The Army’s standard-issue rifle replacement program may have died before it even really started, but the branch’s new and improved sniper rifle isn’t going anywhere.
On Sept. 20, the Army announced that it had canceled its brand new Interim Combat Service Rifle (ICSR) program, just over a month after its first solicitation for a temporary 7.62mm-chambered service rifle. The program died because of shortfalls and uncertainties following a continuing budget resolution passed by Congress, sparking worries that the branch’s M110A1 Compact Semi-Automatic Sniper System (CSASS) program — established in 2012 to replace the M110 sniper rifle with a maximum order of 3,643 lighter 7.62mm rifles that don’t sacrifice reliability or accuracy — might die along with it.
But rumors of the sniper rifle’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The Army’s Program Executive Office Soldier office confirmed to Task & Purpose that the lethal new system is currently in the production qualification testing phase conducted by its Soldier Weapons program office. And while the CSASS was initially conceived to enhance the range and lethality of those expert snipers who cut their teeth in the Army’s sniper schools, Dawson said that the service plans on fielding a modified version of the sniper system designed specifically for infantrymen in the squad designated marksman role.
“The CSASS program has not been canceled,” PEO Soldier spokeswoman Debi Dawson told Task & Purpose. When asked if the new sniper rifle program has encountered any political or budgetary problems, Dawson stated that the CSASS “has encountered no such obstacles.”
This is good news for soldiers downrange. In May, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the branch’s current 5.56mm M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round “doesn’t penetrate” enemy body armor downrange, despite the fact that the steel-topped round was adopted in 2010 to replace the M855 cartridge, which soldiers complained were ineffective against “battlefield barriers such as car windshields,” according to a 2015 Military.com report.
To address this problem, Army officials at Fort Benning’s Maneuver Center of Excellence whipped up the “more potent” M80A1 7.62mm cartridge to defeat any enemy plates similar to the branch’s own Enhanced Small Arms Protective Inserts, Milley told lawmakers in May. But he also asserted that the branch “might not” need a brand-new infantry rifle to accommodate the higher-caliber shells.
This isn’t totally accurate. As Military.com notes, the standard-issue 5.56mm M4 carbine — the very rifle the ICSR was meant to replace — would need “a new barrel, bolt carrier group, buffer system in addition to a new lower receiver” to rock the new higher-caliber rounds. Former U.S. Army War College commandant and legendary small arms expert Gen. Robert Scales put it more bluntly during his own the Senate Armed Services Committee weeks earlier: The M4 is a “terribly flawed weapon” when facing off against 7.62mm rounds enjoyed by AK-47-wielding militants downrange.
But Congress, fixated on jousting over the federal budget, didn’t seem to get Milley’s message. The cancellation of the ICSR — which was explicitly established as a temporary replacement for that M4 that could chamber a 7.62mm round — was a direct result of the three-month, continuing resolution passed by Congress on Sept. 14, which Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned lawmakers would kill the ICSR effort along with 17 other Army start-up programs, according to a Sept. 8 letter to Sen. John McCain obtained by Defense News. And while the ICSR program was the only 7.62mm project in jeopardy explicitly named by Mattis, he emphasized that “funding limitations for all research and development [result] in services assessing the relative priorities of their programs.”
The cancellation rocked the tactical gear community. That the continuing resolution was the direct trigger for the ICSR program’s untimely death suggests that “any future [7.62mm] programs … are likely to be organized in a more limited and conservative manner,” as The Firearms Blog, which first reported the news of the cancellation on Sept. 20, observed. “It does seem likely that there will eventually be a new program for a 7.62mm or 6.5mm/.260 designated marksman rifle, which may offer the option for ‘assault’ or ‘rifle’ configurations in addition to a baseline squad marksman variant.” On Sept. 22, Soldier Systems to publicly speculated that the Army’s new sniper rifle program may be the next victim of the political pressures that led to the ICSR program’s untimely demise.
This isn’t unfounded speculation: Army Contracting Command had awarded Heckler & Koch a $44.5 million contract for a lightweight version of the gun manufacturer’s G28E sniper rifle with a baffle-less OSS suppressor, but shortly after Soldier Systems published its story, ACC issued an award modification on behalf of the Project Manager Soldier Weapons to “incorporate Engineering Change Proposals” (ECPs) into the CSASS program, which the publication suggested indicated the Army’s intent to turn the CSASS into a rifle for squad designated marksmen.
Reached by Task & Purpose, the Army’s message to CSASS observers is simple: Cool your jets. “The ECPs for the CSASS were implemented in response to user feedback and test results conducted by other government agencies,” Dawson told Task & Purpose of the changes to the lethal sniper rifle. “The modifications improve reliability, durability, ergonomics and extended range performance.”
What exactly this means for the future of the souped-up new sniper rifle is unclear; given PEO Soldier’s stated intent to eventually deliver a modified CSASS to regular designated marksman, it seems likely that the sniper system will still make it into the hands of elite sharpshooters. But given the budget pressures bearing down on the service branches, chances are this isn’t the last obstacle facing the Army’s mission to give soldiers downrange the weapons they need to get the job done.