The SAW Detachment
By: Tom Rozman
When the Army adopted the M16 Rifle and the initial 5.56 mm cartridge, a fires deficiency developed in the infantry platoon. With the elimination of the M14 rifle and the M14A1E2 Semi Automatic Rifle , the U. S. Army’s infantry squad was confronted with a fires problem, especially in defense against a competent opponent’s infantry.
The M16, an outgrowth of the assault rifle concept that developed to address the unique tactical situation of World War I (WW I) trench warfare, is an assault rifle. The assault rifle concept was a response to the close quarters of the trench. In the trench, a lead man in a attacking column was constricted to a one man frontage and faced the need on contact with an enemy of being able to direct an overwhelming volume of fire forward on contact in that constricted space. Even over a parapet as large numbers of infantry appeared suddenly after artillery attack immediate high volumes of fire were needed. But the weapon also needed to retain some adequate infantry rifle capability in more traditional infantry situations requiring aimed fire.
Two immediate constraints against the concept presented themselves if an attempt were to be made to work from a current rifle configuration, even with a semi or fully automatic action. Compactness–the length of the standard weapon was too long for the constricted space of a trench. The soldier was hampered in movement.
Ammunition–the cartridge at 30 Caliber or 7.62 mm was too heavy to carry in large quantity if the weapon fired semi or fully automatic. Magazines to achieve the overwhelming fires desired with large volume rapid fire in a concentrated area would be too large to work in a fast and furious fight. Worse, the large caliber bullet on fully automatic capability was almost impossible to control in a lowered position when fired from an unsupported standing position—the fire quickly rose too high. And the amount of this heavy large cartridge that would be needed at higher volumes of fire would tax the tactical re-supply capability and possibly create overwhelming demand on operational logistics and production.
Initially, no cartridges existed in any army between a pistol and a standard rifle cartridge. Early attempts to realize the concept used pistol cartridges but these were inadequate. By the end of WW I some prototypes had developed but the standard rifle configuration remained. In fact, when WW II began, most armies remained equipped with a bolt action single shot repeating rifle with a typically five round magazine built into the weapon. Only one country, still equipped itself with a bolt action rifle, the United States, was even poised to issue as a standard infantry rifle one that was semi-automatic, the M1 Garand.
For the most part with some notable exceptions, operations around the globe did not move to large scale trench affected combat. But there were enough situations that the tactical need for a weapon based on the refining assault rifle concept held (a fully automatic weapon of reduced length and weight with a muzzle blast recoil straight back to the butt of the weapon and an intermediate cartridge between a pistol and a standard rifle cartridge that could be carried in quantity but retained adequate aimed fire and wounding ability out to 250-500 meters (the typical engagement ranges for modern infantry combat). The standard rifle cartridges retained the ability to reach out to 700-800 meters, the distance that infantry attacks are often detected moving forward, a capability that would present as a problem later.
The thinking in moving initially to the M16 and its 5.56mm cartridge was that the rifle platoon would gain overwhelming fires capability in the direction that fires were needed at the ranges of most concern. At the time, the U. S. Army was confronting the Viet Nam situation where, in the often constricted conditions of infantry combat, the assault rifle greatly enhanced infantry fires capabilities. Initially the reduced ability of the platoon to reach out in its defensive fires to 700-800 meters was not seen as an issue as the M60 machineguns would retain the 7.62mm cartridge and with 2 in each platoon.
But, in this weapons mix, the M60s were the platoon’s primary means of sustained final protective fires if a position was under assault. A skilled opponent would do all possible to identify the location of these weapons to destroy them with mortar fire or other means. Since assaulting infantry are often detected beyond 700-800 meters, a means of blunting or stopping an assault with the preceding family of weapons in the platoon of the 1940s and 50s with the M1 rifle, BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle–three per platoon) and M1919 Machinegun, all 30 calibre weapons, was to engage the infantry assault force at 700-800 meters with the BAR and some M1s to slow the attack and create a target for mortar and supporting artillery fire. This technique could often cripple an infantry attack or at least weaken it. And it did not expose the platoon’s machineguns before they engaged any surviving infantry in the final protective fires.
The infantry platoon had retained this capability to engage the assault force at 700 meters when the M14A1E2 replaced the BAR. But the move to the M16 Rifle/M6O Machinegun mix left the 700-800 zone an area of tactical fires weakness in the platoon’s capabilities.
To add to the issue, the 5.56 mm cartridge being issued had a short ogive and much less density and mass as compared to a 7.62 cartridge. Its ability to penetrate brush and undergrowth was very limited. The round was so unstable that if it hit even a blade of grass it would spin off in a direction. It simply did not have the punch through ability of the 7.62mm rounds.
The Viet Nam war had wound down and the sense that this critical fires deficiency in the rifle platoon needed to be fixed got attention. The U. S. Army Infantry Board was tasked as part of this effort to plan and initiate a combined developmental and operational second test of three candidate systems for what would become the squad automated weapon. Three candidates to be evaluated were—a Philco Ford, Maremont Corporation and an in-house Rodman Labs system (Rock Island Arsenal). The test planned an extensive program of four months to bring the initial support unit through the full machinegun qualification tables and then begin the comprehensive evaluation of systems.
To support the test a project detachment of 69 officers and men from 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment would be detached to the Infantry Board for the two weeks of gunnery. Based on the gunnery results the best gunners would be retained. The detachment would reduce to a captain, three lieutenants and 46 enlisted men. Thirty-six of these men were a platoon of Company A, 3rd Battalion 7th Infantry organized as gunners for the test, the platoon leader one of the three lieutenants assigned to the detachment. Ten enlisted men would serve as data collectors and evaluators during the various phases of the test.
The length of the test and its concentration on gunnery only was a concern given the brigade’s new mission as the heavy force brigade for the XVIIIth Airborne Corps at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. The length of the test meant that the troops tactical skills, less gunnery skills, would potentially deteriorate. The assigned detachment officer-in-charge (OIC), a newly promoted captain recently assigned to the battalion on return to the United States from a deployment to Korea, had been serving as the assistant battalion adjutant pending departure of the incumbent adjutant who was on orders. On the adjutant’s departure the assistant adjutant was to assume the duties of adjutant.
The assistant adjutant had, prior to promotion to captain and a delay in the arrival of the new battalion medical platoon leader also assumed command of the battalion’s medical platoon successfully leading it through a validation of the battalion for its new mission. The assignment of the test support mission to the battalion had developed fairly recently and the new captain’s assignment had come on fairly suddenly.
The captain, on assessing the mission as the OIC and his duties as an assistant test project officer with the test officer, an infantry officer assigned to the Infantry Board, determined that involvement with the test would be comprehensive. But he also determined that there would be opportunities to conduct integrated tactical training for the troops of the detachment that the battalion was conducting. It did appear with good planning and leadership that there would be opportunities within the four month test program to conduct tactical training on mission essential tasks parallel to the training the battalion would be conducting.
The new OIC followed his orientation with the test officer with an initial coordination and planning session with the battalion S-3 (battalion plans, training and operations officer). A senior promotable major, the S-3 entertained a meeting with the new OIC to begin hammering out a tactical training program for the troops of the detachment that would parallel training being conducted by the battalion during the four months of the test. The captain was well received by the S-3 and an effective relationship formed between the two officers that would facilitate an effective training program.
From these developments the SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) Detachment, 7th Infantry Regiment was formed and began its important mission. It’s initial 69 officers and enlisted men reformed two weeks after initial detachment formation and the gunnery training and qualifications to a sustaining detachment of 49 officers and enlisted men.
Post qualification test operations proved grueling with long days of continuous automatic fire in the hot sun of a Central Georgia Summer. Range firing scenarios, designed to expose the weapons to all types of fires missions that would be encountered by such a system to include sustained fire and barrel change filled the long days. Adding to the demands of these scenarios was a parallel test of a different 5.56mm cartridge, a cartridge with a coated steel rather than brass casing. Additionally, the detachment’s troops were employed in other exercises that exposed the weapons to the full range of field conditions the weapon would face in service. Effects of heat, cold, dust, ice, water, mud and handling by troops in the field were extensively evaluated.
The test schedule was grueling, the administrative requirements for data collection, for example equipment failure, proved unprecedented for the Infantry Board. The level of equipment failure reports began to build into the thousands and in this pre-computer age for such data collection and access, manual systems were needed to record and track the information.
One illustration of the above development was the decision to simultaneously test a prototype steel casing 5.56mm cartridge (some of the thinking here was cost savings if such cartridge proved viable due to the much greater cost of brass over steel) along with the three prototype weapons. The weapons had extractors designed for the characteristics of a brass casing. The steel casing introduced stresses on the extractors as designed that began to cause significant numbers of failures. A decision to record each equipment failure separately as opposed to a grouping of failures produced an undue number of “Equipment Performance Reports” the processing of which required a redesigned system for data capture, organization and accessing.
The troops of the detachment were an early indication of the transition to an all volunteer force. Though early in the transition, the soldiers demonstrated their quality by supporting the demanding schedule and the test’s requirements by a high standard of performance combined with a notable sense of élan. This was most noteworthy during daily physical training conducted by the detachment OIC and the tactical training program coordinated with the battalion S-3 that included several force on force field exercises with the data collection unit operating as a provisional platoon under one of the lieutenants pitted against the constituted platoon under its platoon leader. The OIC and the senior detachment lieutenant who functioned as the detachment executive officer (XO) when not in test mode served as observer controllers for the exercises.
The test proved a demanding four months for the SAW Detachment. The detachment met and exceeded its support requirements to the test, the test successfully concluding. As well, the conditioning and tactical proficiency of the troops assigned were maintained making their return to the battalion a smooth reintegration.
The work on the test determined that an add on test would be conducted of a fourth system, a Fabrique Nationale (FN) Herstal system from Belgium. These efforts eventually resulted in the Army’s introduction in 1984 of the M248 Squad Automatic Weapon (now LMG—Light Machine Gun, an adaptation of the FN system), a weapon of proven value to the infantry platoon.
The detachment’s troops reintegrated with the battalion, the detachment OIC assuming the duties of the battalion S-3 Air (Plans, Operations and Training Officer for Air Operations, the second senior officer in the battalion’s S-3 office).
From a leadership perspective the experience of the SAW Detachment on an extended and technically demanding mission for a newly created organization had much potential for issues. Experience with similar detached missions that were not translated well to the troops ran the risk of troop disinterest due to lack of clarity and understanding if leadership failed to engage the individual soldier and keep him engaged as a person in the effort with a clear understanding of the importance of the work. As well, the soldier’s sense of discipline and pride as a soldier could suffer if the mission did not engage the soldier well, but within reason.
Regarding the above, the SAW Detachment’s leaders kept the soldiers fully informed and engaged them. Infantry Board Test NCOs involved the men in the “ordnance” aspects of the work beyond the tactical and performance operations, an approach that captured the interest of many of the soldiers. As well, conditioning and tactical training continued in parallel to the battalion’s training retaining the sense that the men were soldiers of the 7th Infantry.
A leadership approach that engaged the troops, strongly oriented on the mission and insured that every man believed he was an important part of that work, as well as maintaining an aggressive schedule, paid off. The SAW Detachment completed its mission successfully. No soldier failed in his duty or required disciplinary action.