Weapons: Stuck With Old Tech Because It Is Better


October 31, 2013: The U.S. Army has, despite budget cuts, come up with the $356 million needed to upgrade all 45,000 M2HB 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine-guns to the M2A1 standard. This upgrade makes the M2 easier and safer to operate. Although this upgrade was first available in 1997, it took over twelve years to convince Congress that this upgrade is a big deal and worth the cost. The basic argument was that because the M2 is one of the most effective weapons the army has, blame for any additional injuries caused by delays in getting all M2s modified would fall on those who refused to provide the cash (about $6,000 per machine-gun).

The M2A1 upgrade includes design changes that eliminate the need to make head space adjustments. This has long been the one big flaw of the M2, as it was easy to do this adjustment incorrectly, which caused the machine-gun to fail when used, often injuring the gunner in the process. While the quick change barrel option was greatly appreciated, the elimination of the head space hassles was even more welcome.

In early 2011, the U.S. Department of Defense began modifying 6,000 M2s. The M2A1 upgrade also allows for quick barrel changes. Each barrel weighs 10.9 kg (24 pounds). There is also a mounting rail for scopes and a flash suppressor and fixed headspace (which makes the weapons easier to use). In 2010, the Department of Defense also bought 8,000 more M2 machine-gun barrels (for $850 each). Thousands of new M2A1 weapons are also being manufactured but most of the M2A1s will be created by upgrading older weapons.

With a maximum effective range of 2,000 meters and firing 500-600 rounds a minute, the M2 can tear up vehicles as well as enemy infantry. The M2 weighs 38 kg (83.8 pounds), plus another 20 kg (44 pounds) if a tripod is used. Most M-2s are mounted on vehicles. Since 1921, about three million have been built.

Nicknamed "Ma Deuce" by the troops, the M2 has been around so long because it is 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. After the Cold War ended in 1991, the army did not want to build new ones and wasn't sure it could do without the venerable, and very useful, M2.

Efforts to develop a superior replacement for the M2 have, so far, failed. But the Department of Defense keeps trying. In 2008, the Department of Defense gave General Dynamics $9 million to try and develop a lightweight .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine-gun (initially called LW50, then the XM806) that worked. The XM806 was supposed to be ready for troops use by 2012, but that has now been delayed until 2014, or later, or never. Designing and building a lighter and more effective 12.7mm machine-gun has been an elusive goal, and it's still not clear if the XM806 will pass muster with the troops. While lighter (18 kg/40 pounds) the XM806 has half the rate of fire of the M2 but is said to be safer to use and easier to take apart in the field for cleaning.

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 XM806 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 (seven to eight bullets per second) to the slower (four per second) one of the XM806. That attitude may change as troops get to use the XM806 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 XM806 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 two years. Meanwhile, the army plans to buy over 30,000 new M2s.


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