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The US Army wants to start fielding its Next Generation Squad Automatic Rifle (NGSAR) as early as 2022. Army weapons officials recently awarded contracts to five firms to develop prototypes of the NGSAR. It will have to be five pounds lighter than the full-size M249 and fire ammo that’s lighter and more potent than the service’s current 5.56mm round, according to military.com.

The program is on target to be ready for initial fielding beginning in late 2022 or early 2023 at the latest, said Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, principal military deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.

One of the challenges facing manufacturers is the requirement for ammo that’s more potent than the M855A1 5.56mm Enhanced Performance round and 20 percent lighter than traditional brass-cased ammunition. “We know that the 5.56mm is not going to be the round of the future because we have issues associated with adversaries’ body armor,” Ostrowski said. The solution will likely be a cartridge that uses lighter material than brass for the casing.

Textron has been working for more than a decade on next-generation light machine guns that fire polymer case-telescoped ammunition in its Lightweight Small Arms Technology program.

Other companies have found that standard cartridge designs made completely from polymer are not strong enough and are prone to damage during the extraction process. One solution has been to use brass at the base and polymer for the majority of the case.

The NGSAR prototypes are scheduled to be delivered by early next summer. From there, Army officials plan to evaluate the designs and refine the service’s requirement for the new weapon. Companies will then compete to make the NGSAR for the Army.

Soldiers in non-combat arms units will likely continue to use standard 5.56mm weapons such as the M4 and the M249, Ostrowski said.