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Colt, S&W among those out of carbine bidding

Nov. 25, 2011 - 01:18PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 25, 2011 - 01:18PM  |  
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A handful of heavyweights have backed out of the carbine competition, but a familiar favorite is now on the bill.

The Army is so tight-lipped that it won't even give a list of competitors. The silence is out of fear that any information divulged will be seen as influencing the competition and will contribute to a protest. In truth, a protest is almost a guarantee.

The carbine competition will last three years as the Army jumps through countless hoops in the hopes of keeping everyone happy. It most likely won't. In the world of Army acquisitions, losing companies protest nearly every contract in an effort to get a piece of the pie. Few protests are substantiated, but all prolong the procurement process.

Despite the silence, Army Times has confirmed some key competitors — and others that have dropped out on account of burdensome rules and requirements.

Among those staying on the sidelines is the Colt CM901. The ambidextrous, multicaliber weapon fires 5.56mm and 7.62mm rounds with a cyclic rate of 700 to 950 rounds per minute. A free-floating barrel helps maintain tight accuracy. It also boasts a universal 7.62mm lower receiver and multiple barrel lengths. But the Army, in a move that shocked industry, neither required nor provided points for multiple calibers or barrel lengths. All weapons enter as one caliber with one barrel length.

But what discouraged Colt is an Army requirement that the winner turn over technical data rights. The service will distribute the blueprints to two other companies that will each produce one-third of the weapons purchased. Colt was not willing the reveal its trade secrets. The company instead entered the Enhanced M4.

Smith & Wesson's M&P 4 is another strong competitor that has backed out for financial reasons. Company officials were confident they had a shot at the contract. But research and development cost a chunk of change, and the competition is drawn out over three years with no guarantee of payoff. Smith & Wesson decided the better financial strategy would be to focus on existing sales and walk away from the carbine competition.

Some smaller companies with strong carbines also are sitting this one out, such as Stag Arms, LWRC International and Knight Armament. None of the companies gave reasons why they are not competing, but one government official with firsthand knowledge of the competition said meeting the myriad military specifications would prove too costly and difficult. Stag is bidding for the contract to manufacture one-third of the winning weapon, and Knight is submitting components for the M4A1 upgrade competition.

H&K returns

So who is still in the running? The B.E.A.R. by Adcor Defense, SCAR by FNH and the Adaptive Combat Rifle by Remington are still standing. They are now joined by Colt's Enhanced M4.

Do not confuse the Enhanced M4 with the M4A1. The weapon is suppression ready, has a fluted barrel for less weight and better cooling, and has shown "markedly better" accuracy than the current M4, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Internal mechanisms have also been changed to increase durability and reliability. Notably, Colt went with a piston system.

The official said he was not surprised because the propellant in green ammo is "so filthy" some manufacturers have needed an ultrasonic cleaner and rubber mallet to get a bolt out after firing only a few thousand rounds. The Army this spring provided competitors 10,080 rounds (six cases) of M855A1 Enhanced Performance Rounds, aka "green ammo." This was done so manufacturers could fine-tune their weapons to the ammo's unique characteristics.

And Heckler & Koch has jumped in the ring with an HK416 variant. Officials didn't want to go into detail on the changes, except to say that is a "far improved" version of the venerable HK416.

The HK416, developed for special operations forces, uses a gas-piston system but does not introduce propellant gases and carbon fouling into the weapon's interior. This reliability was evident in a 60,000-round dust test conducted by the Army in 2007.

The HK416 had only 233 stoppages as compared with 882 stoppages by the M4. The Army later modified the M4's numbers to 296 stoppages, attributing the difference to discrepancies in the test and scoring.

The SCAR performed even better, with only 226 stoppages. But the top dog was the XM8 — a prototype built by H&K that seemed destined to replace the M4 in 2005. Instead, the $33 million program fell prey to a broken acquisition process and bitter infighting within the Army until the Pentagon put a halt to the heir-apparent.

The XM8 included a 20mm airburst weapon, which today is the XM25 "Punisher" that is gaining rave reviews in Afghanistan.

Grading weapons

Top performers will be identified in two down-select phases, according to the Army's request for proposals. Phase I will grade the weapons in three key areas:

• Technical aspects, such as the ability to mount existing weapons, optics and suppressor kits.

• The company's ability to produce 2,000 and a surge of 4,200 carbines per month.

• Cost. The Army says performance factors are more important than price.

Phase II will include what officials have described as "extreme and extensive" tests expected to last 12 to 18 months. The Army will fire more than 2 million rounds to produce piles of data.

Scoring categories

Weapons will be scored in five areas. They are, in order of priority:

Development tests. These are anchored by a detailed evaluation of accuracy and dispersion at distances of 100, 300 and 600 meters using 90 rounds at each range. Another 21,600 rounds will be used to test reliability, durability and barrel life. Weapons will be tested to their destruction point and to determine whether they maintain accuracy throughout their life cycle — something the military has not tested before. A weapon typically loses accuracy as it ages.

Other events will test recoil mitigation, signature reduction and firing compatibility with the M320 grenade launcher, M26 Modular Accessory Shotgun System and suppressor.

Secondary development tests. Incapacitation is key here as the weapons must score kills in as few shots as possible. Sustained rates of fire and cook-off will be tested, as will the weapon's ability to operate in extreme temperatures and environments.

Weapons will be beat up, dropped, submerged in water and fired while lacking lubrication and covered by ice and mud.

Cost. The Army isn't willing to get hoodwinked into high prices. But the RfP also states that "when all evaluation factors other than price are combined, they are significantly more important than price."

Government purpose rights. The Army will contract three vendors to produce a maximum of 178,890 carbines each. While this aspect of the contract is not a favorite among manufacturers, Army officials say it will keep costs down and ensure weapons keep coming even if one manufacturer can't meet production goals.

Limited user evaluation. These tests will use co-ed teams of 16 soldiers to determine each weapon's probability and quality of hit, time of first trigger pull and mobility/portability in an operational environment. Tests will include short- and long-range engagements, as well as close-quarters battle. Stationary, multiple and moving targets out to 600 meters will be used. Target exposure times will vary by range from 1.5 to 8 seconds.

The top three contenders will emerge from Phase II. Then, the competition becomes an exercise in analytics as officials weigh the contenders to determine which weapon has the best bang for its buck.

The winning carbine will face off against the improved M4A1 in a battle to become your next weapon.

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