Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Land Warrior II

The Situation

By the 2010s, the long-forecast technological “jump” upwards that was the Land Warrior program was nothing but a cruel joke. Although bits and pieces of the original specifications had been implemented, the overall concept had proven itself to be unfeasible. No other element of the program embodied this problem quite as well as the OICW - after going through more than 20 years of development with a multi-year gap through cancellation and restart, its eventual arrival was seen as “too little, too late”. The OICW suffered from several crippling problems: The electronics/optics package was too large and fragile, the grenade launcher - intended as the weapon’s primary firing mode - did not make up for its lack of power with its accuracy (though it was, admittedly, much more precise than prior weapon systems), and the Kinetic Energy component - i.e., the underslung rifle - ended up being a noisy carbine strapped to a hefty chunk of weight with limited utility. On their own, both of the weapon components were clearly worthwhile, but the combination suffered from simply being too heavy and bulky for an unaugmented soldier to use comfortably. Accordingly, the project - already once cancelled at the turn of the millenium - suffered its final defeat. Still, this left the US Army in an unenviable position of being forced to maintain their cache of M16-derived weapons. The most modern of these was the M4A3, improved over the original version mainly through addition of a lightweight electronics package to interface with Land Warrior and including the H&K-redesigned action as standard. The 5.56mm ammunition in use with them was adequate to the job, but concerns over terminal performance had long lingered, ever since the round was first introduced. During several large-scale missions, soldiers had witnessed their opponents take multiple hits before dying, and the recurring threat of snipers left the men on the ground asking for a weapon with greater range and knockdown power. The debate became a political issue, and the US Army played its hand right, getting additional Congressional funding to “reequip our soldiers for the demands of the new battlefield”. In a sort of happy accident, the changeover to a caseless round - which had long been planned, to increase firing rates and the amount of ammunition a soldier could carry - fell together with the search for a stronger caliber.

In this climate, Land Warrior II made its first splash, starting with the weapon it was designed around - the M30.

Development Begins

Strapped for ideas, the US Army began to reconsider the Advanced Combat Rifle concept it had floated in the 90s. The objective back then had been an increase of 100% in accuracy over the then-current M16, but this was hard to archieve in a combat firearm. Instead, higher lethality was the new objective. Flechette ammunition -as used in the Steyr ACR - was highly accurate and good at piercing armor, but the actual damage was determined to be lacking. During the SCIMTR trials, a similar concept - metal flechettes fired at high velocty, albeit from an automatic shotgun - had been shelved because the projectiles passed through targets too easily, leaving relatively small wound channels and overpenetrating regularly. Trials with ACR-style ammunition revealed similar problems, though with less severity. Duplex ammunition was dismissed out of hand, as it delivered an even smaller “payload” than the current ammunition and could not be easily redesigned for more armor-piercing performance. The weapon that found the most favor was H&K’s G11 design, which used caseless ammunition to archieve a high RPM of approximately 2000 rounds per minute in three-shot burst mode. However, this concept was still based upon higher accuracy archieved through salvo fire, and had been developed in response to fighting conditions that were almost 50 years in the past by now. In a way, the idea of caseless ammunition was almost secondary; the US Army had determined that it needed a completely new caliber, and with new manufacturing lines, it seemed natural to make the jump towards caseless ammunition at the same time. Thus, the crash project for new bullets began in 2023.

Building A Better Bullet

The new bullet design ended up as the M716 Caseless, Caliber .260 (NATO Designation: 6.6mm Caseless). Unlikely earlier designs, the cartridge had what was labelled a “reverse” case - the bullet itself had a hollow space inside which was filled with gunpowder. Previously, designers had consider this aerodynamically unsound, but careful tweaking of bullet shape and twist rate soon revealed a stable configuration which used the vertex generated by the cavity’s presence as part of its spin stabilization, thereby archieving a very flat trajectory. The tip of the bullet featured a semi-jacketed exposed core licensed from Russian designers; the UN begrudgingly agreed to soften the Hague Convention to allow military use of some types of expanding bullets. Initial tests were cause for optimism as the bullets combined superb armor-piercing capability through its hard penetrator core with large wounds via the expanding aluminum jacket, although there were some overpenetration issues with unarmored targets. Unlike prior attempts at caseless ammunition, the M716 kept a round profile, and although this worsened stacking efficiency some, it was determined that this was not a serious problem. Minor changes and tweaks to the design went on until 2025, when the ammunition was declared satisfactory and tooling for mass production began. The final design weighed 10% less than the 5.56mm, but offered 30% more range and was deemed to have equivalent knockdown power to the bigger 7.62x51mm NATO round. At the same time, the first test versions of the M30 were taking shape.

The Rifle Grows

The M30 - by necessity - picked up several design elements of the G11, but it was clear from the beginning that it had to fulfill very different objectives. The smooth 3-round burst was an impressive, but superfluous feature, especially as concerns over heat development within the chamber gained new relevancy. While the M30 was expected to stand up to some amount of continuous automatic fire, using a three-shot burst as substitute for single shots was clearly too hard a requirement on the whole rifle to keep them in field service. Thus, the floating construction of the G11 was abandoned for a more traditional design where the weapon recoiled fully after each shot. The ammunition feed was also problematic - the magazine had been designed to lie on top of the weapon, similar to the G11 or FN P90 mechanism, but this made reloading while prone ungainly. In 2026, a newly redesigned feed system was tested. The mechanically complex arrangement could still feed from the front, but the magazine well could now swivel to the side and downward, allowing the magazine to be stuck into the side. Concerns over weapon balance came up, which required the inclusion of a small counter-weight to swivel with the magazine well component. The M30 was already looking dangerously overweight at this point, but the designers pressed on - and ended up adding even more weight and complexity with additional gearing below the chamber. With that, the weapon could now accept magazine feed from the front and side positions, as well as belted ammunition from the side. As the weapon was already homing in on 10 pounds unloaded, it was now pitched as “Automatic Weapon”, able to fill both assault rifle as well as SAW roles. The Army liked the flexibility, but the weight would have to come down - unless soldiers could be made to carry more.

No More BDU

Starting from 2017, research into electroactive polymers had yielded true “artificial muscles”. The military potential was obvious, but no concise concept was presented and developed until Land Warrior II included the ABA - Active Battle Armor - as one of its premier components. The ABA was realized as a two-part system; the undersuit was a skin-tight unitard that provided climate control, medical monitoring as well as simple strength augmentation through polymer muscles. The augmentation was a relatively simple negative feedback loop, a stiff layer of material that sensed the user’s movement through minute pressure changes and changed shape to follow. Hands and feet were left unprotected simple because the system could not archieve the required precision for fine dexterity, but it did help with eliminating “jitters” and handling large loads, both by augmenting the user’s own musculature and by automatically spreading the carried weight throughout the body. This was then worn under a second layer, which provided additional armor - utilizing shear thickening fluid, which allowed flexible, light armor to harden against impact -, mounting hardpoints for gear as well as electronics subsystems and power generation. Although the main armor was only marginally stronger than the Land Warrior equivalent, the polymer suit itself provided some protection as well as being able to spread impacts without taking irreversible damage itself. Power was provided by a small fuel cell charging an array of ultracaps. Total power loss was still a serious problem, and so the whole system had to work roughly within the same weight class as the unpowered Land Warrior. Owing to a flap that allowed soldiers to eliminate bodily waste without taking off the undersuit, it was also jokingly referred to as “union suit”; several initial complaints charged that the undersuit was too visible, while also discouraging underwear. This problem was largely considered solved when the armor panels that covered the legs were revised into armored pants that covered more vulnerable areas and could be taken off as one piece; at this point, the weight penalty this incurred was considered acceptable.

The electronics were considerably revised from Land Warrior. Embedded devices now offered enough calculating power for the Army’s needs while drawing dramatically less electricity than a stripped-down PC. A large part of the concept was the new helmet, a fully-integrated affair that covered the entire head, but provided the wearer with a wide field of view through a large Lexan visor. Together with an intelligent sound management system that could amplify or dampen noise as needed, the user could actually be more aware in the helmet than without, raising troop acceptance considerably after initial testing. The helmet provided full climate control like the main suit and included an unobstrusive, minimal HUD. Radio communication was simplified considerably through automatic selection between cellular or point-to-point transmission, transparent encryption and voice-recognition software, which was also used to control some of the suit’s advanced functions - although the main design objective had been to reduce controls as far as possible in favor of an intuitive “The suit supports natural movement” interface, some functionality was not easily accessible this way. Among other things, the soldier could use the voice interface to lock the undersuit in a static position, to support accurate firing or to immobilize a broken limb. Mapping tools and GPS were also considerably simplified from their first implentation in Land Warrior. The HUD could also display external video feeds, making a dedicated night-vision device obsolete - mission-specific optics could simply be mounted on the helmet and relay video as needed. Rear-mounted cameras became a favored configuration, as many soldiers would occasionally switch to rear view to cover their backs. This was quickly formalized as tactical doctrine and credited with the survival of 5 Army soldiers in a rebel ambush near Kabul. Of course, with a fully integrated suit to cover the whole body, NBC protection was easy to archieve in relative comfort for the wearer, and the US Army became the first military to possess an operational unit under permanent MOPP Level 3.

Testing was officially declared finished in 2027, allowing the Army to seriously consider and develop the M30 weapon system again.

The M30 Matures

With the first operational ABAs delivered to weapons testing at Yuma Proving Grounds, the weapon could be properly fired without a rest. This revealed some additional minor issues with the emergency ejection port - although a caseless weapon does not eject cases, the port was needed to remove duds, but on several occasions allowed mud into the mechanism. The port was subsequently redesigned to eject downward, which proved to be easier to seal correctly. By contrast, the complex feed system worked just fine, though one of the testers memorably labelled it “The Devil’s Swiss Clock” on the first major teardown. Field strips just included cleaning the chamber and barrel, with much of the mechanism only requiring platoon-level maintenance after 100,000 rounds - thus freeing up lots of soldiers at the price of more involved semi-regular maintenance by specialists. The bodyshell included another electronics pack for linking the weapon to the ABA systems, as well as molded iron sights with a Tokiro rail for optics attachment. A factory-zeroed multi-mode laser sight was also included in the main body, clearing up the underbarrel mounting point for one of several weapons modules - these included a close-combat package with tactical flashlight and automatic shotgun, a side-by-side 20mm / 40mm grenade launcher combo or a crowd control microwave “pain gun”. The entire loaded package came in at 16 pounds, which was acceptable for carry with ABA. The M30 also proved its mettle in the SAW role with the belt feed option, with the heavy standard barrel standing up to relatively “short” bursts of automatic fire well, though the lack of a quick-change option seriously limited utility in the sustained fire role. The remaining complaints concerned ergonomic details as well as proper compatibility with the ABAs and held back the final adaption of the weapon until 2031.

Operational Use And Changes

The first M30s were fired in combat during the second Kinshasa unrests in 2034. Since the same incident also showed the first operational use of Land Warrior II units alongside conventional Army units, direct comparisons in performance were inevitable. The M30 outranged the M4A3s and received high ranks in perceived lethality and soldier confidence, though critics charged that the comparison was unfair without issuing ABAs to the M4 users. In any event, the M4s were still highly mobile and preferred for CQB situations. M30 users with the close combat module also engaged in house fighting and regarded the slight loss of maneuverability as a good deal in exchange for monstrous short-range stopping power and improved protection. Kinshasa also saw the use of personal drones, both airborne and thrown reconaissance units, to gain a tactical edge. All in all, Land Warrior II was a success, but the Army took an unexpected hit - the advanced equipment was regarded as a strong Force Multiplier, and experimental three-man squads were put together and proved themselves in combat. Further experiments showed that even two-man teams were now feasible, and the resulting restructuring led to the three-man squad structure becoming prevalent. Instead of the old “diamond”, squads now operated as simply Left, Right, Sweep, replacing the Point element with drones and advanced recon technology. Dynamic entry situations were deemphasized in favor of said drones, which allowed soldiers to scout out a situation and reconfigure their position as needed. This brought a certain rank flexibility into the squad as the “leader” position rotated between whatever squad element was emphasized in the specific situation. This “allowed” the Army to scale its forces down considerably and shape it into the lean war machine of the 2040s.

1 comment:

Valentina said...

Awesome, I want one.
Well written, very official and academic sounding.