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MILITARY TECHNOLOGY (MILTECH) is the world's leading international tri-service defence monthly magazine in the English language. MILITARY TECHNOLOGY is "Required Reading for Defence Professionals". Follow us on Twitter: MILTECH1

13 October 2015

AUSA 2015: A Look at Seven Pieces of New Combat Kit for US Soldiers

Shoot, move and communicate.  These are the top three functions of any ground combat soldier.  For the infantry, combat is close, deadly and very personal and soldiers want the best equipment available to accomplish all three functions.  The US Army has a history of technological innovation and is always on the hunt for better weapons and equipment that will give American Soldiers an edge over their adversaries.  With this in mind, this article looks at seven US Army pieces of kit, some established and some emerging that will sharpen the ability of the infantry to create overmatch at the tactical edge of combat.

US Soldiers are armed with some of the most technologically advanced and effective personal combat gear in the world. The US Army is striving to keep this edge. (Photo: US Army)

Weapons have to work in the worst conditions and equipment has to be functional and effective.  Individual and crew served weapons must be lethal, accurate and reliable.  Protective gear, like body armour and helmets, should be lightweight and provide maximum protection and flexibility. Communications gear has to provide real-time communications in voice, digital and streaming formats.

Pistols do not win wars, but they sure come in handy in a close fight.  The US Army is ready to change from the Beretta M9 9mm pistol, primarily because the stock of M9s is wearing out.  The replacement concept is called the XM17.  The official requirements dictate that the weapon be non-calibre specific with modular features, have the ability to mount fire control devices such as lights, lasers, and have a 90% or better chance of hitting in a 4in circle out to 50m consistently throughout the weapon's lifetime.  Although the calibre is not specified, a recent decision to authorise “hollow-point” ammunition, verses only ball ammunition, makes the 9mm hollow-point round very attractive.  As of July 2015, there appear to be three top contenders: The Sig Sauer P320 MHS; the STI-Detonics STX; and the Beretta APX, amongst others.  The US Army will release the final solicitation in 2016, followed by a phased down-selection process that will run through 2017.  It is anticipated that the company of the selected weapon will then provide 280,000+ new pistols.

The M2 .50 calibre Machine Gun is one of the most successful heavy machine guns in history.  The air-cooled, belt fed, M2 has been perfected over time and the latest version, the M2A1, includes improvements that are long overdue.  General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products developed the M2A1 with several vital enhancements: a quick changing barrel kit, an improved flash suppressor, and an updated safety mechanism.  The quick changing barrel kit maintains fixed headspace which allows an operator to change barrels in seconds without having to perform the tedious headspace and timing adjustments in the heat of battle that were required by the older M2.  Easier to operate and safer to fire, the M2A1 has recently been named as one of the "Army’s Greatest Inventions."

Enhanced and Smart Equipment 

The US Army has long been a leader in deploying night vision devices (NVD) for soldiers to “own the night.”  Today, the latest NVDs are enhanced to include thermal vision as well as I2.  The SPIRAL Enhanced Night Vision Goggles (SENVG) produced by Harris (formerly Exelis) can show even partially obscured images behind other objects, such as a person hiding behind bushes or vegetation and can reveal residual heat, permitting the soldier to see the image of a heat source that has recently moved, such as the outline of a warm human body leaning against a cold wooden fence.  The SENVG can also import digital data from external devices for the soldier to view colour imagery from other digital sources, such as unmanned air and ground vehicles.  This will allow the SENVG to become a Heads-Up Display (HUD) for the dismounted soldier.  These capabilities offer the potential for the SENVG to become the central technology that, connected with other digital inputs, can seamlessly link the individual soldier in a broader battlespace network.  Fused night vision technology is the new standard of a 24-hour, all-weather battle vision systems.

Sometime in 2016, the individual infantryman will have a revolutionary and unparalleled communications capability.  Employing a militarised smartphone networked with the rifleman’s radio, the individual soldier will be able to receive voice communications, digital data and streaming video from almost any place on earth.  This new “Soldier’s Network” will be enabled by a number of Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellites, most of which are already in Earth orbit. “Never before have we been able to see a dismounted, disadvantaged, downrange pointy end [of the spear] soldier being able to talk thousands of miles back to another location,” said Chris Marzilli, President of General Dynamics C4 Systems in a December 2014 interview.  The MUOS satellite network is a critical element of US national security that will allow real time communications with any soldier anywhere in the world over a secure global network. The system should be fully operational in 2016.

The Burke Pulser

The US Army is testing a new attachment to its existing rifles that is straight out of science fiction. James E. Burke, an electronics engineer at the US Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) has a knack for combining current equipment with future capabilities.  His concept for an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapon attaches a suppressor-like device, consisting of a piezoelectric generator, two wide antennas, and other components, to the standard M4 carbine.  The Burke Pulser, as it has been named, transforms the explosive energy when the rifle is fired into an Ultra-Wideband (UWB) pulse that can turn off enemy electronics.  Using this effect, the pressure from the rifle fire on the piezoelectric crystal changes the balance of positive and negative ions and creates an electrical charge.  UWB is similar to EMP.  The UWB electro-magnetic wave generated by the Burke Pusler attacks enemy electrical systems through the seams, cracks or cabling of the targeted electronic system.  The range is classified, but can be assumed to be tactically significant. The projected cost of this EMP-attachment is estimated to be less than $1,000 per system.

Personal Guided Missiles and Hoverbikes 

Infantry now have a personal guided missile to take out key threats that are beyond the reach of direct fire or not directly in the line of sight of conventional rifles and machine guns.  The SWITCHBLADE is a small, UAV that weighs only 6lbs, is 2ft long and is launched from a small tube that can be carried in a soldier’s pack.  Portable and expendable, the SWITCHBLADE acts as a kamikaze guided mini-drone with a hand-grenade like warhead.  It has a loiter time of up to ten minutes, a ceiling of up to 500ft (above ground level) and a range of 12 miles.  The operator guides the mini-drone using a hand-held screen.  The US Army awarded the prime contractor, AeroVironment a $4.3 million cost plus fixed fee award with a $7.1 million option in September 2014.  This award increased the funded value to $63.8 million for SWITCHBLADE, with additional options totalling to $102.1 million.  The USMC is also interested in this capability and in April 2015 test-fired a SWITCHBLADE out of the back of a flying MV-22 OSPREY.

The concept of safely and speedily moving across any type of terrain, without roads, is a powerful capability.  The Hoverbike builds upon the same concept as the popular drone quadcopters that are omnipresent today.  The original Hoverbike was built by Chris Malloy of New Zealand, in his “skunk works” garage in Sydney, Australia. The idea of the Hoverbike has inspired the military and now, the UK based aeronautical engineering company, Malloy Aeronautics, reports that the Hoverbike will, “combine the simplicity of a motorbike and the freedom of a helicopter to create the world’s first flying motorcycle.”

The full-sized soldier-carrying quad-copter Hoverbike is a prototype now, but Malloy Aeronautics expects to have an operational version very soon.  Partnering with SERVICE Engineering, which is located in close proximity to the Army Research Laboratory, the companies are developing the Hoverbike for the US Army as part of a new class of Tactical Reconnaissance Vehicles (TRVs).

The US Army is always developing new combat gear that will provide tactical overmatch for soldiers in close combat to better shoot, move and communicate. New weapons and gear must be more lethal, lighter, stronger, easier to use and more reliable than current equipment. Communications must have greater range, require less power and be packaged in the smallest possible ruggedised configuration. These seven pieces of kit are worth watching as they provide capabilities that exceed those of the past and are tangible examples of the ever-advancing technology of war.

John Antal is an American military correspondent for MILITARY TECHNOLOGY and an expert on military technology and military operations. He is the author of 13 books on military subjects.

For more information please see MILITARY TECHNOLOGY #10/2015, available at the show at the German pavillion on booth 2115; and frequently check back for more NEWS FROM THE FLOOR.

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