October 9, 2008: Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of
Defense gave General Dynamics $9 million to try and develop a lightweight .50
caliber (12.7mm) machine-gun (to be known as LW50 for the moment) that works.
An earlier attempt (the XM312) by General Dynamics did not work out so well.
Actually, there are several other competitors for this project, and several
failed attempts in the last few decades. The army wants a weapon that weighs
about half as much as the current weapon (the 128 pound M-2), has fewer parts,
less recoil and is easier to maintain. Unfortunately, none of the proposed
designs has solved the biggest problem with earlier attempts; low rate of fire
(usually about half the M2s 500 rounds a minute).
The first attempt at creating a
replacement for the current M2 .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine-gun did not turn
out too well. Three years ago, field
testing of the XM-312, the proposed replacement for the eighty year old, .50
caliber (12.7mm) M-2 machine-gun, began, in the United States and overseas.
Then, nothing. That's because the test results were not encouraging, the
biggest shortcoming being the low rate of fire (about 260 rounds per minute).
This is about half the rate of the M2, and was believed adequate for the 25mm
smart shells the XM312 was originally designed for (as the XM307). But for
12.7mm bullets, it didn't impress the troops. There were some reliability
problems, which could be fixed. The rate-of-fire issue, however, has proved to
be more difficult. Meanwhile, a new upgrade for the M2 has been fielded, and Ma
Deuce still rules the battlefield. The new M2E2 has a quick change barrel,
flash hider and lot of small improvements. It is much in demand.
The M-2, nicknamed "Ma Deuce"
by the troops, has been around so long because it was very good at what it
does. Accurate, reliable, rugged and easy to use, many of the M-2s currently in
use are decades old, and finally wearing out. The army doesn't want to build
new ones, and wasn't sure it could do without the venerable, and very useful,
M2. So it ended up going ahead with the plan to build a new .50 caliber
machine-gun (the XM312). Actually, this Ma Deuce replacement is basically the
XM307, but without the ability to fire 25mm rounds. The XM312 weighs 36 pounds
(compared to 50 for the M-2), even with the addition of the electronic fire
control stuff from the XM307.
The LW50 will ignore the 25mm business,
and probably borrow a lot of ideas from superior 12.7mm designs developed in
other nations. That's because the LW50 won't be the first lightweight rival for
the Ma Deuce replacement market. Buying a superior foreign replacement is
difficult politically (although it is done), and there is also the feeling that
the superior foreign weapons aren't as superior as they could be.
Actually, there have been many attempts
to design a "new and improved" M2, and all have failed, to one degree
or another, in one department or another. The basic problem is that the M2 is
sturdy, reliable and gets the job done to the satisfaction of the users. The
LW50 is apparently going to try and get around this by designing a better
recoil system, and use modern electronic sights so that gunners can get more
out of fewer bullets. Most combat veterans prefer the current rate of fire (7-8
bullets per second) to the slower (4 per second) one of the LW50. That attitude
may change, as troops get to use the LW50 in combat. They may appreciate the
ability to get more out of the same ammo supply, and deliver more accurate
single shots and short bursts.
What the army is hoping to do with LW50
is not get an M2 replacement, but a "good enough" lightweight 12.7mm
machine-gun, for those situations where such a weapon is needed. SOCOM (Special
Operations Command), for example, has some lightweight vehicles in the works,
that are too light to carry an M2, but could handle a lighter 12.7mm weapon.
The army wants to have such a lightweight machine-gun for the troops in about
three years. Meanwhile, the army has ordered 40,000 new M2s.