Two Korean defense contractors are joining forces to develop a next generation rifle for the country’s military and the ammunition for the weapon.
S&T Motiv, Korea’s largest small arms manufacturer, and Poongsan, the largest ammunition producer, said Monday they are beginning their cooperation on the 6.8-millimeter rifle. The companies also said they are starting to lobby for the adoption of the weapon in Korea.
The companies expect the project to parallel the U.S. Army’s Next Generation Squad Weapon (NGSW) program, which is set to replace the U.S. military’s standard infantry and squad automatic rifles with those using new 6.8-millimeter rounds. The two firms signed a memorandum of understanding in November last year to begin development on the new rifle.
Since the 1980s, the U.S. Army has used the 5.56-millimeter M16 and its shorter M4 Variant as primarily weapons for its infantry and service forces. The Korean military likewise uses the indigenously produced K1 and K2 rifles, both of which fire 5.56-millimeter ammunition.
Rifle ammunition is categorized according to the dimensions of their cartridges. In 1980, 5.56-millimeter rounds became the standard ammunition for NATO. They also serve as the standard for many other non-NATO U.S. allies, like Korea and Japan.
What differentiates 6.8-millimeter weapons from 5.56-millimeter weapons are their accuracy and power, with 6.8-millimeter bullets retaining more energy when fired. According to a source in S&T Motiv, the company hopes to complete development on the new rifle within the next two years.
The Korean military has yet to produce a roadmap for a next-generation rifle program, but Poongsan and S&T Motiv are moving forward in line with the U.S. military. The U.S. Army is set to select between three defense contractors to produce its next generation rifles (NGSW-R) and automatic rifles (NGSW-AR) this year.
If the project is finalized, it would make the United States the only country in the world to use 6.8-millimeter rounds for its standard-issue rifles. Britain, France and Japan have already decided to continue using 5.56-millimeter ammunition for their next generation rifles.
There is a reason why the United States is taking such a lonely path, analysts say. Hong Hui-beom, publisher of the military magazine Platoon, attributed it to the limitations of the 5.56-millimeter weapons as experienced by U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. While 5.56-millimeter ammunition is useful for concentrated fire within a short range, Hong said, 6.8-millimeter variants have 50 percent more range.
The primary potential adversaries for the United States - China and Russia - equip their troops with advanced personal armor, making the 6.8-millimeter bullet a better alternative for engaging such forces due to its superior armor-piercing capability.
The transition from 5.56 to 6.8-millimeter ammunition, however, will be far from simple. Questions remain about what to do with stockpiles of 5.56-millimeter ammunition and the storage of the new 6.8-millimeter bullets.
“If rifles’ calibers and ammunition dimensions are lengthened, that means the military’s tactics and training methods have to change accordingly,” Hong added.