Sen. John McCain has issued a scathing report about the Army's "byzantine" and "wasteful" handgun selection process that should be much simpler.
In McCain's report, subtitled "Army's Costly Misfire" he argues the service should scrap its current plan to replace Beretta's M9 and take a closer look at what's already on the market.
Without overhauling the Army's request for proposal, "the risk is too high that the Army will waste even more time and money in getting a sorely needed new handgun fielded to our soldiers," McCain said.
But the Army is returning fire and disputes McCain's assertion that commercially available pistols meet the Army's needs.
The Army has launched an open-caliber competition to replace the M9.
Photo Credit: Sgt. David Marquis/Army
But that may do little to assuage concern from many about the process, one about which former Defense Secretary Robert Gates complained at an Oct. 21 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on defense reform by saying: "This is absurd…it's a handgun for God's sake."
Some gun manufacturers have recently expressed sentiments similar to those presented in McCain's five-page missive, with some dropping out of the competition. The report is part of McCain's "America's Most Wasted" series, which has also taken on a Navy mine-hunting program and the military's permanent change of station policies.
In the "Misfire" report, McCain eviscerates the Army's efforts to pick a winner in its Modular Handgun System competition, also known as XM17 — a contract valued up to $1.2 billion, according to the report.
The Army issued its final RFP in August. McCain said its thickly-layered bureaucratic processes and ill-defined parameters will result in both waste and an inferior product in what he argued should fundamentally be a simple purchase.
"The Army's effort to buy a new handgun has already taken 10 years and produced nothing but a 350-page document micromanaging extremely unimportant details and byzantine rules the Army wants followed, many of which are totally unnecessary and anticompetitive," McCain said in a statement.
The Army said that in its solicitation, it's merely giving the people (in the gun industry) what they want.
"The Army has used the past 16 months to gather extensive market research and industry feedback before releasing the final (request for proposals). Many small arms vendors had requested an iterative and deliberate process featuring multiple industry days and draft RFPs in order to give the Army feedback on MHS requirements and the competition," Stalder's statement said.
He also noted that the 350-page report included only 39 pages of technical specifications for the gun.
But some big companies have already backed down. The CEO of Ruger, one of the world's largest handgun makers, told Guns.com they would not compete, citing high costs with no guarantees of reward. (It's worth noting Ruger operates a gun manufacturing plant in McCain's state of Arizona.)
Other smaller companies have also bowed out. Some, like Heckler & Koch, have declined to say whether they're competing.
The Republican Senator agreed with the need to replace Beretta's M9, the Army's handgun since 1985. But he said the competition should at least be shelved until a caliber has been selected. He also presents other options such as leveraging work by other federal agencies who have conducted similar studies to what the Army plans. He also suggests allowing divisions or even brigades to purchase handguns from an approved list of guns, lowering acquisition costs and giving units more flexibility and input.
In the five-page report, he noted past Army processes had failed to produce winners in other drawn-out competitions. The Individual Carbine replacement program was cancelled in 2013. Although some guns tested better than the Colt M4, the gap wasn't wide enough for the Army to award a winner as the selection efforts drew increased scrutiny from Congress over its cost.
As a contrast, he pointed to the FBI's recent handgun acquisition process, a solicitation which he said included many of the same core requirements of the Army in a document about one-third as long. He suggests such an excessive document as the Army's "may have set a record" given an item that only costs about $500.
"This failed program underscores the importance of fully reforming our broken defense acquisition system so that we can cut unnecessary red tape, maintain a modern fighting force, and stay ahead of our adversaries around the world," his statement said.
A closer look at McCain's criticism:
Vagueness – especially caliber: The Army decided to make the competition open-caliber, an effort to give handgun makers flexibility to present the most effective handgun, Army officials have said.
But McCain said that decision has burdened manufacturers. The caliber and the type of bullet is "arguably the most important performance component of the handgun," McCain says in his report.
Gunmakers have expressed that concern; a company representative who didn't want to be named recently told Army Times the two toughest customers to please are the one who knows too much about what they want, and one with no idea. Despite the detailed RFP, the representative said the Army is in the latter category.
Gunmakers can enter two entrants if they are different calibers.
"The Army is taking this non-caliber specific approach in order to promote competition among mature, non-developmental designs offered in the existing commercial marketplace," Stalder's statement said.
Micromanaging details and contract complexity: With the Army vague on caliber, it's painfully specific elsewhere, McCain writes.
McCain's report said "small arms experts" estimated that the paperwork and "unnecessary requirements" would add $50 per handgun to the cost of the eventual winner, totaling about $15 million. He also said companies – especially small ones who aren't defense contractors – would drop out because of unnecessary technical requirements, resulting in a weaker competition. He suggested the Army was intentionally "anti-competitive."
"(W)ith this contract structure, the Army will assuredly be forced to field one or more inferior components of the handgun system to the troops because there will be no way to pick and choose the best of each component received from various bidders without causing protests and legal actions from the losing bidders," the report said.
Limited soldier testing: The Army will use soldier testing to evaluate the handguns, another aspect of the competition the service touts.
But that will come too late, McCain believes. The Army will rely too much on requirements-vetting and lab-testing and limit soldier testing to only three finalists. To McCain that means that "bureaucrats" will have the most important roles in picking the handgun rather than users.
"(T)here are currently too many opportunities for vendors to be disqualified for paperwork or technical reasons before our soldiers get a vote," McCain's report said.
McCain also pointed out that the M4 competition never got to the point of soldier testing before it got cancelled.