LIVE FIRE: A Soldier fires the SIG Sauer rifle prototype during mobility testing at Fort Drum, N.Y., in August 2020.
Rapid acquisitions and operational requirement development using MTA authorities is the true driver for the rapid development of a comprehensive small arms system.
by Maj. Jamin T. Williamson
A Small Arms Ammunition Configuration (SAAC) study, conducted in 2017, identified a capability gap requiring the infantry squad to deliver increased energy on target and at range using small arms weapons. This study underpinned the initiation of the Next Generation Squad Weapon (NGSW) program with the goal of defeating current and emerging peer and near-peer threats. The successful use of the rapid fielding path middle tier of acquisition (MTA) enabled the Army to execute the first individual weapons and caliber upgrade since the fielding of the iconic M16 during the Vietnam War era. The MTA strategy paved a path for small arms development that will allow the Army to field a major capability years earlier than possible using a more traditional approach.
The NGSW program was authorized to use the MTA authorities, which are not subject to traditional Joint Capabilities Integration and Development Systems and DOD Directive 5000.1, “The Defense Acquisition System.” The MTA approach was established by Congress in the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act as a pathway to “to fill a gap in the [Defense Acquisition System] DAS for those capabilities that have a level of maturity to allow them to be rapidly prototyped within an acquisition program or fielded, within five years of MTA start,” according to DOD Instruction 5000.80, “Operation of the Middle Tier of Acquisition (MTA)”.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy focused the breakdown of U.S. force capabilities in comparison to near-peer competitors. Ultimately, the NGSW program was established to meet emerging threats with increased lethality and replace the M4A1 and M249 as well as the legacy optics used by the close combat forces. The Army has tried and failed multiple times to replace the M16. The Stoner 63, Advanced Combat Rifle, Objective Individual Combat Weapon (XM29) and the XM8 are just some examples of the multiple failures since the M16 was first fielded.
Why did these previous programs ultimately fail? One could argue they lacked a comprehensive, rapid and flexible acquisition strategy with clear operational requirements. Unlike previous M16 replacements, the MTA authority allowed the NGSW team the ability to prototype and field in three to five years instead of the traditional technology maturation and engineering process leading to production and fielding, which often takes a decade. The team also started with realistic requirements at the outset without the lengthy approval staffing process associated with a major capability acquisition. However, these schedule efficiencies did not replace due diligence with respect to cost and technical performance parameters. The comprehensive plan required multiple products to be synchronized under the MTA authority to produce lethality within a three-year timeline. This aggressive NGSW timeline led to an outcome determination to transition from prototyping to fielding in less than two years and fielding to begin in less than five years from the outset of the program. Using traditional major capability acquisition, the program would likely be at least two to three years behind by the time NGSW goes into production and operational testing under the MTA process.
The MTA strategy used the rapid prototyping authority to develop mature technologies within an extremely aggressive timeline. In 2018, the Army issued a competitive prototype project opportunity notice (PPON) and awarded fixed amount, competitive other-transaction authority agreements to five small arms vendors. These small arms industry partners included Textron, General Dynamics, FN America, PCP Tactical, LLC and SIG Sauer. The awards were the result of multiple industry days to gain insight on the current technologies and production capabilities required to support future capability developments. By 2019, the Army issued an additional PPON for subsequent prototyping efforts to Textron, General Dynamics and SIG Sauer to produce prototype rifles, automatic rifles and 6.8 mm cartridges to support a series of prototype tests. The prototype test would feature a series of technical and environmental evaluations as well as limited user evaluations to support the Soldier centric designs.
The 6.8 mm projectile was never in the Army’s inventory and was a key developmental component of the rapid prototype program. Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, the government-owned, contractor operated ammunition military industrial installation, is the primary producer of small arms ammunition for the military. Project Manager Maneuver Ammunition Systems, in conjunction with the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory and Lake City, spearheaded the development and production of government projectiles for testing and continued prototyping as part of the competitive competition resulting from the PPON awards. This strategy for early Lake City involvement paid dividends for development of ammunition facilities and timely investments to scale production to meet Army demand for training and future operations.
Reduction of Soldier aim error to increase probability of hit—or, improving Soldier aim—is an additional capability illustrated in the SAAC study. In 2018, to meet this capability, a Defense Ordnance Technology Consortium effort was initiated to test integration of an overlay display, laser range finder and ballistic calculator into a direct view optic to produce a corrected aiming point (disturbed reticle). This was the ignition of the NGSW-Fire Control. An additional Defense Ordnance Technology Consortium effort to ensure the systems meet military specifications led to a full and open competition in fiscal year 2020 that included NGSW-Fire Control bid samples and Soldier feedback. By April 2020, the Army awarded L3Harris Technologies and Sheltered Wings, Inc.—which does business as Vortex Optics—a fixed amount other transaction agreement for prototyping as part of the NGSW program.
MTA RAPID PROTOTYPING
In May 2020, the NGSW team started a comprehensive rapid prototyping competition to determine and select the best value solution to replace the M4A1 and M249 and the legacy rifle combat optic and machine gun optics. The NGSW team and competing industry partners were guided by a tiered capabilities matrix (TCM), developed by the Soldier Lethality Cross Functional Team. The TCM, a non-Joint Capabilities Integration and Development Systems document, was critical to define a series of prioritized requirements to inform the competition. The TCM requirements approach allowed industry to use trade-space analysis when prototyping systems to optimize systems for the warfighter. A trade-space analysis conducts an analysis to prioritize trades on system capabilities based on technology performance, schedule and cost. The TCM added flexibility for the cross-functional team and NGSW team to work with industry to rapidly design a Soldier centric system. Industry had a broad tiered approach with flexibility and trades not generally present in a traditional capabilities development document.
The objective for the NGSW team was to incorporate Soldier feedback early and often to ensure operational relevancy, increase Soldier acceptance and accelerate prototyping of the weapon systems. The prototype Soldier touch point events included close combat force Soldiers from 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 101st Airborne, 75th Ranger Regiment as well as the participants from the United States Marine Corps, Special Operations Forces and the Army Marksmanship Unit. The team also included the new equipment training teams from Tank and Automotive Command early in the process to provide a head-start with system familiarization and training. In total, 691 Soldiers, Marines and special operators conducted over 5,000 hours of testing to inform the NGSW program through the first phase of prototyping. All collected test data was transparent to the vendors, which allowed continued iterative prototyping to improve future designs.
At the conclusion of initial weapons and ammunition prototype testing, the NGSW team made a strategic decision to separate decision points for the fire control from the weapons and ammunition. Modifying the acquisition strategy was ultimately a risk reduction measure that allowed flexibility to ensure capabilities would be delivered to the warfighter in a rapid manner. Fire control represented a mature technology that had the potential to immediately increase Soldier lethality on legacy weapons. Separating the programs increased flexibility by enabling the Army to field fire control separately, which provided an opportunity to deliver early lethality capabilities to the force ahead of the weapons. This decision also enabled greater synchronization with the projected weapons and ammunition production schedule because the production lead times for the NGSW-Fire Control are greater than the weapons and ammunition.
A second round of weapons and ammunition prototype testing started in early 2021, which allowed the vendors to improve their design based on the feedback loop from the previous testing. The Soldier touch point effort would occur concurrently with over 100 technical tests conducted by Army Test and Evaluation Command. The Soldier touch point schedule consisted of five events for the weapons and ammunition that focused on mobility, controllability and user acceptance. The culminating event was a limited user experiment at Fort Bragg where Operational Test Command executed the test events on behalf of the NGSW team. This event included nine squads of Soldiers, Rangers and Marines conducting live fire qualification, individual lanes, team live fires and a force-on-force situational training exercise. The team planned and executed these events over a six-month timeline ensuring transparency of data collection while analyzing emerging results from the Army Test and Evaluation Command technical testing. Fire control executed an equally rapid test schedule consisting of four Soldier touch point events focused on interoperability, shooter performance, target detection and user acceptance. The results from all the Soldier touch points totaled over 20,000 hours of Soldier feedback, which proved invaluable in shaping system designs. These Soldier assessments—technical test data from over 100 sub-tests, including 1.5 million rounds of 6.8 mm ammunition—was used to assess overall system performance and inform the selections.
TRANSITION TO AGREEMENT AND CONTRACT AWARD
Following the conclusion of prototype testing, the Army acquisition executive approved the NGSW team to transition the program from MTA rapid prototyping authority into MTA rapid fielding for fire control and for weapons and ammunition. The team also successfully executed source selection activities resulting in an award for fire control, and weapons and ammunition. In January 2022, NGSW awarded Vortex Optics a 10-year follow-on production other transaction agreement for fire control with a ceiling of $2.7 billion. Three months later, in April, the team awarded SIG Sauer a 10-year Federal Acquisition Regulation contract for weapons and ammunition production with a ceiling of $4.5 billion. The team was not only successful in awarding the best value to the government, but also in ensuring favorable intellectual property rights to ensure Lake City had the ability to prepare for and manufacture ammunition stockpiles to the warfighter. For this rapid timeline from prototyping to award, the NGSW team was required to concurrently conduct test events, staff rapid fielding approval documentation and work to award contract to ensure a blistering pace required to maintain the program schedule.
Over the next year, the NGSW team will remain focused on this rapid process by conducting additional tests to ensure system performance and reliability leading to an operational test event and subsequent fielding. Rapid acquisitions and operational requirement development using MTA authorities is the true driver for the rapid development of a comprehensive small arms system. The fire control and weapons are currently synchronized to test and field as a system. The end state is a system that provides increased lethality, range and accuracy while maintaining mobility by leveraging the most modern lightweight small arms technologies. Fielding is currently planned for 2023.
MAJ. JAMIN D. WILLIAMSON is an assistant product manager for the Next Generation Squad Weapons, PEO Soldier at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey. He holds a J.D. from Florida Coastal School of Law, an M.S. in operational studies from the United States Army Command and General Staff College and a B.S. in political science from Indiana State University. He is an acquisition officer who previously served as an armor officer.