The near-term future machine gun of the U.S. military is lighter, more lethal at longer distances, equipped with artificial intelligence and able to integrate apps, according to an interview with two senior military leaders.
The U.S. Army is in the midst of overhauling its 400,000 gun small arms arsenal, reinventing the machine guns that have stayed virtually unchanged since the Vietnam War. It’s a project that could launch a market for defense contractors into the billions of dollars, and secondarily, bring big changes to the civilian gun market, too.
In an interview, retired Gen. John Campbell, former commander of the NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan and former Col. Steven Cummings, an ammunition expert, described what the guns of the future will look like after the Army’s overhaul.
Big U.S. gun makers often operate in both the military and civilian markets. The civilian market also takes cues from movies and video games that draw inspiration from war movies, meaning the military technology, in a slightly regulated form, ends up on gun consumers’ wish lists.
As I was listening to the men describe what the military is up to, I couldn’t help but imagine the next evolution of civilian guns, too. On one hand, weapons equipped with artificial intelligence might be easier for law enforcement to track, or even control; on the other, the idea of more accurate, more lethal weapons in criminals’ hands is scary.
Campbell and Cummings said that the Department of Defense keeps some weapons and weapons’ features that are in the military market from the civilian market.
Both men are advisors to T-Worx, a small, Washington, D.C.-area defense contractor that is working on a technology it calls I-Rail, which could be incorporated into the new guns. It provides unified power source for apps and accessories, and a method for communicating from a soldier’s weapon to the base or commanders.
“We have all all this technology with jets and tanks but we don’t enable the people on the ground,” said Campbell, who was also former vice chief of staff for the Army. “We’re talking about algorithmic warfare. Every soldier is a sensor. Every soldier is a weapons system.”
Five companies are developing prototypes of the new guns, according to the Army Times.
I asked the officers to describe what those future weapons might look like. Here’s what I took away from the conversation:
Imagine the apps of an iPhone, but on a weapon. The new guns will be able to transmit information between each other and back to command. Commanders will have a better sense of a battle, be able to resupply and serve soldiers with medical care faster and more efficiently. There will also be a record of civilian deaths. “With an intelligent rail, a soldier is networked with other soldiers. It’s similar to an app on an iPhone,” Cummings said. (Developers could also continually change the way the weapons function — and potentially be vulnerable to hacking).
They’ll require a lighter load. One of the most important changes to soldiers on the ground is that in combat, the loads required to keep their guns functioning will be much lighter. Campbell said that in Afghanistan, he planned for soldiers to bring an astounding 80 to 100 pounds of gear on missions. Weapons that require fewer batteries and accessories will lighten those loads.
They will help minimize deaths and injuries from friendly fire. If the guns are AI-enabled, I asked, does that mean that soldiers would be notified, if, say, he or she inadvertantly aims at a friendly soldier? The answer was yes, possibly.
They will be more accurate, at longer distances. Equipped with higher-tech scopes that are more integrated into the guns, they’ll be more accurate — one shot, one hit — and make up for individual soldiers’ shortcomings, like one eye that’s weaker than another. Most experts predict the warfare of the future will be urban. You can imagine that the guns of the future will be perfect for sniper battles.
They will shoot larger bullets. “The army is in the process of going to a common size bullet,” Cummings said. He also noted that the army starting doing away with lead in ammunition six or seven years ago, shifting to copper ammunition. (That’s a contrast to the civilian market).
Larger bullets and greater accuracy equal more power. The guns of the near future will be able to pierce material, like body armor, that today’s weapons can’t.
Both men have signed on to work with T-Worx as advisors, because, they said, they believe better guns will mean fewer American soldiers’ deaths. Both served in combat. Campbell’s son was an Army sargeant.
“The effectiveness of small weapons is near and dear to me,” Campbell said.
As for the speculation I’ve heard in gun ranges, of laser-beam weapons that can explode buildings — they’re not science fiction, the retired officers said. But they’re also not in the near future, Campbell said. Though there’s a lot of talk now about hyper velocity weapons and lasers — Star Trek style — Campbell said that kind of weapon is more than 10 years away.
And the most important change? Both men said the the new weapons will enable young soldiers to be more confident, because they’ll know they have a pice of kit that sees and shoots farther, and that will help avoid shooting the wrong person.