Weapons: SCAR Seeks Salvation


August 25, 2010: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has bought 1,600 of its new SCAR assault rifles, and is sending most of them to Afghanistan for further testing. SOCOM spent $19 million developing SCAR, in cooperation with Belgian weapons manufacturer FN (which has set up a SCAR manufacturing plant in the United States). FN hopes to get orders to produce at least 10,000 more SCAR rifles. FN had originally hoped to built a lot more SCARs. But field tests in Afghanistan have, so far, not been as encouraging as hoped. Enthusiastic SOCOM acceptance of SCAR is important, because that could encourage others (both domestic and foreign) to adopt it. If FN and SCAR got real lucky, millions of these rifles could be sold. But at the moment, FN is facing potential sales in the low thousands.

SOCOM has lost some of its enthusiasm for SCAR and decided that the M-16 and M-4 aren't so inferior after all. That's because last year, SCAR was issued to a battalion of U.S. Army Rangers headed for Afghanistan. This was the first big combat test for SCAR, which had completed field testing in 2007. The rangers found SCAR to be, in most cases, as good as the M-16s and M-4s it replaced, but not markedly superior. As a result, SOCOM backed off on its plans to replace all M-16s and M-4s with SCAR weapons. Meanwhile, SOCOM has given FN another list of needed tweaks for SCAR, and an order for 40mm grenade launchers for SCAR.

SCAR was part of several recent attempts to develop a replacement for the M-16, if only because the M-16 has been in use longer (nearly half a century) than any other American infantry weapon. What advocates for a new rifle, and critics of the M-16/4 fail to take into account is that the rifle has undergone numerous tweaks and improvements since the 1960s. Most telling, surveys of combat users report that the weapon works, and that they are satisfied with it. Sure, the troops would like something new and exciting, but not at the expense of ruggedness and reliability. That's what hurt SCAR, where combat use revealed some unforeseen quirks. This happened while in the hands of a lot of troops who had used M-16s in combat, and now wanted them back. Combat troops tend to be very wary of new technology, especially if it's supposed to replace something that, well, works. It's a matter of self-preservation. New is nice, but not if it gets you killed.

SCAR (Special operations forces Combat Assault Rifle) was a SOCOM (Special Operations Command) effort to develop a new assault rifle that had some of the characteristics of the (now abandoned) U.S. Army XM-8 rifle. SOCOM had the money, and authority to develop their own weapons. And SCAR is mainly for use by SOCOM troops. SOCOM wanted a weapon that did everything the XM-8 did, and a little more.

Back in 2003, SOCOM asked rifle manufacturers to submit proposals, and FN (a Belgian firm) came up with the best ideas. One advantage FN has was its ability to quickly implement requests for design changes. FN’s rapid prototyping shop was often able to turn out a new part in hours. This, and FN's long history of good weapons design, gave them the edge. SCAR has a more reliable short-stroke, gas piston operating system, and a floating barrel for better accuracy, plus several other improvements over the current M-4/M-16.

There are two basic models of the weapon. The 5.56mm SCAR-L weighs 3.5 kg/7.7 pounds (empty), while the 7.62mm SCAR-H weighs 3.9 kg/8.5 pounds (empty). A 30 round 5.56mm magazine weighs a little under 450 grams/one pound, while a 20 round magazine of 7.62mm ammo weighs nearly half a kilogram (a little over a pound). Special sights can weigh up to a kilogram, so a fully loaded SCAR won't weigh much more than 4.6 kg/ ten pounds. FN also came up with a grenade launcher for SCAR. So far, SOCOM has ordered 850 SCAR-L and 750 SCAR-H.

Both models operate the same way, and have many interchangeable parts. SCAR-L is basically a replacement for the M4, which was designed (with a shorter barrel) as a “close combat” version of the M16. The SCAR-H was to also replace the M14, a 1950s era 7.62mm weapon (a replacement for the World War II M1) that is still favored for long range and sniper work. The SCAR design is the result of much feedback from the field. For example, the rate of fire was lowered to 600 RPM (rounds per minute) from the 800 typical with the M14 and M16. This makes SCAR easier to hold on target when firing full auto.

SCAR-H can be quickly converted to fire AK-47 ammo (the 7.62x39 round) with a change out of the barrel and receiver. Both models can be fitted with a longer and heavier sniper barrel. Thus this ability to quickly change the barrel length enables the SOCOM to equip their troops with the specific weapon they need. SCAR is also built to be more rugged than the M-16. The barrel is good for some 36,000 rounds, twice as many as the M-16. Barrels may be switched by users without special tools. Both models of SCAR take all the special sights and other accessories SOCOM troops favor. SCAR is meant to be easily modified and personalized for each user. It’s expected that SOCOM experience with SCAR will influence the next generation of U.S. Army and Marine Corps small arms.

SOCOM has not given up on SCAR, but it cannot ignore the fact that many of its troops are not yet ready to give up on old reliable. Other nations are having the same problem. No one has really come up with a replacement for the M-16. Even the AK-47 was replaced, in Russian service, by an M-16 type weapon. Same with most other AK-47 users, especially after the Cold War ended. The M-16 still has a lot of problems, but lack of popularity among combat troops is not one of them.





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