Outdated Weapons Bring Calls for Speedier Upgrades

By Dan Parsons

The average age of a small-arms weapon in use by the Army is more than 30 years, far older than most of the soldiers who rely on them in combat.

While plans are in the works to modernize the service’s rifle and handgun inventories, procurement timelines are such that soldiers and Marines will almost certainly finish out the war in Afghanistan with small arms that were already old when the conflict began.

The issue has drawn the attention of members of Congress, particularly Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act that passed the Senate in November carried an amendment authored by Coburn calling on the Pentagon to report its plans to put up-to-date weapons in the hands of soldiers.

“Over the last few years we’ve spent $8,000 per soldier on new radios. But we still are using a weapon that’s 25 years old when it comes to their M4,” Coburn said in an Aug. 1 speech on the Senate floor. “Our priorities are out of whack. If the Department of Defense had spent just 15 percent less on radios, they could give every soldier in the military a new, capable, modern weapon. And it doesn’t just apply to their rifle.”

After the M4’s shortcomings, troops complain the most about their aging and underpowered 9mm M9 pistols, Coburn added.

A 2006 study conducted by the Center for Naval Analyses found deficiencies in nearly every small-arms weapon carried by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, including pistols, rifles and machine guns. In a 2007 test of several comparable carbines subjected to dusty conditions like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the M4 came in last, a statistic Coburn and many troops have repeatedly offered in critiques of the weapon.

Coburn’s amendment to the NDAA, which still must be parsed and then passed by the House of Representatives, calls for an audit of the Pentagon’s small-arms acquisition strategy within 30 days of the bill’s passage. The study would take into account the status of and plans to modernize every weapon system up to .50 caliber, including shotguns. The amendment requires that the study be finalized by Sept. 30.

The Defense Department does have several programs underway to address obsolescence and performance issues with its small arms, though perhaps not on Coburn’s preferred timeline. None will result in the fielding of a new rifle or pistol before troops leave Afghanistan.

An effort to upgrade and ultimately replace a sizeable portion of the Army’s 500,000 M4 carbines is ongoing. The Carbine Product Improvement Program, or PIP, will convert standard M4s into the special operations M4A1. The upgrades include a heavier barrel for increased resilience and accuracy and fully automatic fire capability. At least 6,000 M4A1s have been delivered to the 101st Airborne Division, according to the Army’s Program Executive Office, Soldier. The program is currently budgeted to convert 300,000 M4s.

A second phase of the program will address the reliability, durability and ergonomics of the rifle.

A parallel competition will identify the Army’s next rifle. A request for proposals for an “Individual Carbine” was issued in January 2011, to which 32 companies responded. In May 2012, the Army whittled the list to six: Beretta, Heckler & Koch, Colt Defense, Remington, Adcor Defense and FN Herstal. Over the next year and half, the Army will down select to two contenders. The competition is solely to replace the Army’s M4 carbines. Other services have decided to stick with weapons currently in service.

A separate effort to replace the Army’s primary sidearm, the Beretta M9, is also currently underway, though there is no published requirement yet.

The Army currently has 238,000 M9 pistols. It plans to buy 265,000 replacements. The increase accounts for the expectation that soldiers who now carry only a primary weapon — an M4 carbine — will in the future be “dual-armed” with a rifle in a pistol.

“We looked at the current conflicts and there are aspects that harken back to Vietnam where units are fighting in confined spaces,” Charley Pavlick, a contracted project officer for the Modular Handgun System, told National Defense. “Infantry guys need to get into those spaces, and for that they need to have a sidearm. Procurement needs to match up with that.”

Pavlick said the timeline for fielding new pistols was not designed around the prescribed 2014 end of the war in Afghanistan. The current inventory of M9s is sufficient to carry troops through at least the next two years, but the need for an updated sidearm remains, he said. As with the replacement of the hefty 1911A1 in the 1980s, the requirement stems more from physical wear on the weapons than it does from deficiency of the design, though that too has an influence.

 “This is what the force needs, regardless of the war,” Pavlick said. “At the same time, we don’t plan on doing a rush job. We’re fielding an army’s worth of pistols, so it’s going to take some time and it isn’t something we’re going to rush into.” 

After continual service since the 1990s, the Army’s pistols are simply nearing the end of their life cycle.

“No practical upgrades can provide the sort of capabilities we need in a new pistol,” Pavlick said.

In the 1980s, the military dispensed with the M1911A1 for the same reason. The .45 caliber pistols were simply wearing out.

Firearms are typically given a lifetime round count after which they are no longer guaranteed to operate properly. Parts like the trigger or an internal spring can be replaced multiple times, but once the steel frame begins to deteriorate, the weapons become unreliable and unsafe.

“The wear-out rate has been increasing,” Pavlick said. “These guns are getting old. We can rebuild them, but it doesn’t get them brand new. Once the frame wears out, the only thing you can do is buy a new frame or a new weapon.”

Replacing the M9 with new pistols of the same vintage will not cut it. Soldiers returning from combat have faulted the weapon for its obsolete design compared to commercially available alternatives.

The M9 lacks an integrated Picatinny rail — a feature included on most commercially available full- and mid-size handguns — for attaching tactical lights and lasers.

A long, thick handle gives it poor ergonomics and the grip is not modular to fit different hand sizes. It also features a relatively heavy trigger pull.

While the Army will likely require an external safety on its primary sidearm, the M9’s safety is a classic shortcoming for troops trying to reload quickly, especially when wearing gloves. 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.

Beretta also features an open-slide design where the spent shell casing is ejected from a large opening in the top of the gun. In any kind of adverse terrain, the mechanism inside is vulnerable to obstruction. This has been a particular problem in the arid, dusty environments of Iraq and Afghanistan, Pavlick said.

Finally, on the Army’s list of M9 woes is that the standard pistol can not be suppressed, meaning a “silencer” will not fit on the muzzle.

The Modular Handgun System will address all of these shortcomings, Pavlick said.

It will need to include all of the modern characteristics that the M9 lacks, plus be readily customizable in several ways without an armorer. That includes adjustable backstraps with sizing options to fit 90 percent of soldiers’ hands; the ability to change barrel and slide lengths on the fly and an optional suppressor.

The requirement document does not specify what caliber the new handgun should be, leaving an opening for the old-school .45 caliber or the in-between .40 caliber that has become popular with law enforcement agencies. A change in caliber seems more likely  in light of complaints about the lethality of the 9mm round. Pavlick said the lack of punch the smaller round delivers has been a constant concern in after-action reports.

One thing is for certain, the Army will choose a commercial-off-the-shelf model for its next primary sidearm, Pavlick said. Based on the likely requirements, there are several options on the rapidly expanding commercial market.

Beretta has updated its model 92, the commercial version of the M9, to include many of the upgrades the military desires, including an accessory rail and sand-resistant magazines. The company also now offers the 96A1, which is chambered in the more powerful .40 caliber. The Px4 family of handguns features popular polymer frames and a closed-slide design. It also comes in .45 caliber.

Sig Sauer, which builds the M11 pistol that special operators carry, is also likely to get in the game with its P226 and other versions chambered in various calibers from 9mm to .45 caliber. The Coast Guard has adopted the P229 already.

Heckler and Koch, whose P2000 is carried by Border Patrol agents, will also likely angle for an Army contract. The pistol boasts modular grips and accessory rails.

Glock, which since the 1980s has become the most popular law enforcement handgun in the country and is the primary sidearm for many NATO militaries, will likely enter the competition. Its pistols are famous for reliability and ease of use, but lack an external safety. They come in nearly every standard pistol caliber and range from full-size to sub-compact.

Asked whether Glock intends to compete for the MHS, a company representative declined to comment on government contracts.

Smith & Wesson’s M&P handguns also meet many of the Army’s requirements and come in a variety of calibers.

Colt Defense and Springfield Armory, two companies that have provided firearms for the U.S. military for decades, are likely to join the fray. Both competed for the Marine Corps’ Close Quarter Battle Pistol. Colt was awarded a $22.5 million contract in the summer of 2012 to provide  up to 12,000 pistols based on the 1911A1, which was the military’s service pistol from World War I through Vietnam. The handguns will be used primarily by Marine Corps Special Operations Command, which wanted its potent stopping power.

Special Operations Command has not had the difficulties in upgrading its arsenal that the Big Army has. Navy SEALS also use a .45 caliber Heckler and Koch pistol and are carrying specially designed rifles built by FN Herstal. Their success has led to many questions over why the Big Army lags behind.

Compared to vehicle acquisition and other big-ticket items, replacing small arms is a relatively inexpensive undertaking, Coburn has repeatedly argued.

“The relative cost to upgrade the entire Army with new small arms weapons and ammunition is small and the benefits are great,” Coburn wrote in an introduction to his amendment. “Some of our NATO allies, with much smaller defense budgets, are able to outfit and equip their soldiers with new and modern rifles. America should always ensure that when our soldiers are sent to battle on behalf of the nation they go with the best small arms weapons and ammunition available.”

Photo Credit: Defense Department

Topics: Armaments, Gun and Missile, Small Arms, Defense Department

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.