M855, SOST rounds also stay on target longer in open air and have increased stopping power, according to Navy Department documents obtained by Marine Corps Times.
At 62 grains, they weigh about the same as most NATO rounds, have a typical lead core with a solid copper shank and are considered a variation of Federal Cartridge Co.’s Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw round, which was developed for big-game hunting and is touted in a company news release for its ability to crush bone.
SOCom developed the new round, formally known as the MK318 MOD 0, for use with the Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle, or SCAR, which needed a more accurate bullet because its short barrel, at 13.8 inches, is less than an inch shorter than the M4 carbine’s.
SOCom first fielded the SOST round in April, said Air Force Maj. Wesley Ticer, a spokesman for the command. It also fielded a cousin — MK319 MOD 0 enhanced 7.62mm SOST ammo — designed for use with the SCAR-Heavy, a powerful 7.62mm battle rifle. SOCom uses both kinds of ammunition, Ticer said.
The Corps purchased a “couple million” SOST rounds as part of a joint $6 million, 10.4-million-round buy in September — enough to last the service several months in Afghanistan, Marine Corps officials said.
Despite the popularity of the SOST, the Army isn’t backing away from its goal to perfect its green M855A1 round. “SOST is a good round, but SOST is not a lead-free slug,” said Lt. Col. Tom Henthorn, chief of the Small Arms Branch at the Soldier Requirements Division at Fort Benning, Ga.
The Army will continue to develop an environmentally friendly 5.56mm, as well as a lead-free 7.62mm bullet, Henthorn added, “because we care about the environment.” Small arms training accounts for about 2,000 metric tons of lead going into the environment every year, Army officials say.
The Army first began its quest for green ammunition in response to environmental groups that pressured some states to prohibit some National Guard units from using their training ranges.
Run-off from lead-contaminated soil can contaminate water sources that supply communities located near the ranges, environmental groups maintain. “We do have real reasons why we are doing this,” said Chris Grassano, product manager for Maneuver Ammunition Systems. Grassano, however, did say that the Army does not have a “significant percentage” of training ranges that have been closed because of lead damage to the environment.
The latest M855A1 design features a solid copper slug instead of bismuth-tin.
During production qualification testing, Army testers will shoot 400,000 rounds of the new version, making the M855A1 “the most tested round we have ever developed,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Woods, product manager for Small and Medium Caliber Ammunition.
The new round addresses the consistency problems of the M855, but Army ballistics officials said “we are not at liberty to compare it to SOST,” Grassano said. While copper is more expensive than lead, Army officials said they could not provide a cost estimate for the M855A1 compared to the current M855. If all goes well in testing, the M855A1 will be ready in June in “sufficient quantities to satisfy the needs of theater,” Grassano said.
“We are pretty confident that once we get it into soldiers’ hands, they will be satisfied with” the new round. ——— Staff writer Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.
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