Army Carbine Competition Faces Delay, Possible Cancellation
Program Executive Office Soldier was scheduled to hold a press conference May 23 to update reporters on several equipment programs, including the effort to replace the service’s M4 rifles. Following the announcement of an audit of the program by the Defense Department’s inspector general and critical remarks by Army Secretary John McHugh, it was widely anticipated that PEO Soldier officials would announce either the cancellation or the downsizing of the carbine competition.
That press conference has been postponed because “senior leaders have not made any decisions,” said Debi Dawson, a spokeswoman for PEO Soldier. There is no date set for a decision, she added.
Industry executives, who declined to be identified, have told National Defense that the competition could be shut down.
McHugh told the House Armed Services Committee on April 25 that he and other Defense Department officials were questioning whether the Army had a need for a new carbine.
The Army has completed phase two of the competition, which was begun in 2011. That phase involved thousands of rounds being pumped through several competing rifles to test durability, reliability and accuracy. If the competition survives, plans are to select three designs that will be tested in the third and final phases that will involve hundreds of thousands of rounds fired by soldiers in field tests.
When phase three is complete, an analysis of alternatives is planned to determine if any of the new carbines provide enhanced capabilities that would justify the $1.8 billion planned investment to replace the M4.
Meanwhile the Pentagon’s watchdog has launched an audit of the carbine competition. A report is expected within the month that will likely include concerns over the need for replacing the Army’s current arms, according to March 19 testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“We are auditing the Army’s acquisition of the individual carbine program, which is an acquisition the department may want to re-evaluate,” Lynne M. Halbrooks, the Defense Department IG’s principal deputy inspector general, testified. “We expect to report concerns that DoD may not have an established need for this weapon nor developed performance requirements for the $1.8 billion acquisition.”
The Army is simultaneously in the midst of upgrading and replacing its existing carbines with the M4A1 — the special operations version of the weapon — through the M4 product improvement program. The M4A1 has a heavier barrel and a full-auto setting rather than the three-round burst setting on the M4.
The Army’s 2014 budget request includes plans to purchase 12,000 M4A1 carbines for just over $21 million.
“Currently, the Army is modifying its existing M4 rifle and, at the same time, seeking to develop a new rifle,” Halbrooks said. “However, key performance parameters such as accuracy, reliability and lethality have not been established. In addition, it is unclear what additional capability this new rifle will have over the modified M4. Further, the Army is seeking to acquire more rifles during a time when their total force structure will be reduced.”
Manufacturers Colt and FNH have made some improvements to the M4 and M16 based on lessons learned in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rifles currently in use on the whole have heavier barrels than the weapon’s original design. Heavier barrels improve accuracy, allow a higher rate of sustained fire and prevent corrosion and damage.
The rifles competing to replace the M4 are: the Adcor Defense BEAR Elite; the Colt ACC-M (sometimes called the ACM); FNH USA's FNAC; the Heckler & Koch HK416: the Remington ACR; and the ARX160 rifle made by Beretta USA Corp.
The designs generally follow one of two paths — an evolutionary version of the M16 upper and lower receiver assemblies with modified barrel and accessories, or a fresh-start design that resembles the AR-15 but relies heavily on polymer plastics and tweaks to the weapon’s operating system to improve accuracy, ergonomics and modularity.
The H&K, Colt and Adcor designs are each evolutions of the basic M4 carbine. FNH USA, Beretta and Remington have taken the latter path, integrating much of the M16 architecture, but using more polymer materials and fine-tuning the rifle’s operating system and ergonomics.
All of the contenders incorporate several improvements over the current rifle, many of which are quickly becoming industry standard elements that satisfy the desires of both military and civilian shooters. Those are monolithic upper receivers with free-floating barrels and a piston operating system.
The HK416 is already in use by some Marine Corps and Army Special Forces units. The rifle’s receiver and action are almost identical to the M4, for which it is offered as a conversion kit. That option could shave costs off a large-scale purchase, because existing lower receivers can be used.
Photo Credit: Army