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Weapon Programs 

Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms 


By Dan Parsons 

Fresh off a failed attempt to find a new primary service rifle, the Army is set to help the Air Force replace the sidearm the U.S. military has used for three decades.

The Air Force will spearhead an effort to find a suitable replacement for the Beretta M9 pistol, introduced in 1985. The Army, which is a mutual partner in the endeavor, scrapped in 2013 a five-year effort to replace the M4 carbine.

Whereas the M4 rifle is generally well regarded by troops in the field, surveys conducted by the military have shown a consistent lack of confidence in the M9 9 mm handgun.

There is no formal requirement for what is called the “modular handgun” yet, but a request for proposals is expected in January, according to Air Force officials. A three-year analysis of commercially available handguns will follow to find the best replacement for the M9 and the more concealable M11, a 9 mm Sig Sauer.

“The M9 is a good gun,” an Army Special Forces captain told National Defense. But “many of their core components have a tendency to break, especially on the older models.”

Major issues with the M9’s durability are the barrels, frames and locking blocks, he said. Nearly every structural element of the weapon has a tendency to break, especially guns that have been in continual use since the weapon’s introduction 30 years ago, he said.

The lifecycle of an M9 is about 17,000 rounds, though the Army only requires that they last through 5,000 firings. The new pistol is expected to have a 25,000 round service life. Special Forces troops reach those thresholds fairly quickly, but even conventional troops are finding fault with weapons that are decades old.

“While a conventional force may only shoot 200 rounds a year, [Special Forces] especially can do 2,500 or more.  It’s kind of unreasonable to expect them to last decades when you’re replacing everything every two years or so,” he said.

The Army currently has 238,000 M9 pistols. It plans to buy 265,000 replacements.

Special Forces have begun to migrate away from the M9 and have carried the P226, a .40-caliber handgun built by Sig Sauer that is more concealable than the M9. Some have begun to carry the Glock 19, a 9 mm pistol with a polymer frame that cuts down weight and size. Glock is overwhelmingly the sidearm of choice for U.S. law enforcement and is standard issue for many foreign militaries.

“I have seen a lot of Glock 19s floating around the military recently,” the Special Forces captain said. “Of course, Special Forces uses them, but I have seen both Air Force and Navy personnel with them.”

In outfitting the Afghan National Army, the U.S. military conspicuously opted for the Smith & Wesson 9 mm Sigma pistol, another popular handgun for law enforcement officers. The Pentagon bought more than 20,000 Sigmas for the ANA and Afghan National Police Force, according to reports.

Those and other commercially available handguns have simply outgrown the M9, technologically. Beretta has developed newer firearms that meet many of the Army’s needs, as has Sig Sauer, Browning and Colt, to name only a few.

Unlike almost all new tactical sidearms, the M9 lacks an integrated Picatinny rail for attaching tactical lights and lasers. A long, thick handle makes it unsuitable for a wide range of users. It also features a relatively heavy trigger pull, according to information from the Army.

The safety selector is located at the rear end of the slide among grooves meant to improve grip when cocking the pistol. Troops have a tendency to accidentally activate the safety while cocking or reloading the weapon, a definite drawback in close-quarters combat.

The M9’s open-slide design has become largely outdated among tactical pistols. The large opening in the top of the gun from which the spent shells are ejected leaves the mechanism inside vulnerable to obstruction. Its barrel also cannot accept a suppressor, which the Army and Air Force would prefer in a new sidearm.

Congress has challenged plans to replace the M9 with a new handgun. In a report on the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, the House Armed Services Committee recommended upgrading existing pistols with new slides, frames and barrels as needed. The Marine Corps has undertaken a similar effort, but has also returned in part to the heavier 1911-A1 that was the U.S. service pistol from World War I to the Vietnam War.

“The committee notes that the M9 pistol has been a reliable pistol with consistent and reasonable life-cycle costs,” the report said. “The committee is aware that the Marine Corps has upgraded the M9 pistol with a series of product improvements that has extended the life-cycle of the program and improved the weapon’s capabilities.”

The HASC report recommended that both the Air Force and Army consider product improvement programs for their sidearms based on the Marine Corp’s plan. Yet, it also recommended $300,000 for the replacement program in fiscal year 2014, the full amount included in President Obama’s budget request to Congress.

Charley Pavlick, a contracted project officer for the Modular Handgun System working with the Army, previously told National Defense that “no practical upgrades can provide the sort of capabilities we need in a new pistol.”

Still, military services are ensuring that the Beretta lasts long enough to see troops through the war in Afghanistan, if not longer. The Army in September 2012 announced it ordered 100,000 new M9s and that the handgun will remain its official sidearm for at least five years.
A Beretta spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

A similar two-pronged strategy of upgrading existing weapons while seeking to replace them may have been an influence in the death of the Individual Carbine Competition to replace the M4. After five years and $14 million, the Army last summer canned a program to replace the rifle when eight commercially available designs failed to pass its reliability standards.

A scathing post-mortem report by the Pentagon’s own watchdog found that not only did the Army waste money searching for a carbine replacement, but there was no need for a new rifle in the first place. The Army can wait another 10 years to replace the M4 with no negative repercussions, an inspector general report said.

 “The Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-3/5/7, did not justify the requirement for a new carbine … and inappropriately approved and validated the requirements document used to support the establishment of the individual carbine program.”

The Army failed to negotiate a lower per-unit cost with Colt before launching a competition to replace the rifle, even though the assistant secretary of the Army said that at a “reasonable price,” the Army would continue to purchase M4 carbines, the report said.

“As a result, the Army wasted about $14 million on a competition to identify a source to supply new carbines it does not need. In addition, the Army plans to spend $2.52 billion over a 20-year life cycle to procure and maintain 501,289 carbines that its own analysis suggests can be delayed for another 10 years with no impact on readiness.”

A 2006 memo from the assistant secretary stated the Army did not have a requirement for higher performance on which to base a competition, the report said.

Mark Westrom, who owns Armalite Inc. — the company responsible for the original rifle design that became the M16 family of weapons — said the choice to move ahead with the IC competition was political, rather than of military necessity.

Members of Congress, especially Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., have hammered the Army over its failure to replace the M4. Coburn amended the 2013 NDAA with language condemning the M4 for insufficient reliability, range and power. The bill also funded the carbine competition and required a progress report to the House Armed Services Committee.

The 2014 budget request contained $70.8 million for the two-path carbine program. Of this amount, $18.9 million was requested for 12,000 M4A1 carbines and $48.6 million was requested for 29,897 new, individual carbine weapons. The budget request also contained $10.3 million for M4 carbine modifications. But the Army has not delivered a report on the carbine competition to Congress, a requirement of the 2012 NDAA. The committee therefore was concerned that the $70 million budget request was “too high given the individual carbine program’s current down-select and evaluation schedule as well as the requirement to provide a business case assessment.”

The committee recommended $48.8 million instead for the IC competition, a decrease of $22 million from the Army’s initial request. It also recommended fully funding the M4 improvement program at $10.3 million.

“Incremental improvement of the M4 is absolutely acceptable,” Westrom said. “But when folks are trying to sell guns, they come up with operational theories that to the great unwashed sound legitimate. Coburn pressed the Army and with a lot of cohorts, probably forced the Army to do the carbine trials.”

The inspector general’s report agreed that the upgraded M4A1 fulfills the Army’s requirements for a new carbine.

“The Army’s carbine requirement did not involve fulfilling a capability, but was rather a legal requirement for additional units (quantity),” the report said.

It goes on to say that the Army was betting against the field that its current weapon would outperform the eight rifles industry offered up to replace it.

The service was “willing to invest the $20-plus million in the competition for the confidence that no alternate design was available with significantly improved performance over the M4A1,” the report said.

The Army plans to continue fielding the M4A1 carbine and upgrading older M4s to that rifle, which has a heavier barrel and a fully automatic setting rather than the three-round burst setting on the M4.

Should the fiscal year 2014 NDAA pass Congress, it could keep the carbine competition alive. The bill contains funding for both the M4A1 improvement program and for a continuation of the competition past the point at which the Army canceled the program.

Of eight competing designs, none of the rifles passed reliability standards required during the second of three phases of the competition. The NDAA requires that the Army continue to the third and final phase of the competition, in which three of the top contenders will be tested by soldiers in the field.

Photo Credit: Air Force, Thinkstock, Wiki Commons
Reader Comments

Re: Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms

It's about time the government and the military seek and get a replacement for the M4 weapon . This weapon is a fancy model of the M16 and maybe it's a great weapon to carry but in my own estimation it is a inferior cartridge. This cartridge has plenty of powder to propel the ball down range but the size of the ball is to small to do any real damage. Oh yes I have heard alot of the arguments that it "tumbles" when it hits it's target and inflicts massive tissue damage and have seen the tests done in Ballistic gel but it still is to small a ball for todays needs. Our war fighters are going up against extremist's that are carry the AK 47 that fire's a cartridge that it's ball round is quite larger then the current U.s.Infantry man carry's the 7.62 X 39 which in lay mans terms is a 308 ball. this round will do a huge amount of damage to the human body more so then the 5.56 x 45 or again lay mans terms a 223 which is what U.S. force's carry. These extremists are not out to wound our solders they mean to KILL them by any means possible and by using the AK they can do that pretty effectively from a distance and live to kill another day. The U.S. Military needs to find a replacement rifle WITH a larger round that can easily be transitioned into service and I for one do not get why this cant be done ! There are many weapons manufacturers that can fill this need IF the U.S. government and military wants to . The time for wounding the enemy in the hope that it will take many out of the battle in order to care for there wounded is gone. the fanatical fighters that our solders will be coming up against do not look at life as the american people do. the time for wounding is over !! A new larger round is needed to take these nuts out of the fight for good is upon use .

john b on 09/16/2014 at 12:12

Re: Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms

The M16 is a fine weapon and its replacement is truly not required. At the same time improvements can and should be made to the M16 these should include adding a Short Stroke Piston System and treating the bolt carrier group and inside of the upper receiver with Nickel Boron would greatly reduce the rifles failure rate. The other problem with having the 5.56 NATO round has been caused by the bullet itself being to stable on impact and not tumbling and reducing the terminal ballistics. The main cause of this has been an increase of barrel twist rate from 1 in 14 to a 1 in 7 rate. A twist rate of 1 in 9 even with the heavier bullets of 62 to 77 grain would cause the round to tumble on impact and increase the the effectiveness of the round. Bottom line is still that the M16 doesn't need to be replaced for another 10 to 20 years and the government has wasted more tax payer dollars and it all because of congress sticking its noise in where it doesn't belong.

Michael S. on 08/25/2014 at 15:37

Re: Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms

Sadly there are a ton of errors with the article itself...and then there are the fan-boy's commenting on why their gun would be the best one for the job. First...the rifle competition...there were several rifles that FAR outperformed the M4 in all area's. Second...well, I'll just quote people...

"Speaking as a former E5 with two combat tours, I think the army should start from zero, re-design,build and test a totally new generation weapon creation,With their expert experience..."---Whoa right there pal, the Army has NEVER developed and produced a small arm.

"After 24 yrs in the Army with experience in Vietnam an several instructor positions plus talking 2 infantry with combat experience, I fully agree with them that the 5.56 bullet is not big enough 2 stop the normal size enemy."---Respectfully Sir, the overall tactical community would disagree with you. Sorry.

"Replacing the 9mm ball with an expanding 9mm bullet would cost nothing in terms of unit cost, training cost or added logistics,..."---Wrong, its amazingly expensive for a unit to switch to hollow-points. We switched back in 2002 and many units in all services began the switch around then. The units are required to buy their FMJ ammo and the new HP ammo for qualifications AND it DOES come out of the unit budgets.

"His company was formerly known as Eagle Arms and had zero to do with the design and development of the M16 rifle."---Correct! Eugene Stoner designed it.

"As an instructor [ over 50 years and a tripple Distinguished Shooter] I would support the M-17 or the M-22 for that matter. I have yet to have a major problem with either gun."---Your such a pro you can't even spell 'triple' correctly. The Glock does not have the features required by the MIL. Its that simple. Hence the reason they have NOT EVER made it into competition or evaluation with the MIL.

DanH on 08/06/2014 at 02:33

Re: Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms

Speaking as a former E5 with two combat tours, I think the army should start
from zero, re-design,build and test a totally new generation weapon creation,
With their expert experience they should be able to get a outstanding handgun for
about a million dollars a copy. Their very good at budgeting weapons development, too save money they can always work out the bugs in real combat
like they did with the M16.

Zeke on 08/03/2014 at 08:45

Re: Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms

With the upgrades to the M4 and the new lead free cartridge (2010) the life of the M4 will go on. For a discussion see the American Rifleman June 2014 page 58.

Sherman Goosman on 08/01/2014 at 09:19

Re: Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms

I would advise going with a glock. I have put over 200000 rounds through various glock pistols over 10 years. My glock 17 gen 1 has around 70,000 rounds and no failures to speak of. The only thing I replaced was the guide rod every 4000 rounds

Ed hopf on 07/21/2014 at 20:06

Re: Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms

Having read T. Roosevelt's account of his operations in Cuba, I will note that the 7mm Mauser was impressive enough to be copied by the US in a larger version (.30/03 Springfield rifle) but TR wrote that if a soldier was struck in brain, heart of spine he died, but if not hit there, he recovered quickly. We should never expect a rifle cartridge to reliably deliver a one round stop. A pistol much less.

Modern weapons have to be effective against modern enemies. Modern enemies are likely to wear body armor. A modern pistol should either be able to penetrate likely body armor, or to be accurate and promiscuous enough to shoot at exposed unarmored extremities and eventually be effective that way.

DonM on 07/11/2014 at 19:06

Re: Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms

After 24 yrs in the Army with experience in Vietnam an several instructor positions plus talking 2 infantry with combat experience, I fully agree with them that the 5.56 bullet is not big enough 2 stop the normal size enemy.

Wayne on 07/04/2014 at 08:35

Re: Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms

The new SIG M11a1 9 mm seems to be the perfect handgun for the military. It is a product improvement to the SIG M11. I served 8 years as a Air Force cop and 30 years as as a Police Officer in KY. As far as a .40 caliber weapon, it would be to much from the average shooter and Police Department around the country are drawing away from it and going back to 9 mm.

Ted Florence on 04/16/2014 at 13:54

Re: Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms

Much of the underlying dissatisfaction with the M9 Beretta is not with the pistol itself, but the lack of stopping power of the 9mm fully jacketed ball round. The military’s reliance on the fully jacketed ball round is based on the anachronistic and completely discredited notion that a full jacket bullet is more humane than an expanding bullet (reference Hague Convention of 1899). This notion made little sense when it was adopted (although the US has never been a formal signatory to the Hague Convention), it makes even less sense now with most military action occurring in and around civilians. The most humane bullet is one that immediately stops the bad guy, with the fewest rounds possible, and the least probability of over-penetration and injury to a bystander. This is why every police force in the world uses expanding bullets.
Replacing the 9mm ball with an expanding 9mm bullet would cost nothing in terms of unit cost, training cost or added logistics, but would increase the combat effectiveness of the soldier and reduce the risk to civilians at the same time.

Jeff Windham on 01/06/2014 at 10:28

Re: Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms

Mark Westrom owns the Armalite trademark which he bought the rights to in 1996. His company was formerly known as Eagle Arms and had zero to do with the design and development of the M16 rifle.

Brian on 12/26/2013 at 21:34

Re: Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms

Dear Sir,

I am retired from the military and police.

While I have only fired and worked on the Beretta in armorer school I carried the Sig P220/.45 cal and the S&W M-64 and Colt modle "O" both in .38 cal.

I will address the Glock as I have both the Model 17 [ full size 9mm ] and the Glock model 22 [ full size 40 cal].

In my openion they are outstanding firearms, the M-17 has over 18,000 rounds through it and the M-22 about 7,000 through it.

I carry them as off duty weapons and as retired I like the feel of them [ weight ] on the hip [ right handed ] and I carry a spare mag too.

The M-17 holds 18 rounds in the mag and 1 in the pipe is a good jump on the fire fight and with two extra mags you have 55 rounds to start out in the fight. As an instructor [ over 50 years and a tripple Distinguished Shooter] I would support the M-17 or the M-22 for that matter. I have yet to have a major problem with either gun.

To demonstrate the toughness of the Glock , I have tossed my M-17 about 20 feet in the air, let it bounce around make clear the barrel rack in a round and fire off all 18 rounds with out a hitch,, I have done this numerous times, all with out a malfunction.

I have shot them in competition and done very well with them in speed events.

Having carried the 1911 for while in the Marine Corps and own my own that to is a great weapon.

But if the military wants to stay with the 9mm I would highly reccomend the Glock weapons, in my humble openion they simply just WORK

Respectfully Submitted
L.E."Lou" Seigel

Lou Seigel on 12/19/2013 at 13:30

Re: Efforts Continue to Replace Army, Air Force Small Arms

From:Ssgt.Lucas (USAF) Retired,
While working as an undercover Police Detective in Miami, Fl. I was in a very dangerous shoot out in South Dade/May 2001.
As shots were fired from three subjects, I returned fire using a Mod-96 Baretta 40cal.The firearm worked perfectly with no malfunctions. Actually, it saved my life where I only had time to use suppressive fire.

Preston Lucas on 12/16/2013 at 11:26

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