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