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The Army took its first formal look at the latest weapons from gun makers hoping for the chance to unseat the M4 carbine as the service's primary soldier weapon.
Nineteen small-arms companies, including M4 maker Colt Defense LLC, hauled their top carbines to a Washington-area hotel to attend the Nov. 13 industry day designed to help Army weapons officials assess what the U.S. small-arms industry is capable of producing.
This represents a significant course reversal for the Army. Until recently, senior officials have maintained that the M4 is a "world-class weapon" and saw no reason to consider anything new.
Multimedia: Comparing the carbines
The Army-sponsored event attracted other large firms such as FNH USA, Sig Sauer Inc., Heckler & Koch and Colt Defense LLC. But several small companies like New Bremen, Ohio-based Precision Reflex Inc. and Troy Industries from West Springfield, Mass., also showed up to display their weapons crafting prowess.
There were M4 look-alikes available in multiple barrel lengths. There were also several futuristic weapons with names that used "advanced" and "adaptive" to describe their potential. Many companies offered weapons in larger calibers than the M4's 5.56mm, such as 6.8mm and 7.62mm NATO.
"Today is an important step in an effort to ensure that our soldiers always have the best," Secretary of the Army Pete Geren said in his opening remarks.
While Geren described the M4 as a "battle-proven weapon," he has directed Training and Doctrine Command to update the Army's carbine requirement, using a "comprehensive analysis" of the technology presented at the industry day.
"The U.S. Army is committed to ensuring that we have the right capabilities and the right weapons and equipment for our soldiers," he said.
The Army-sponsored event is the result of a "request for information" the service put out in August.
This is the first step toward a carbine competition the Army intends to open next year after Colt Defense LLC, the company that makes the M4, turns over the weapon's technical data rights in June 2009. When that happens, the Army will have the opportunity to make major improvements to the M4 or buy a new carbine.
Army officials hope to have the carbine requirement completed by the end of the calendar year and approved by next summer, said Col. Doug Tamilio, Program Executive Office Soldier's project manager for Soldier Weapons.
Provided that the new carbine requirement is approved, the Army will issue a formal request for proposal for a new carbine to gun makers late next year, Tamilio said.
If the Army decides to put up the money for a new weapon, weapons officials estimate they could begin fielding a new carbine to soldiers by 2012, Tamilio said.
"We want to do it correctly," he said. "We just don't know yet; it could be a variation of the M4 that wins. It could be that we just end up replacing the upper receivers. There are many potential outcomes for this and a new carbine is just one outcome."
To date, the Army has invested $462 million into the M4, buying 473,000, Army officials said. The service has fielded 365,000 so far. The remaining 108,000 will be fielded over the next two years, officials said.
The Army began buying M4s in the mid-1990s as a replacement for the full-size M16, a weapon that has been in service since the mid-1960s. Its collapsible stock and shortened barrel make it ideal for soldiers operating in vehicles and tight quarters associated with urban combat.
For more than a year, the M4 has been the subject of increased scrutiny by lawmakers on Capitol Hill concerned about whether soldiers have the best available weapon.
In late November of last year, the weapon finished last in an Army reliability test against other carbines. The M4 suffered more stoppages than the combined number of jams by the other three competitors: the Heckler & Koch XM8; FNH USA's Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle, or SCAR; and the H&K 416.
Army weapons officials agreed to perform the dust test at the request of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in July 2007. Coburn took up the issue after a Feb. 26, 2007, Army Times report on moves by elite Army Special Forces units to ditch the M4 in favor of carbines they consider more reliable.
U.S. Special Operations Command decided to move away from the M4 in November 2004 when the command awarded a developmental contract to FN Herstal to develop its SCAR to replace its weapons M4s and older M16s.
Colt officials declined to be interviewed by Army Times at the event. The company had more than a dozen weapons on display, including an "advanced" line with both direct gas system and piston-driven gas systems.
Each company was given equal space to display their weapons at the event. Congressional aides and reporters were given a strict 60-minute window in the morning to talk to gun makers and handle weapons before being asked to leave. The rest of the day was consumed with participants making 30-minute presentations to Army officials as well as representatives from the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
Many companies have been preparing for this opportunity for years.
Smith & Wesson, a company founded 156 years ago, made a dramatic shift three years ago with its decision to go after the military market, said Joe Bergeron, a defense product manager for the company.
"Over the past three years, we have invested more than $50 million in facilities," he said, describing Smith & Wesson's three manufacturing sites in the United States.
"We saw a need for the rifle," he said. The company has developed a line of M4-style weapons that feature a gas port that's positioned mid-length along the barrel. This midlength system helps reduce some of the port pressure, "allowing the gun to run a little cooler and cleaner," he said.
Bushmaster/Remington officials were showing off their Adaptive Combat Rifle.
The weapon features a gas piston operating system, tool-less quick change barrels and a multi-adjustable folding stock. It was created and first unveiled as the Masada in 2007 by Magpul Industries of Boulder, Colo. Magpul is best known for inventing a molded-plastic magazine attachment that helps combat troops perform speedy magazine changes.
Since then, Magpul signed a deal with the larger Bushmaster to produce and market it as the ACR.
LWRC International LLC displayed several of its piston gas system carbines that are available in multiple calibers.
The company's M6A2PSD is chambered for 6.8mm and features an eight-inch barrel.
"That eight-inch barrel, 6.8mm — in that tight little package — is delivering more velocity and a bigger bullet than a 14.5-inch M4 is," said Dave Hall, LWRC consultant with a special operations background.
FNH USA displayed both the 5.56mm and 7.62mm versions of its SCAR as well as a conversion kit to adapt the weapon to 6.8mm.
"It's an open architecture design; if they want a different bell or whistle, we can put it on or take it off," said Gabe Bailey of FNH USA. "If they don't want a feature like a selector level; if they don't want the butt stock to fold we have a non-folding stock."
The company hopes to start delivering low-rate initial production SCARs to Special Operations Command by January, Bailey said. In addition to SCAR, FNH USA makes the Army's M2 and M240 machine guns and the M249 squad automatic weapon.
Some gun company representatives said they were skeptical about this latest effort given the Army's track record.
From 2002 to 2005, the service developed the XM8 as a replacement for the conventional Army's M16 family. The $33 million program led to infighting in the service's weapons community and eventually died after failing to win approval at the Defense Department level.
The XM8 was a spinoff of an older Army program called Objective Individual Combat Weapon.
Started in 1994, the OICW program featured the XM29, which combined a 5.56mm carbine with a 20mm airburst weapon to maximize ground soldier firepower. But after a decade, development had stalled in the face of technical challenges that made the weapon too heavy and bulky.
Together the XM29 and the XM8 ended up costing the Army $100 million.
Still, participants of the industry day said they were pleased the Army took this step.
"I think this is a wonderful opportunity for the soldiers; it will give a whole industry a chance to give some input into updating the" M4, said David Dunlap, president of Precision Reflex Inc. "The weapon is a good weapon, but it does need updating."
But there was also an undercurrent of skepticism by many small-company officials who wondered if the Army's process would treat them fairly and not favor larger small-arms companies the service has dealt with in the past, said several individuals who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.
When asked about this concern, PEO soldier commander Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller said "it's better to be fair like this through the whole process. We are going to have another industry day; we have the big guys, but we want to see more small guys because small guys can come up with these great new and innovative ways to deal with things."