The Marine Corps is dropping its conventional 5.56mm ammunition in
Afghanistan in favor of new deadlier, more accurate rifle rounds, and
could field them at any time.
The open-tipped rounds until now
have been available only to Special Operations Command troops. The first
200,000 5.56mm Special Operations Science and Technology rounds are
already downrange with Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, said
Brig. Gen. Michael Brogan, commander of Marine Corps Systems Command.
Commonly known as "SOST" rounds, they were legally cleared for Marine
use by the Pentagon in late January, according to Navy Department
documents obtained by Marine Corps Times.
SOCom developed the new
rounds for use with the Special Operations Force Combat Assault Rifle,
or SCAR, which needed a more accurate bullet because its short barrel,
at 13.8 inches, is less than an inch shorter than the M4 carbine's.
Using an open-tip match round design common with some sniper ammunition,
SOST rounds are designed to be "barrier blind," meaning they stay on
target better than existing M855 rounds after
penetrating windshields, car doors and other objects.
to the M855, SOST rounds also stay on target longer in open air and
have increased stopping power through "consistent, rapid fragmentation
which shortens the time required to cause incapacitation of enemy
combatants," according to Navy Department documents. At 62 grains, they
weigh about the same as most NATO rounds, have a typical lead core with a
solid copper shank and are considered a variation of Federal Cartridge
Co.'s Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw round, which was developed for
big-game hunting and is touted in a company news release for its ability
to crush bone.
The Corps purchased a "couple million" SOST rounds
as part of a joint $6 million, 10.4-million-round buy in September —
enough to last the service several months in Afghanistan, Brogan said.
Navy Department documents say the Pentagon will launch a competition
worth up to $400 million this spring for more SOST ammunition.
round was really intended to be used in a weapon with a shorter barrel,
their SCAR carbines," Brogan said. "But because of its blind-to-barrier
performance, its accuracy improvements and its reduced muzzle flash,
those are attractive things that make it also useful to general purpose
forces like the Marine Corps and Army."
The standard Marine round, the M855, was developed in the 1970s and
approved as an official NATO round in 1980. In recent years, however, it
has been the subject of widespread criticism from troops, who question
whether it has enough punch to stop oncoming enemies.
shortcomings in the M855's performance were detailed in a report by
Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane, Ind., according to Navy Department
Additional testing in 2005 showed shortcomings. The Pentagon issued a
request to industry for improved ammunition the following year. Federal
Cartridge was the only company to respond.
Brogan said the Corps
has no plans to remove the M855 from the service's inventory at this
time. However, the service has determined it "does not meet USMC
performance requirements" in an operational environment in which
insurgents often lack personal body armor, but engage troops through
"intermediate barriers" such as windshields and car doors at security
checkpoints, according to a Jan. 25 Navy Department document clearing
Marines to use the SOST round.
The document, signed by J.R.
Crisfield, director of the Navy Department International and Operational
Law Division, is clear on the recommended course of action for the
5.56mm SOST round, formally known as MK318 MOD 0 enhanced 5.56mm
"Based on the significantly improved performance of
the MK318 MOD 0 over the M855 against virtually every anticipated target
array in Afghanistan and similar combat environments where increased
accuracy, better effects behind automobile glass and doors, consistent
terminal performance and reduced muzzle flash are critical to mission
accomplishment, USMC would treat the MK318 MOD 0 as its new 5.56mm
standard issue cartridge," Crisfield wrote.
The original plan
called for the SOST round to be used specifically within the M4 carbine,
which has a 14½-inch barrel and is used by tens of thousands of Marines
in military occupational specialties such as motor vehicle operator
where the M16A4's longer barrel can be cumbersome. Given its benefits,
however, Marine officials decided also to adopt SOST for the M16A4,
which has a 20-inch barrel and is used by most of the infantry.
In addition to operational benefits, SOST rounds have similar
ballistics to the M855 round, meaning Marines will not have to adjust to
using the new ammo, even though it is more accurate.
"It does not
require us to change our training," Brogan said. "We don't have to
change our aim points or modify our training curriculum. We can train
just as we have always trained with the 855 round, so right now, there
is no plan to completely remove the 855 from inventory."
officials in Afghanistan could not be reached for comment, but Brogan
said commanders with MEB-A are authorized to issue SOST ammo to any
subordinate command. Only one major Marine 5.56mm weapon system
downrange will not use SOST: the M249 squad automatic weapon. Though the
new rounds fit the SAW, they are not currently produced in the linked
fashion commonly employed with the light machine gun, Brogan said.
first fielded the SOST round in April, said Air Force Maj. Wesley
Ticer, a spokesman for the command. It also fielded a cousin — MK319 MOD
0 enhanced 7.62mm SOST ammo — designed for use with the SCAR-Heavy, a
powerful 7.62mm battle rifle. SOCom uses both kinds of ammunition in all
of its geographic combatant commands, Ticer said.
The Corps has no plans to buy 7.62mm SOST ammunition, but that could change if operational commanders or infantry requirements officers call for it in the future, Brogan said.
is uncertain how long the Corps will field the SOST round. Marine
officials said last summer that they took interest in it after the
M855A1 lead-free slug in development by the Army experienced problems
during testing, but Brogan said the service is still interested in the
environmentally friendly round if it is effective. Marine officials also
want to see if the price of the SOST round drops once in mass
production. The price of an individual round was not available, but
Brogan said SOST ammo is more expensive than current M855 rounds.
have to wait and see what happens with the Army's 855LFS round," he
said. "We also have to get very good cost estimates of where these
[SOST] rounds end up in full-rate, or serial production. Because if it
truly is going to remain more expensive, then we would not want to buy
that round for all of our training applications."
Before the SOST round could be fielded by the Corps, it had to clear a
legal hurdle: approval that it met international law of war standards.
process is standard for new weapons and weapons systems, but it took on
added significance because of the bullet's design. Open-tip bullets
have been approved for use by U.S. forces for decades, but are sometimes
confused with hollow-point rounds, which expand in human tissue after
impact, causing unnecessary suffering, according to widely accepted
international treaties signed following the Hague peace conventions held
in the Netherlands in 1899 and 1907.
"We need to be very clear in
drawing this distinction: This is not a hollow-point round, which is
not permitted," Brogan said. "It has been through law of land warfare
review and has passed that review so that it meets the criteria of not
causing unnecessary pain and suffering."
dilemma has been addressed several times by the military, including in
1990, when the chief of the Judge Advocate General International Law
Branch, now-retired Marine Col. W. Hays Parks, advised that the open-tip
M852 Sierra MatchKing round preferred by snipers met international law
requirements. The round was kept in the field.
In a 3,000-word
memorandum to Army Special Operations Command, Parks said "unnecessary
suffering" and "superfluous injury" have not been formally defined,
leaving the U.S. with a "balancing test" it must conduct to assess
whether the usage of each kind of rifle round is justified.
test is not easily applied," Parks said. "For this reason, the degree of
‘superfluous injury' must … outweigh substantially the military
necessity for the weapon system or projectile."
John Cerone, an
expert in the law of armed conflict and professor at the New England
School of Law, said the military's interpretation of international law
is widely accepted. It is understood that weapons cause pain in war, and
as long as there is a strategic military reason for their employment,
they typically meet international guidelines, he said.
"In order to fall within the prohibition, a weapon has to be designed to cause unnecessary suffering," he said.
years after Parks issued his memo, an Army unit in Iraq temporarily
banned the open-tip M118 long-range used by snipers after a JAG officer
mistook it for hollow-tip ammunition, according to a 2006 Washington
Times report. The decision was overturned when other Army officials were