Monthly Archives: August 2015

Omar’s Grandchild: In Praise of the M2 Bradley

The M2 Bradley is America’s standard infantry fighting vehicle. It’s much maligned; its long and drawn-out design process is the subject of a feature film starring Kelsey Grammar. You would think after such a well-done (and funny) shellacking, I would hate it.

But you would be wrong. The Bradley is actually a really nice IFV. Borgundy would procure them if they were still in production. Like all designs, they are a compromise, but the resulting compromise is a better jack-of-all trades vehicle than any of its competitors. To understand the compromise, and why the Bradley still hangs with the best of them despite its age, we need to go back to the design of the IFV.

In 1967, the Soviets unveiled the BMP-1, and it took the world by storm. The BMP-1 was originally designed for the nuclear/biological/chemical contaminated battlefield of The Future, and was designed to put all of the squad’s organic firepower into a vehicle that could move with tanks and protect the soldiers from the hostile environment. They were expected to fight from within; the BMP-1 had firing ports to enable troops to shoot out, and even had devices to remove the weapon waste gasses from the interior. It was a bunker that could move at the same speed as a tank, and it had a PKT machine gun and a 73mm low-velocity gun to match the squad support weapons that couldn’t be fired from the ports.

The west was terrified. Here was an APC with teeth! Here was yet more firepower for the Red Tank Armies that would come thundering through the Fulda Gap. Western APCs would be shredded, since they were armed with only a machine gun. The Germans promptly and sensibly designed the Marder IFV1. But America did not. We were too busy in Vietnam to give much thought to armored warfare. And counterinsurgencies are expensive. We in America stuck with our tried-and-true M113 APCs as the world moved ahead. The Soviets would eventually make improvements to their BMP, and unveiled the BMP-2 in 1980. The biggest change was a shift to a smaller gun, because a high-velocity, stabilized 30x165mm gun has a longer effective range than the 73mm low velocity gun on the BMP-1, and stabilization lets it be fired on the move. The BMP-2 entered service in 1980.

By then America had been working on an IFV of its own, and they unveiled the M22 Bradley in 1981. It featured a stabilized 25mm gun, a twin launcher for TOW missiles, space for 6 dismounts who could fire out ports in the sides, and was amphibious. Of course, the complaints started immediately. Even though it was better protected than the M113, people complained that it wasn’t protected enough. Even though it had to be kept small to be amphibious (and the original was just barely amphibious), people complained that it didn’t carry enough troops. Everything is a compromise, and the Bradley’s designers had picked one set. Those who complained about armor were listened to, and the Bradley’s armor was progressively increased. The amphibious capability had to go (those who advocate river crossings underfire can shut up), and eventually the firing ports in the side were plated over. This wasn’t much of a great loss though; even professional soldiers couldn’t hit much when firing without sights through the tiny ports. And it was awkward for those inside, even though the Americans had provided a really compact weapon for use in firing ports. Russians used their regular AKs, and this was very difficult in the cramped interior. No longer burdened by firing port access requirements allowed the designers to reconfigure the seating arrangement. The resulting more sensible layout allowed accommodating an extra man, and was generally easier to get in and out from. The original layout was still better than that of the BMP.

No one would ever complain about the firepower on the Bradley. Well, except the British, who thought it overly extravagant to stabilize the 25mm gun. ‘Why would anyone need to fire on the move?’ they wondered. They got their answer with a side of crow in 1991, when the Bradley killed more Iraqi tanks than the M1 Abrams. And the TOW missiles were another large part of this. The Bradley had some anti-tank firepower built in, so US Mechanized troops had tank-killing support down to the squad level to help them face off against the Red Menace. The Bradleys were designed to kill the large numbers of non-tank armored vehicles in the Red Army, leaving friendly tanks free to concentrate on killing enemy ones. The TOW missiles were added since the Bradleys might also encounter tanks. Part of the reason why the Bradley couldn’t carry a full squad of dismounts was because of the stowed firepower. The Bradley carries 300 ready rounds of 25mm, plus another 600 stored 25mm rounds. The coax machine gun has 800 ready rounds, plus another 1,400 stowed. There are also 5 TOW missiles carried internally, in addition to the two loaded in the launcher. Use of a roof hatch allows for (somewhat awkward) reloading without the troops having to get out of the vehicle and climb about.

Of course, by now there are many other competitive IFVs. The Bradley has been heavily upgraded to compete, and it’s still a world-beater in a lot of ways. The Bradley was one of the first IFVs to feature an independent commander’s thermal sight, allowing for hunter-killer type operations where the commander searches for a target and hands it off automatically to the gunner for engagement. The Bradley’s 25mm gun now features depleted uranium APFSDS rounds, which are about as effective as the 30x173mm APFSDS common among NATO members. Even so, in the late 90s the US Army debated switching to a larger round for more HE effectiveness and round commonality with our NATO partners. Once again, a war in Iraq3 showed that the original design had lots of merit. In urban warfare, the aforementioned large ammo capacity of the Bradley proved a significant asset. Bradleys proved to have great staying capability as a base of fire, and worked great at providing support. What they lacked in HE quantity per round, they made up for in numbers. The Bradley’s front armor has been upgraded to take the Russian standard 30x165mm APDS, and modern explosive reactive armor kits are available to increase protection against RPGs and ATGMs.

Electronically, the Bradley’s sensors are better than most of the competition, save the very expensive Puma. The M2A3 also has the latest battle management kit installed to maximize crew awareness. Its dismount capacity matches that of the competition as well. The firepower suite is what makes it stand out, being well suited to infantry support tasks and having enough rounds for long engagements.

1.) Not to be confused with the Marder I, Marder II, or Marder III tank destroyers from World War II. The uncreative Germans like to reuse names.
2.) Not to be confused with the M2 Browning heavy machine gun, the M2 Carbine (a select-fire version of the M1 Carbine), the M2 halftrack, the M2 light tank, the M2 Medium tank…shut up, Hans.
3.) Operation Iraqi Freedom

Challenge Response: Borgundy Integrated Air Defense

To work out our short to medium range air defense system, it’ll help to see how it plugs in to the rest of our integrated air defense network. We’ll bracket the problem by working out our man-portable system first, then our long range system, and then we’ll fit our challenge answering system in between.

For man portable air defense systems (MANPADS), there are two schools of thought. One is typified by the famous FIM-92 Stinger, and relies on some type of infrared seeker for guidance. This one is much more common. The other system, typified by the RBS-70, uses a semi-active laser homing guidance method.

On the one hand, the Stinger is easy to use. Acquire target, get tone, shoot. The operator does not need much training, and the missile is fire and forget. Plus, there are no emissions (like radar or lasers) to give the missile launch away. On the other hand, IR guidance is commonly used in short range missiles, so infrared countermeasures are common. A large part of the success or failure of Stinger-type missiles depend on the relative strength of the seeker design and the countermeasure systems on the opposing aircraft. The RBS-70 is not fire-and-forget, and requires a trained and keen operator. The laser-homing seeker is much harder for an aircraft to spoof, and is generally considered only counterable kinematically. This is a problem for all MANPADS; they must be small to be able to be carried by the infantry, so they don’t have much room for launch motors. That said, not having any kind of big obvious radar makes them much harder to suppress. Kinematically, the most formidable missile in this size class is the British Starstreak, which has a nice range advantage over its competitors and achieves the astonishing speed of Mach 3.5. Starstreak uses a SALH seeker, and an interesting warhead that requires a hit to work (i.e. it has no proximity fuze). Given the missile’s speed and the size of other missiles’ warheads, this is probably not much of a disadvantage. Starstreak uses the nigh impossible to decoy SACLOS guidance system, which is training-intensive. However, even for this most modern of the SACLOS system, manufacturer claimed hit probabilities are significantly lower than those of contemporary IR guided weapons. This might have been somewhat rectified by the auto-tracking system that the British had planned to develop for Starstreak, but this has been cancelled.

Looking at IR guided missiles, the seeker is key. Range, performance against countermeasures, and Pk all depend on the seeker. Of the IR guided missiles, most modern ones have a two-color seeker. A focal plane array seeker would be better, but none are currently available, so range is more or less equivalent, as is countermeasure resistance. Some variation in counter-countermeasure capability can be expected based on software updates, but these don’t really put one model ahead of the rest. Interestingly, the French Mistral 2 sacrifices weight for kinematics, and is capable of an astonishing Mach 2.5. It’s not as good as Starstreak, but it’s far ahead of the competition. That said, it’s very heavy, and can only be fired from a tripod platform or from a vehicle mount. Ready to go, Mistral 2 in launcher weighs about 40 kilos or so, more than twice that of Stinger. We’ll take the mass produced, lighter, cheaper Stinger. We nominally deploy a platoon of MANPADS per battalion.

How does Stinger stack up to the Russian systems that Fishbreath hasn’t allowed me to buy? Pretty well. Stinger is pretty similar to Igla-S, with a bit of a larger warhead and slightly better range. Newer Russian systems (the Verba) come with a three-color IR seeker, as opposed to the two-color of Stinger, so that’s a seeker advantage to the Russians. Verba should be better at distinguishing between real targets and decoys. Overall, the missiles are quite comparable. Stinger also has the very neat M1097 platform, which I’ll get to later.

MANPADS only gets us so far though. It’s mostly an ambush sort of weapon. It’s great for pegging helicopters or low flying aircraft, but it’s not that hard to switch to a medium-altitude attack profile and avoid the pesky little missiles entirely. So we’ll clearly need something bigger, which brings us, as promised, to our long-range air defense system.

The western standard long-range surface to air weapon system is the MIM-104 Patriot. It’s got a PESA radar, was the first in the world to network effectively with other air defense components as well as AWACS, and has been proven in combat. It has some notable shortcomings, including not providing all-around radar coverage and using towed components rather than self-propelled ones. There’s also the issue with the latest missile, the PAC-3, having relatively limited range. This missile problem also plagues the MEADS system, which uses the same PAC-3 round. MEADS does have much better radars than Patriot, and uses solely self-propelled vehicles. However, it’s not actually ready yet; while it is on offer, the buyer would have to toss money at it to finish development, which has left it out of the running in several recent contests. In general, Borgundy doesn’t like to be the first to adopt something, so MEADS is out. Plus, waiting sucks.

The other alternative is SAMP/T, a land based Aster system. While its radar provides all-around coverage, it lacks the range and power of the Patriot’s radar, being based on the smallest and least-capable naval Aster-compatible radar system. Patriot brings many more available missile types, having an ABM-ready missile in the PAC-3 and an anti-ECM aircraft missile in addition to the regular SAM. The Patriot missiles have longer range and slightly more speed (Mach 5 v. 4.5), but use track-via-missile guidance, as opposed to the Aster’s active radar homing seeker. Track via missile is cheaper (for missile components) than active radar homing, and doesn’t give the distinctive warning of an active-radar seeker, but is dependent on that main radar, so it’s vulnerable to ARM attacks as well as escaping the envelope or breaking line of sight. All that said, we still think the Patriot is the better buy. It’s proven interoperability is a big edge, and we can expect future upgrades, since the US has opted to keep upgrading Patriots rather than go with MEADS. We’d really like to see MEADS radars and some of the fancy plug-and-fight capability of MEADS make it’s way over to the Patriot system.

How does Patriot compare to Russian systems? Well, the latest Russian system, the S-400 (which is a lot more expensive than Patriot, strangely enough), has a really long range missile, and Patriot lacks anything in the same range class. However, such a missile has serious radar horizon issues, and I wonder what targets it’s designed to engage at 400 km. Probably AWACS or incoming ballistic missiles, since anything else would be able to make a turn or something and make the missile miss. Otherwise, the systems compare quite favorably. The regular SAMs on the Russian systems are pretty comparable to those of Patriot as far as kinematics goes. Sensorwise, the Russians have a bunch of cool options like a radar-on-a-pedestal to help provide locks on low-flying targets. On the other hand, Patriot has a much better networking system, specifically when it comes to networking with other things that aren’t SAM systems. Just like the US Navy’s Aegis SAM system, Patriot can network with the F-35 Lightning II for targeting data to cue and guide the missiles. S-400 can also network with other systems, but not as well as Patriot. It certainly can’t use a Su-35 for targeting data directly. The S-300 systems can really only network with other missile systems, and they don’t do this very well.

Now let’s examine the medium-range problem presented by Fishbreath. We need to fit something in between the Stinger and the Patriot. We’d like it to be able to network with the Patriot system as well as other air defense assets, and we’d like it to be reasonably mobile. And, the western SAM market being what it is presently, there aren’t that many options. Roland and Rapier are out of production, and both are rather archaic. Rapier also fails to meet mobility requirements. It may also help to consider how the system will be deployed. As we’ve said, MANPADS are generally deployed at the battalion level. The Patriot system is quite elaborate, and as such it’s not going to be the best choice for covering a fast moving armored assault. We would expect Patriot missiles to be deployed at the Corps level if at all in an operational theater. Like most longer range systems, they’re much better suited to protecting big zones and large fixed targets. There are a couple upcoming SAM systems that look promising: CAMM and LFK NG. Both of these seem like formidable options, but aren’t available yet. We could wait. We could also make do with some older systems, like buying used Rolands or trying to get France to keep the Crotale lines open. But we won’t, because (a) that’s rather poor cricket, as Fishbreath would say, and (b) there’s an obvious system that meets all of our needs and then some: NASAMS II.

NASAMS II was originally developed for Norway’s air defense needs. It was originally designed to fire the AIM-120 AMRAAM, but launchable missiles have been extended to include AIM-9, IRIS-T and a RIM-162 ESSM variant with the AMRAAM’s active seeker. The system is designed to have high network interoperability and pull data for targeting from other platforms. It can also use it’s own radar, which is usually either an AN/TPQ-36 or an AN/TPQ-64. The -64 is the radar used with the latest variant of the venerable Hawk SAM system, so these are pretty common and not all that expensive. Alternatively, since the missiles all have either active radar seekers or IR homing seekers, the launchers can fire off of external references only, which is perfect if they’re on the move and caught with the radar out of position. The launcher is a rather simple affair that can be mounted on the back of a truck. An alternative rail-type launcher can be mounted on the back of a HMMWV. Plus, we were already going to buy AMRAAMs, ESSMs, and either AIM-9s or IRIS-Ts, so we don’t need to stock another missile. Being a rather simple system, we expect costs to be low, for once.

Compared to Crotale, we can get better guidance options with either IR or active radar seeker in NASAMS II. Crotale uses radio command guidance, which also requires either IRST cueing on the launcher or radar cueing from the launcher. Radar cueing can be particularly dangerous for short range systems, since they’re quite overmatched in range by anti-radar missiles. Compared to the nearest Russian equivalents, the launch system is going to be cheaper than the SA-15, but that’s not strictly a fair comparison, since NASAMS doesn’t have a radar of its own and Tor does. As a battery with radar(s) command vehicle and several launchers, NASAMS II is pretty similar to Buk. The missiles are somewhat less well performing, but cheaper. It networks much better though, and the launchers can be used independently. We’re trading raw power for economics and trickiness.

Okay, let’s review. We have Stinger missiles as our man portable air defense system. We can also use the M1097 Avenger system to gain some network capability on the short range end. This system holds eight Stingers on a rotating turret on the back of a HMMWV, and has a network datalink for missile cueing. We have NASAMS II launchers that can be fitted on the back of medium trucks (or more HMMWVs), and those can cue off of networked radars or their own radar system, and we figure that each division would have a good number of these to use and allocate to brigades as they advance. Finally, we have the big Patriot missiles for area and corps-level defense. We can network in AWACS assets, and even our fighters.

But wait, there’s more. Since the Borgundian War Department is somewhat paranoid (it’s in their job description), and they reckon that the Sov–I mean, the Russians might decide that perhaps, just once, they might try this launching this new ‘surprise attack’ thing themselves rather than getting suckerpunched. So it would be really cool if we could have a big radar to provide some level of early warning. Fortunately, Raytheon is happy to deliver. The AN/FPS-132 BMEWS has a trio of AESA arrays that are a massive 25.6 meters in diameter. It provides all around coverage at extremely long ranges, albeit at rather low resolution. Still, it’s a nice addition to the network.

Any network this fancy needs a name. Something cooler than just Borgundy backwards (like Iraq’s system). Since a cornerstone is the Patriot, and most of the components are made by Raytheon (headquartered in Andover, Mass), and since I know he’s Fishbreath’s favorite football coach, we’ll call our system BELICHICK. Air defense control personnel will be issued the SB15 sweatshirt, hooded, grey.

PDWs Suck

Time for me to tear down a childhood hero. Time for me to expose that the emperor has no clothes. PDWs suck. They’re pointless. They’re stupid. They don’t serve any good purpose and oughtn’t be procured. Let’s define our terms. Personal defense weapons (PDWs) are generally considered to be a class of submachine guns like the FN P90. They’re about as big as a regular pistol-caliber submachine gun, and fire a round that’s designed to be tiny but still penetrate soft body armor.

The FN P90 was introduced in 1991. It was supposed to be issued to “rear echelon” troops, people like clerks, mortar gunners, and vehicle drivers. People who might get in a firefight, but whose primary duties don’t include being very proficient with an assault rifle. This idea is not without historical basis. The M1 Carbine filled basically the same idea, and was well liked by American troops, since it was smaller, lighter, and just generally handier than an M1 Garand or M1 Thompson that frontline infantry usually carried. The P90 was designed to build on the success of earlier submachine guns like the HK MP5, but it was chambered in a new bullet. Instead of shooting already-standard 9x19mm Parabellum, the P90 fired a new 5.7x27mm round that was designed to defeat the soft body armor that Soviet troops were starting to get issued. There were, however, a few problems. First, in that same year, the Soviet Union collapsed, so all those European governments madly slashed defense spending and proceeded to sing kumbaya in a big circle that would eventually be called the EU. Nobody wanted to buy a new gun that needed a whole new non-standard bullet. And there, FN ran into more problems. First, everyone knows that if you want a round to be a standard NATO thing, you have to get America on board. Both 7.62x51mm and 5.56x45mm were American designed rounds that spread1 to the rest of NATO. And not only did FN fail to get America on board, but before FN could lock up a bunch of contracts, HK brought out the MP7, with it’s own itty bitty high velocity round, the 4.6x30mm. Now, there was a question of which standard to go for.

Meanwhile, the window on the concept’s usefulness was rapidly closing. Other developments would come in and make the P90 and MP7 obsolescent and pointless. That development was the M4 Carbine. This was introduced in 1994, and led to a whole series of what we might term assault carbines, if we liked to classify things. Once the US Army showed the success of the concept, other manufacturers followed suit and introduced short-barrel versions of their existing assault rifles. To be fair to previous engineers, there were a large number of compact versions of the M16 developed for close quarters battle in Vietnam. However, these weapons weren’t the most reliable, and tended to be special forces only. The M4 was a refined and reliable execution of the concept, and saw widespread issue to regular, second-line troops. Eventually, it actually came to replace the M16 for general issue; soldiers in the US Army are issued M4s almost exclusively. For those of you wondering if we can go shorter, we surely can. There’s the Mk. 18 CQBR with a 10.3 inch barrel (instead of the M4’s 14.5″ barrel). Other weapons like the G36C and the AKS-74U also have very short barrels. And that brings a pretty big set of nails in the coffin of the PDW.

To see why, let’s take a look at the big picture first. The compact carbines like the Mk 18, G36C, etc. all share the vast majority of features with their larger parent designs. That means armorers don’t need training to work on a new design, brand new contracts don’t have to be inked, a whole new set of spares doesn’t have to be stocked, and the army doesn’t have to have yet another caliber. All these things are positives that directly affect the bottom line. They also improve combat effectiveness; everybody can use the same magazines firing the same ammunition. Plus, even out of a short barrel, assault rifle rounds like the 5.56 or 5.45 are a lot more effective than 5.7mm. The 5.7mm does penetrate soft armor, but most armies are issuing hard plates now, so that’s of limited value. And what good is penetrating the armor if the terminal effects suck? And 5.7 has atrocious terminal effects. It does a very poor job of getting bad guys to stop what they’re doing and die. Against unarmored threats, conventional pistol rounds like 9mm perform far better. Put another way, 5.7 fires a bullet about two-thirds the weight of a 5.56 round at half the muzzle velocity. And we’re having arguments about whether or not 5.56 is effective enough! So, why would anyone use a much lamer version of it?

The proponents of the PDW will argue that I’m missing the point. Since PDWs are designed for “Second Line” personnel, we can assume that these personnel will not be very good at shooting, and will miss often, so we should give them a weapon that is light and has lots of bullets. The loaded P90 doesn’t give up much weight or bulk on a compact carbine, or even an M4. And spraying wild panic fire is a sign of poor training. But even if we were doing that, assault rifles were designed to perform the same function: to provide conscripts with effective automatic firepower that could also reach out to the longest normal infantry combat ranges (3-400m). Conscripts aren’t very good at shooting, but we gave them effective rounds anyway. Bullets should do their jobs if we (or luck) do ours. We got rid of submachine guns for general issue a while ago because they don’t do anything that a carbine can’t, and submachine guns at least share rounds with pistols. An M4 or Mk. 18 can spray and pray with the best of them, and it’s round is significantly more effective than either 9mm or 5.7mm. And while the 30 round standard assault rifle magazine is smaller than the 50 rounds in the P90, “second line” personnel can share 5.56 with the “front line” personnel. They can’t share 5.7. The logistics gains plus combat efficacy if those rounds hit mean that the smart buy is the carbine.

Sorry, Stargate fans.

1.) Some might say were forced, but not I.

Thirty Minutes Over Toseong

Come, let us reminisce.

It’s the mid-2000s, and war has broken out over the Korean Peninsula. I climb into my F-16C Block 52, get her powered up, and listen to the radio chatter as the inertial navigation system aligns. The time is just after noon, and the tower welcomes a few flights back. Good. The war only started this morning, but losses of planes and pilots both have been heavy.

The INS is aligned, and the Data Entry Display, the little green screen beneath and to the right of my HUD, informs me that my takeoff time is in five minutes. I radio the tower, and they clear me to taxi to runway 20R at our airbase, Seosan, a little ways southwest of Seoul. In between lining up another flight for landing on runway 20L, the tower gives my little two-ship clearance for takeoff.

We’re loaded light today, four AMRAAMs and two Sidewinders, so I take off at military power to save on fuel. We turn east-northeast and climb. We’re to our rendezvous point in about ten minutes. A few miles behind us, the ground-attack flight we’re escorting slots in. I check in with Chalice 4, the AWACS flight covering our sector of the front, and he advises me of bandits to my west, heading this way. I dither for a moment: should I push west and deal with the bad guys, or stick close to my flock?

On the assumption that close escort is and always has been dumb, I turn west. I match the bullseye position on my radar MFD page to the position AWACS gave me, and sure enough, I see two contacts headed my way. I hand one off to my wingman, bug the other, get target confirmation from AWACS, and send the first AMRAAM on its way. It hits, and my wingman’s does too. AWACS calls picture clear, and I turn my flight back toward our charges.

Of course, this is a full-scale war. There’s no way our sector will keep quiet for a full half-hour. Sure enough, AWACS reports contacts about 60 nautical miles distant, inbound from the north. We have identifications: one or two MiG-23s in the middle of a big group of Il-28s. Neither are particularly fearsome, but the MiGs should go first on principle—the Ilyushins are ancient jet bombers, dating from the late 1940s or 1950s, while the MiGs have some 1970s-vintage missiles that might pose a threat to us if they get close enough.

This is where things start to get a little hairy.

It isn’t that engaging the MiGs and Ilyushins doesn’t work—it works just great. The problem is that we still have ten minutes left on station. AWACS calls out a close threat—so close they give us a bearing and range, instead of a bullseye call—and my wingman goes low to deal with the MiG-19 that apparently managed to get in underneath us. Having pushed a little further north than I wanted while prosecuting the bombers, I turn south to extend, and take stock of my situation. I’ve fired all four of my AMRAAMs, and I have a pair of Sidewinders left on the rails. My wingman splashes the MiG-19 down low, and I call him for his status. “Winchester,” he says, “fuel state 2000.”

Well, that’s no good. He’s out of everything and has enough fuel to make it back to Seosan. I send him home, and call AWACS to let them know I’m effectively empty.

“Lobo 9-1, Chalice 4, your window of vulnerability is still open. Can you hold out?”

Well, crap. “Wilco,” I reply, on the assumption that an F-16 with no long-range missiles at angels 25 looks, on radar, to be very similar to an F-16 with long-range missiles at angels 25.

Then the RWR chirps in a way I’m too familiar with. The new threat is a MiG-29. I call AWACS again. “Nearest contact bullseye 050, 60 nautical miles.” I fiddle with the horizontal situation display MFD page, and verify that those are indeed the Fulcrums, sixty or seventy miles out. I ask if I can go home again, and they insist I try to hold out a little longer. There isn’t really much holding out to be done, though. I can’t take on a pair of Fulcrums on my own.

I can stick around a little longer, pretending to be armed, though. I have one eye on the clock, one eye on my RWR, and both ears listening to AWACS updates. It’s agonizing—the MiGs are closer to a missile shot every minute, and I don’t have the fuel to run away at afterburner for very long. Finally, the clock ticks past the edge of my station time. I call AWACS and tell them I’m out of Dodge, and I put the MiGs on my six and run for home.

So ends this tale of a rarity in gaming: a moment when I was not only happy to escape, but actually planning on running away.

The games I’ve enjoyed the most over the years have a common theme: they make war stories. Whether it’s the one time in PlanetSide where I used a Galaxy to scrape the enemy off of a hilltop position, or that time I was stuck on-station with MiGs bearing down on me, it’s the sort of immersion that resonates with me the best. That’s the best thing I can say in favor of Falcon 4 BMS.

Parvusimperator Reviews the SCAR-16S

I picked up a SCAR 16S a few weeks ago. I got it because I wanted a factory carbine in 5.56mm that wasn’t an AR-15–I have a few AR-15s already, and I really enjoy putting together AR-15 project guns. And if I wanted something different, I was going to get something significantly different. Plus, the SCAR 16 was the coolest gun in the world when I was in high school. I wanted one so bad. Well, now I have one.1 What’s it like, and how does it stack up to a comparable AR-15?

The SCAR was designed by FN for SOCOM. It was to be the ultimate carbine for their requirements, replacing the Mk. 12 CQBR, the M4 and the Mk. 18 SPR. It was intended to be highly modular, and featured a quick-change barrel. The SCAR 16 shares 90% of its parts with its big sister, the SCAR 17, which is chambered in 7.62x51mm NATO. Currently, SOCOM is focused it’s resources on buying the SCAR 17, since it’s hard to find anything quite as good in 7.62 NATO, and they can get M4s for “free.”2 A variant of the SCAR, the FN Advanced Carbine, was entered in the individual carbine competition, but that competition was cancelled. The SCAR has proven reliable and popular with SOCOM, especially with the SEALs. However, it hasn’t been a big enough improvement over the M4 (which itself is improving) to warrant procurement by Big Army. Enough history, let’s get on to the civvie version!

Disclaimer: A SCAR is not an AR-15.

You might think this is totally obvious, but I think it bears repeating. People are used to AR-15s, and a lot of SCAR reviews out there call out the SCAR for not being 100% AR-15-like. Well of course it’s not. If you want an AR-15, go buy one of those. I love AR-15s. I think they’re great. I won’t stop you. But this is different in a lot of ways–some good, some bad.

The SCAR 16S is chambered in 5.56x45mm, and comes with a 16″ lightweight barrel. Works for me. It’s 1.5″ longer than the standard barrel length in the military version, but I have to deal with the NFA and they don’t. Also unlike the military version, it comes with the excellent FSC556 muzzle brake instead of a flash hider. Since it’s got a 16″ barrel, muzzle devices can be swapped by the owner if desired. Otherwise, it’s basically the same gun as the military version.

The stock is pretty awesome. Since there’s no buffer tube,3 the stock can fold. It’s also telescoping, and has a nifty adjustable cheek riser. The SCAR can be fired while the stock is folded, which makes you feel cool. And also, kinda goofy. The stock has six positions of telescoping goodness, and the riser has two positions. I’ve heard stories that soldiers had issues with the stock breaking. I’m not sure how much of this is because soldiers can break anything, and how much is due to engineering problems that have been worked out but mine is pretty sturdy. I haven’t actually tried to smash it to bits or do anything stupid with it like break rocks, but I also haven’t babied it. I’m no soldier, so take that as you will.

I like the reciprocating charging handle. You can mount it on the left or the right side of the gun. Some people have scraped knuckles on their optic when using it, but this hasn’t happened to me. I have an Aimpoint Comp M4S mounted on my SCAR, and I tend to wear gloves at the range. If you don’t wear gloves and have a different optic, your results might be different. Some people have also complained that the charging handle has hit their hand while shooting. I’m not honestly sure how this can happen if you’re not trying to make it happen, but maybe that’s because I don’t hold my carbine like a complete moron. I’ve also not seen anyone post a picture anywhere of their hand position when the charging handle hit it. The reciprocating charging handle makes diagnosing whether your magazine is empty or if your weapon has jammed easy. Plus it makes locking the bolt back for administrative or remedial action simple. On the left side, you can pull the bolt back, and with your hand palm down, can trip the bolt catch to lock the bolt in position with your thumb. Simple, convenient, one-handed operation.

The bolt catch is only on the left side of the gun, but the safety and mag release are ambidextrous out of the box. As mentioned before, the charging handle can be configured on the left or the right side, per the user’s preference. The safety is nicer than the AR-15, since the 45 degree position is fire, not the 90 degree one. The shorter throw is nicer to work with. I know, it sounds silly, but it still works better. It’s a bit nicer for the military, since full auto is at the 90 degree position rather than the 180 degree one. Triggerwise, there’s a “combat trigger” in there that’s designed to resist abuse and desert sand and always trip a primer. So it’s not bad, but it’s not good. It’s a trifle gritty and somewhat heavy. There are aftermarket triggers from Geissele and Timney that make things better, of course.

Unlike a lot of the higher-end AR-15s, the SCAR comes with a quality set of folding backup iron sights. The rear sight is adjustable for range and windage, and has two apertures. The front sight is mounted conveniently on the gas block. Minor annoyance: it blocks the front of the picatinny rail, so you can’t slide an accessory over it. Most things you’d want to mount on the top rail don’t need to slide on like that, but there it is.

I should also mention the quick-change barrel. I think the military may like this one more than me. It takes me a long time to shoot out a barrel, and I don’t often think of swapping them. However, I do like that I don’t need a vise to remove or replace a barrel, unlike when working with the AR-15. It’s a minor thing, but the design is cool, and it saves me having to figure a way to improvise a vise in my apartment.

First thing I’m going to call FN out on here is being cheap. The gun came to me in a cardboard box, with some cardboard padding. Lame. With an MSRP well north of two grand, the least they could do is throw in a halfway decent plastic case. Ideally, it’d be a lockable travel-ready case, but I’d settle for almost anything nicer than this lame cardboard thing. It’s not even a cool looking box.

They’re cheap again with the stupid A2-type pistol grip. No one likes these. They’ve got a nub in a stupid place. This is an expensive gun intended for civilians. Would it kill you to put a better grip on there? There are lots available, and while preferences vary, almost all of them are better than the basic A2. It’s something the premium-ARs tend to get right. First thing I changed was the lame grip. Fortunately, AR-type grips work on it, so I grabbed one and made the switch.

The SCAR is in some ways stuck in the early 2000s. Just like the stock M4, it comes with seven inches of handguard space. This is enough for your hand. There’s room for accessories, but it gets a little cramped. You also don’t have much choice in where you’re going to put your hand. AR-15 ergonomics have moved on so people can grip out further if they want, and so that there’s more space for hands and accessories. For the record, this is why so many military guys went to vertical foregrips. Once they loaded their M4s with all their kit, there wasn’t enough room left for their hands. Being a civilian, I don’t have this much crap to hang off my gun. I might like to get my support hand out a bit more though. There are extensions, but they add weight forward. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, and the SCAR is probably heavier than most AR-15 carbines out of the box. That said, I might give a handguard extension a try.

Clearly, the SCAR doesn’t use the same sort of operation as the AR-15. The SCAR is tappet driven: gas drives a small piston which smacks the bolt carrier assembly and drives it backwards. The bolt carrier assembly is reassuringly beefy, and most of the weight is above the bolt. Since there’s no gas flow required, the bolt itself is pretty thick and sturdy. It doesn’t have any obvious narrow points where stress issues might arise. Field stripping is easy, and requires no tools. Those of you who have seen pictures of the SCAR might note that the different shades of tan don’t match. This is by deliberate request of SOCOM, as it’s supposed to break up the outline of the rifle. I have no idea if this actually works.

It’s a light recoiling carbine. Duh. The FSC556 muzzle brake does a great job of helping you keep the rounds on target. Unsurprisingly, the recoil impulse is different from that of the AR-15, but it’s not unpleasant, like any other carbine. It handles well, and while shooting with the stock folded isn’t very practical, it puts a big grin on your face. I’ve found that even though I’m not using a thumb over barrel grip, the Magpul AFG is pretty comfortable on the handguard. The trigger snob in me would like a better trigger, but this one is serviceable. I’ve shot many worse triggers (mostly courtesy of Fishbreath).

I’m not going to compare the SCAR to a quality entry level AR-15 like the M&P15 sport or the Colt LE6920. Those are much cheaper and still shoot 5.56mm, but don’t have any rails or quality furniture. No, such things aren’t necessary, but they’re nice. And I always think cross-market comparisons are stupid. If you’re thinking about a SCAR, you might be wondering how it compares to the premium AR-15 options. Even though we take away most of the price differential, the AR-15 has been out longer and is very popular, so it’s got a lot more development. There are a number of modular handguard options, which are lighter, but tend to get hot faster. Pretty classic tradeoff. The SCAR’s handguard is sturdier, since there’s no joint. But, you’re pretty much stuck with it. The AR has more ergo options, but the SCAR has a better manual of arms for troubleshooting. Overall, the AR-15 is a more mature platform, so if you only had to get one, I’d tell you to go that route. Probably. But the SCAR is way cooler, and if you already have an AR-15 (or several), or just like the SCAR, you can’t go wrong with one.

1.) Okay, I have a civvie semiauto-only one. Shut up, it’s still awesome.
2.) By “free”, I mean paid for by the parent service, not the SOCOM branch. E.g. paid for by the US Navy, but out of the big budget, not that of the SEALs.
3.) Remember that part where it’s NOT an AR-15?