Recent articles on Strategy Page, and several postings on arms and military oriented sites and blogs have brought back the debate about the 5.56 nato cartridge and it's primary platform, the M16/M4. This time around, the proposal has been made that the 5.56 nato M4 has been holding us back from developing further, better, individual small arms for infantry combat.
Basically, the proposition is that the M4 and 5.56 are "good enough", that we are "stuck" with them. Even though there may be better choices available, we are getting the job done with what we have, so theres no reason to go for more, and no funding or institutional push behind any real efforts to do so.
I don't know if I'd quite put it that way; but the argument has merit. Taken on its own, the AR platform is certainly "good enough". Sure it has it's weaknesses, but so does any other weapons system; and on the plus side it's lightweight, accurate, generally reliable (when properly maintained, which is not nearly as big a problem as some seem to believe), relatively inexpensive (which, much as we don't like the fact, is a primary motivator in military acquisitions), and easy to train soldiers to shoot well with.
The 5.56 nato chambering is also "good enough"; though honestly the case for its replacement is far stronger. Although the chambering has significant advantages (light weight, accuracy, inexpensive to produce), it also has inconsistent to poor wounding characteristics in some of the areas of the enveope in which we are expect it to perform.
Really what it all comes down to though, are network effects.
Under certain circumstances, the more of a particular item that are in use, the more relative value that item has. This creates a barrier to entry that gets higher and higher as more of theitem are brought into use; creating a "self fulfilling prophecy". This is referred to as a "network effect".
Military rifles are one of those items subject to network effects, as are military issued cartridges.
The more rifles are issues in a particular type and chambering, the more relative value there is to maintaining (or maintaining compatibility with) that type and chambering.
In the case of the M16 and M4 variants of the Stoner AR10/15 Platform (as opposed to the Stoner 63 platform and the Stoner AR18 platform, which have their own variants), this network efect has not only made it the second most widely deployed assault rifle platform (after the AK of course), but it also is the huge family of accessories and infrastructure surrounding it.
You can see the dificulties involved in changing weapons systems in this excellent defense industy daily article about the M4, and the EXTREME resistance to not only the idea f changing weapon systems; but even to the idea of holding competitive trials to see if new systems can outperform the existing platform.
This may seem ridiculous, and even offensive (and it is); but the logic behind it is simple (if venal): The Army (who are the primary holdup) cannot under any circumstances admit to mistakes with the M4 platform, because whole careers of powerful men (hundreds, possibly thousands) have been built around the advocacy and acquisition of the M4. If the platform were to be beaten in trials, those careers could be ended right quick; and those are the people currently in charge of testing and acquiring new weapons.
From a purely technical standpoint, given this large family of compatibility, and of course given the political resistance to change, it becomes much easier to change chamberings than it does change rifle platforms; because, presuming the new chambering is not radically ballistically different, most accessories, infrastructure, and especially most training, are not chambering specific (excepting relatively minor issues with familiarization).
This is especially true if the new chambering can use existing magazines and rifles, with minimal modification; thus the 6.5 Grendel and the 6.8 SPC.
Both "mid six" rounds are designed to get the most performance out of the AR15 platform possible, with the minimum changes required. Shooting either of course involves more recoil and slightly different range and windage adjustments, but overall there is no retraining necessary to transition from 5.56 to one of the mid six chamberings.
Further, in my opinion (and I believe I have the background, and have done the research to be credibly called an expert on this), both mid six options offer a significant enough ballistic advantage to be worthy of adoption. Either will give a better than 30% increase in high percentage range, and a better than 25% increase in medium percentage effective range, with low percentage range effectively that of the 7.62 nato.
So why haven't we adopted one of them; or at the very least, opted to issue the 77gr Mk262 load for 5.56; which gives a significant amount of that improved capability, without actually changing chamberings?
Simply put: Logistics.
By changing chamberings we sidestep the barrier to entry for the rifle platform itself, but that ignores the barrier to entry on the other side of the weapons system.
The problem is overcoming the network effect of all the rounds in the pipeline; and all the equipment used to produce them, and all the distribution mechanism for them, and all the manufacturing effort behind them... I could go on.
I would guess that there are about a million M16/M4 variants in use with our military services today; and each one costs the government something around $400 (plus an additional $400 for magazines, spare parts, and maintenance over the lifetime of the rifle).
$400 million (or $800 including maintenance) is a fair chunk of change to be sure. But...
At appx. $0.14 a piece, and 4 billion rounds per year expended (current as of a few months ago - oh and we're currently only actually producing 2.7 billion rounds per year in two plants; 1.5 in one and 1.2 in the other. We're making up the difference out of production from our allies, and drawdon fo existing stocks), over the 10 year service lifetime of a rifle (I've seen M16s a hell of a lot older than that still in service by the by), and presuming we maintain current operational tempo for six more years, you are talking about almost $6 billion.
So, in terms of relative costs of operations; over the lifetime of the rifle, the cost percent of the rifle, vs the ammunition is very low (in this case the rifle is only about 6.5% of the cost, and the maintenance another 6.5%). Additionally, even very small changes in the cost of ammunition make HUGE changes in the cost of operations over the lifetime of the rifle.
Optimistic estimates are that even after the initial investment and ramp up period (estimated at from 2-5 billion dollars, and three to five years), full economies of scale will mean that the mid sizes would be something on the order of 15% more expensive to produce. That would mean about an additional billion dollars over 10 years, plus the startup costs.
Suddenly, the cost of changing chamberings climbs from $400 million, to something between $3.5 billion and $6.4 billion; in addition to the established costs of about 6 billion... so, potentially more than doubling the cost over 10 years.
And this isn't something you can easily and economically transition to. Before those economies are achieved, production capacity would simply not be available to meet demand, and one thing you absolutely do not want to ever do is fight a war while changing out your primary issue chambering, unless you can do it all at once; because logistically, you can't risk having half a division needing one type of ammunition, the other half needing another; when you are sending stuff by the shipload.
Worse of course, is that this example only takes into account the US; never mind all our allies, and nations we support around the world, who most likely would also transition chamberings; and who would have their own transition costs (likely equal to our own, given the relative sizes of militaries).
So, our barrier to entry here is this: Is the value of changing the chambering away from 5.56 nato equal or greater than $6 billion dollars; and the difficulty of changing chamberings in the middle of a war.
For right now, the answer is clearly no, at least as far as our government is concerned. As I said above, most of the time, the 5.56 chambering is getting the job done; and governments will take "adequate most of the time" over $10 billion dollars" most any day.
Putting that into perspective though, $10 billion pays for every single man on the grounds rifle and ammunition for 10 years....
...Or, it pays for the acquisition, operation, and ordnance of a single B2 bomber for 10 years.
...So maybe the government is wrong.