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Weapons tests planned for coming months are aimed at giving soldiers the best arms possible.
Officials in January are sending 36 improved XM-25s for a second round of combat tests.
A production decision is expected this time next year, with full fielding beginning in fall 2014.
When that happens, don't be surprised if the Army adds armor-piercing munitions to the high-explosive air burst and trainer arsenal.
The XM-25 proved itself time and again in 14 months of forward operational assessments, also known as combat.
"During numerous engagements with enemy forces, the XM-25 was very successful, a game-changer," said Command Sgt. Maj. James Carabello.
Before assuming duties at the Maneuver Center of Excellence, Carabello was brigade command sergeant major for the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, which deployed to southern Afghanistan in March 2011.
The terrain is difficult, to say the least. It is covered with grape rows essentially small walls behind which the enemy can hide. Well, could hide. Though most weapons can't penetrate the 2-foot-thick walls, the XM-25 has a target acquisition system that calculates range with the push of a button.
The data is transferred to an electronic fuse, enabling the 25mm round to explode over the target and rain shell fragments on the enemy.
"Every time we used the XM-25, enemy activity stopped," Carabello said. "It is a devastating weapon system."
The next carbine
The push to put the best carbine in your hands is moving toward a new phase.
A number of weapons are battling it out in a bid to be recognized as the top carbine, and officials say the competition is now in the second of three phases, with about 86,000 rounds fired through each vendor's weapon in an effort to measure reliability, durability and accuracy.
Next up is Phase 3, and as many as three finalists should be announced by early spring, said Col. Scott Armstrong, program manager, Soldier Weapons.
That phase will focus on technical testing, with an additional 180,000 rounds per vendor fired.
Also, soldiers will get a chance to try out the carbines for limited-user evaluations.
The winning carbine will be announced in fall 2013.
A cost-benefit analysis will follow to determine whether the Army would be better off buying the winning carbine or sticking with the M4A1, which is being tested alongside the carbine competitors.
"The competition is very robust," Armstrong said. "We are really going to be able to shake these weapons out with the variety of tests that are being done. We are going to get a lot of good data to ensure that we understand how another weapon that could be adopted by the Army stacks up against the current capability that we have with the improved M4A1."
Officials conducting the tests said they can't go into much more detail because the competition is still underway and a lot of money is on the line. If information leaked out that a weapon maker felt was detrimental to its product, a lawsuit would likely follow that would put the whole program on hiatus. Such lawsuits have become common in defense contracts.
Upgrading the M4
Meanwhile, the Army is moving forward with efforts to pure-fleet its M4 inventory with the ambidextrous M4A1, which has a better barrel and bolt. More than 6,000 M4A1s were fielded to 101st Airborne Division this summer. An additional 3,000 will be fielded to deploying soldiers this fall.
The bulk conversion of M4s will begin next summer.
A performance improvement plan that looked to further improve the M4A1's bolt and bolt carrier group failed to hit the target. Eleven agencies went through a year of technical testing, but none outperformed the current M4A1 bolt, especially in reliability, durability and high/low temperature testing, Armstrong said.
Officials cut the effort to save $2 million earmarked for further testing.
However, the search for an improved forward rail evaluation continues. Armstrong said he expects a down-select to three vendors in early 2014, with a winner announced that fall.
Speaking of improvements, the XM-25 just got more than 100 design improvements to the ergonomics and reliability of the weapon, fire control and munitions. That may sound like a lot of fixes, but keep in mind this is a 6-year-old design that had not been battle-tested.
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