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SOF Handguns, PDWs, Technology, and Gear

Small is beautiful

 

As tactical demands continue to evolve across the modern battlespace, so too do the small arms requirements for special operations forces (SOF) seeking to maintain the competitive advantage over “near-peer” adversaries.

In this contemporary operating environment (COE), special mission requirements range from demands for enhanced lethality and maneuverability – particularly relevant in urban environments where small unit teams can find themselves operating in confined and congested areas – through to increased situational awareness (SA) and command and control (C2), most of which can be achieved through improved signature management and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) technology.

Examples include the MA sub-compact carbine, designed as a personal defense weapon (PDW) solution for close quarters battle in urban environments as well as clandestine surveillance/reconnaissance missions. This offering provided operators with a significant upgrade in PDW technology over a short-barreled variant of the legacy AK-74 assault rifle.

Hence the reason why the SOF community continues to consider a variety of technology upgrades, including alternative calibers and ammunition enhancements; increased proliferation of shorter barreled weapons; upgraded optical weapon sights; and 3-D-printed suppressors.

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The Russian Federation has adopted the AK-12 for its forces. Kalashnikov concern photo

Emerging requirements from the COE, NATO, and non-NATO entity partner nation forces (PNFs) continue to lead to uplifts in capability. Near-peer adversaries, including Russia’s “Spetznaz” brigades and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army SOF units, are also upgrading and adapting.

Russian SOF, having been very active and effective operating in Syria over recent years, continue to receive upgrades in small arms capabilities, designed to provide operators with increased lethality, precision, and survivability on the battlefield.

Examples of these upgrades include the adoption of next-generation AK-12 and AK-15 assault rifles, both manufactured by Russian original equipment manufacturer (OEM) Kalashnikov Group, as well as the 5.66 x 39mm APS underwater assault rifle designed to support maritime SOF elements.

In addition, Kalashnikov Group showed various other weapons at the Army 2017 exhibition near Moscow in September 2017, designed to provide Spetsnaz operators with an expanding toolkit of small arms solutions to be adopted across a variable COE.

AK-15-SOF-handguns

The Russian Federation has adopted the next-generation AK-15. Kalashnikov concern photos

Examples include the MA sub-compact carbine, designed as a personal defense weapon (PDW) solution for close quarters battle in urban environments as well as clandestine surveillance/reconnaissance missions. This offering provided operators with a significant upgrade in PDW technology over a short-barreled variant of the legacy AK-74 assault rifle.

Designed to feature Russian standard 5.45 x 39mm ammunition, the MA sub-compact provides operators with a short-stroke piston, gas-operated weapon measuring a total of 75 centimeters in length and weighing 2.9 kilograms. Carrying a 30-round magazine, the weapon is capable of being fired in semi-automatic and automatic firing modes and can be fitted with a red dot sight for rapid target acquisition.

Personal Defense Weapons

Responding to small arms improvements from near-peer adversaries, the international SOF community continues to upgrade its own inventories of small arms, particularly in regard to the development of PDW technology and proliferation of alternative calibers.

Following the decision by Netherlands Maritime SOF (NL MARSOF) in July 2015 to procure a limited number of SiG Sauer MCX carbines in 300 Blackout (300 BLK or 7.62 x 35mm) – part of a wider evaluation considering alternative caliber types for increased lethality and reducing the burden on dismounted teams – U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has followed a similar roadmap with its PDW program.

This particular effort is aimed at providing operators with the capability to upgrade the in-service 5.56 x 45mm M4A1 carbine with the Close Quarter Barrel Receiver (which comprises a 10.3-inch barrel) with a 300 BLK conversion kit that, according to official program documents, must be capable of being achieved during “field conditions” in less than three minutes.

USSOCOM’s decision to progress with an alternative caliber size over standard NATO 5.56 x 45mm cartridges (along with NL MARSOF and other PNFs) illustrates how the international SOF community is slowly gravitating toward the potential for a wholesale change in small arms ammunition in the future.

With a very similar external casing of a standard NATO 5.56 x 45mm cartridge jacket, but shortened and married to a .30-caliber bullet rather than being necked down to .22 caliber, the 300 BLK is considered to be better suited for suppressed firing while also providing similar muzzle velocity to the M4A1 when fitted with a more conventional 14.5-inch barrel. With a similar overall length to the 5.56 X 45mm round, the 300 BLK can also fit into existing 5.56 magazines, and a relatively simple change of barrels allows many 5.56-chambered weapons to fire the 300 BLK.

It is precisely these specifications that have promoted 300 BLK’s suitability across the special operations community, defense sources explained to Special Operations Outlook.

Having first disclosed the requirement to the market on March 9, 2017, USSOCOM awarded SiG Sauer a contract on Feb. 1, 2018, worth an undisclosed sum, to supply a total of 10 PDW conversion kits to NSWC Crane Warfare Center, Indiana, ahead of an evaluation with a Joint Acquisition Task Force (JATF).

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A SiG Sauer MCX carbine.
USSOCOM is following the lead of the Netherlands Maritime SOF in procuring the personal defense weapon (PDW) in 300 Blackout.

According to a statement from the U.S. Army Contracting Command, published on the Federal Business Opportunities website, SiG Sauer emerged as the only OEM to offer up a viable solution to the PDW requirement.

“SiG Sauer was the only company identified through market research that could provide the necessary … PDW Parts and Kits which met the Government’s requirements for a Commercial off the shelf conversion kit for the M4A1 to create a … PDW,” the statement reads.

SiG Sauer’s conversion kit is based on its MCX Rattler carbine, which was first unveiled to the market at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas in January 2018.

Discussing the conversion kit with Special Operations Outlook, USSOCOM sources explained how the upgrade could be achieved through a simple replacement of weapon stock and upper receiver, which includes a 5.5-inch barrel in a 300 BLK configuration, satisfying SOF requirements for a smaller form factor for increased maneuverability in confined spaces.

Additional USSOCOM requirements called for a PDW comprising no more than 5.5 pounds in total weight, with weapon profile measuring no more than 26 inches in length, official documents confirmed. The 300 BLK conversion kit must also satisfy accuracy demands of 2 minutes of angle at a range of 100 yards.

SiG Sauer was unable to comment on additional details. However, company officials confirmed that each conversion kit supplied to the NSWC Crane Warfare Center would not only feature the MCX PDW 300 BLK upper receiver group, complete with 5.5-inch barrel, but also an MCX barrel in 5.56 x 45mm caliber; SiG Sauer’s SRD 7.62mm suppressor with handguard (to avoid damage to the supporting hand when operating the weapon); a variety of weapon stocks in folding, telescoped, and skeleton configurations; quick detachment sling adaptor; set of 10 magazines capable of housing 300 BLK ammunition; and optical weapon sights including the Wilcox Boss 300 BLK and SiG Sauer’s own Juliet X4 magnification sight.

Each conversion kit will also be delivered with a polymer rifle case, capable of housing both 5.56 x 45mm and 300 BLK conversion kits.

Speaking to Special Operations Outlook, one operator from an undisclosed NATO SOF unit in Europe described how such a conversion kit would allow teams to deploy to forward operating bases with a single rifle case featuring immediate accessibility to both 5.56 x 45mm and 300 BLK weapon systems.

Upon receiving mission orders, an operator could then rapidly reconfigure his/her personal weapon system in accordance with designated rules of engagement or threat assessment, dependent upon lethality levels required.

According to USSOCOM officials, deliveries of the 10 conversion kits will be completed by the end of the first half of 2018, with a JATF conducting a follow-on evaluation program to assess its suitability for frontline service.

Meanwhile, USSOCOM components are also considering additional “alternative” caliber types beyond 300 BLK in order to satisfy emerging operational requirements concerning the effectiveness of legacy ammunition armor penetration levels against near-peer adversaries.

According to one SOF source, coalition special operations units operating 5.56 x 45mm-caliber carbines have yet to witness any significant problems with this particular ammunition type.

“[5.56mm] is doing what it is supposed to do, but looking at the capability of our peers, it’s worrying,” the source warned.

Elsewhere, undisclosed special operations users in the UK are also scheduled to receive initial deliveries of 300 BLK supersonic and subsonic ammunition as part of a Ministry of Defense (MOD) solicitation published on July 12, 2017.

Deliveries are expected to begin in April 2019 ahead of an evaluation program, defense sources confirmed to Special Operations Outlook, with the first procurement tranche being relied upon for “operational and training ammunition.”

Evaluation of 300 BLK ammunition will concentrate on battlefield and terminal effects; climatic and environmental characteristics; munition sensitivity; system and design safety; interoperability with other carbines; human factors; deployability; sustainment; and capability resiliency and reliability. The MOD was unable to provide Special Operations Outlook with additional details regarding the customer.

Germany’s army special operations command (KSK) is also considering the procurement of MCX carbines in 300 BLK, with sources suggesting force elements had already received an undisclosed number of systems for evaluation.

However, the wider proliferation of 300 BLK carbines across European SOF remains unlikely in the near future, with both German and Dutch SOF units selecting a next-generation carbine in 5.56 x 45mm caliber.

In October 2017, for example, the German Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support agreed to an €11 million contract with Heckler & Koch to provide a total of 1,745 5.56 x 45mm HK 416A7s to replace German SOF G36 carbines as part of the Sturmgewehr Spezialkräfte (SSK) program.

300-BLK-NATO-ammo-SOF-handguns

Left to right: A 300 AAC Blackout (BLK) round with a 125-grain plastic tip bullet; 300 BLK 125-grain match; 300 BLK 220-grain subsonic round; 5.56 x 45 mm NATO round; and Russian 7.62 x 39 mm round. Silencertalk image via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, sources confirmed to Special Operations Outlook that force components from across USSOCOM continued to consider an additional series of alternative caliber types, ranging from 6.5mm and .260 Remington through to 6.8mm and .270 Winchester cartridges.

USSOCOM is also closely monitoring progress in the U.S. Army’s Next Generation Squad Automatic Rifle (NGSAR) program, which is considering alternative lightweight ammunition and weapon systems to replace the 5.56mm x 45mm Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW).

Having published a Prototype Opportunity Notice (PON) on March 1, 2018, the Army is seeking to build a series of demonstrator weapons (Technology Readiness Level 6 or above) to participate in an extensive evaluation program designed to identify lethality, precision, and range effects of a light machine gun in the form factor of an assault rifle.

Maneuverability Requirements

Also seeking to exploit emerging requirements for increased maneuverability in confined battlespaces is Belgian company FN Herstal, which late in 2017 unveiled the latest variant in its Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) family.

Revealed at the Milipol conference in Paris on Nov. 15, 2017, the SCAR Sub-Compact (SCAR-SC) PDW has been designed as a reduced form factor carbine for special operations teams, with availability in NATO standard 5.56 x 45mm caliber.

The SCAR-SC, according to an official spokesperson for FN Herstal, was specifically designed in response to emerging requirements from the SOF community with “mobility and flexibility” in mind.

Similar to other PDWs available in the market, the SCAR-SC has been designed to support urban operations as well as covert operations.

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The SCAR-SC was specifically designed in response to emerging requirements from the SOF community. FM Herstal photo

The semi-automatic PDW measures 21 inches in length when fully retracted and 25.7 inches when extended with a telescopic stock. However, the weapon can also accommodate foldable and fixed stocks, dependent upon customer preference.

The PDW comprises a total weight of 6.9 pounds when loaded and features a 7.5-inch barrel length. The SCAR-SC retains the same magazine capacity of the larger SCAR-Light carbine for 30-round magazines and includes a standard Picatinny-style 360-degree rail adaptor system for the attachment of tactical accessories, including modular foregrips for enhanced weapon handling. The SCAR-SC also retains the capability to house a suppressor for improved acoustic and physical signature management.

Handguns

Echoing operational requirements for PDWs, the use of handgun technology remains a critical component to the successful execution of any special operation, particularly relating to urban and subterranean warfare.

However, unlike the PDW and assault rifle markets, the handgun is failing to witness any proliferation in alternative caliber developments beyond in-service 9 x 19mm; .40-caliber; and .45-caliber cartridges, defense sources explained to Special Operations Outlook.

Instead, handgun upgrades continue to focus on the integration of tactical accessories as well as more modular designs allowing for the integration of personalized handgrips for improved ergonomic fit.

USSOCOM continues to monitor deliveries of the Department of Defense’s new 9 x 19mm Modular Handgun System (MHS) to conventional units following the selection of SiG Sauer’s P320 in January 2017. Due to designate the handguns as the “M17” (full size) and “M18” (compact) toward the end of 2018, the U.S. Army continues to learn lessons during the fielding process, which started last year.

The M17 will replace legacy M9 Beretta handguns while the M18 will replace SiG Sauer P228 systems, all weapons of which feature the same 9 x 19mm caliber.

According to U.S. Army program officials, the development has seen the M17/18 suffer from problems when firing ball ammunition instead of special purpose ammunition. However, the handgun has successfully passed evaluation with hollow point ammunition during product verification tests.

SiG-Sauer-M17-and-M18-SOF-handguns

SiG Sauer’s M17 (top)and M18 sidearms. SiG Sauer photo

Responding to emerging requirements identified by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) SOF units across the COE, Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) has also launched a new handgun family aimed specifically at the SOF market.

Speaking to Special Operations Outlook, company officials explained how the 9mm x 19mm and striker-initiated Masada handgun would provide operators with an alternative to the in-service hammer-action Jericho handgun of the same caliber.

Developed in collaboration with IDF SOF, the Masada was unveiled to the international market at the Defense and Security 2017 exhibition in Bangkok, with a company source explaining how the Masada  featured “special emphasis” on operational safety and simplicity of maintenance, as well as a high level of ergonomics and ease of use.

The Masada has been developed with reduced form factor in mind for operation in confined spaces, with IWI sources describing how IDF SOF operators are becoming more and more accustomed to conducting operations in subterranean environments. Hence the reason why the handgun measures 6.6 inches in length and has been designed with a glass-reinforced polymer frame to reduce its total weight to 650 grams. The Jericho handgun weighs approximately 720 grams in comparison.

The handgun also features upgraded safety specifications, including a firing pin block safety and enhanced trigger reset with or without manual safety system. Designed for ambidextrous operations, the handgun also includes front and rear cocking serrations for optimal grip as well as a low barrel axis designed to reduce recoil, company officials added.

IWI also confirmed that Masada would be made available in 9 x 19mm; .40-caliber, and .45-caliber configurations, dependent upon customer preference.

Suppressors

Finally, suppressor technology continues to play a critical role in the small arms development of the SOF community.

On Nov. 22, 2017, USSOCOM published details regarding the first live demonstration of its Thunderstorm Technology Demonstaration Program aimed at enhancing the combat effectiveness of SOF small unit teams operating across potentially hostile regions with “physical and electromagnetic environmental constraints.”

Experimentation 18-1, which was completed by representatives from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command as well as the Applied Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University and Georgia Tech Research Institute, considered future technology upgrades regarding suppressed weapon systems.

Defense sources associated with the program described to Special Operations Outlook how the classified demonstration had considered next-generation solutions designed to provide accurate fires with less noise and flash, reduced recoil, and reduced size and weight specifications. This, sources added, could contribute to greater signature management by operators, which could consequently generate more efficient SA and C2 understanding in a high-stress combat situation.

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The Brevis III suppressor on a Heckler & Koch MP7 personal defense weapon. Photo by Scott R. Gourley

Examples available to SOF customers include Delta P Design’s latest suppressor – Brevis III –  which has been designed with “special operations input” for the Heckler & Koch 9 x 19mm MP7 PDW.

This 3-D printed suppressor, manufactured by direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) of titanium, comprises a smaller form factor over legacy solutions, measuring 4.8 inches in length and 8.3 ounces in weight and thereby promoting increased maneuverability in confined areas.

This article first appeared in the Special Operations Outlook 2018-2019 Edition publication.