Carbine Competition Fails to Find Improvement Over Current Weapon

By Dan Parsons

The Army has officially called off its search for an M4 carbine replacement without anything to show for five years of effort other than data suggesting that its current weapons work about as well, if not better, than anything industry had to offer.

The Army vetted eight contestant rifles, fired tens of thousands of rounds through each, and found itself at square one. None of the carbines tested hit the service’s reliability target.

Industry insiders said the competition was plagued by miscommunication from the Army and a midstream change in ammunition that may have caused their weapons to fail at a higher rate than expected. Army officials in charge of the tests say they were surprised that none of the rifles submitted passed muster. They said there was transparency throughout the three-year competition.

While reliability under extreme conditions is undoubtedly an important attribute of a battle rifle, the M4 is already known for its accuracy and resistance to wear and tear in combat environments. Mark Westrom, who owns Armalite Inc. — the company responsible for the original rifle design that became the M16 family of weapons — said the Army’s aim was off if all it wanted was a weapon that could fire more rounds than the M4 without jamming.

Brig. Gen. Paul A. Ostrowski, who heads program executive office soldier, said the Army simply did not find the capability it was after in the rifles submitted for the competition.

“The intent was to find if there was a weapon that could meet a much greater standard in terms of requirements that were challenging, but achievable,” Ostrowski said. “The Army is in a position where it must conclude the IC competition because none of the competitors met the minimum requirements. This was not a test-fix-test venue. This was a binary venue: Pass or fail.”

Westrom said it is important that the Army stay abreast of industry firearms innovation, but that incremental improvements to a well-admired and entrenched weapon system is not enough to justify the outlay of billions of dollars and the disruption of swapping out soldiers’ primary weapon during wartime. Moreover, the Army was destined to fail in its endeavor because its requirements for the IC did not represent a significant advance in fighting ability.

“It is always smart for the Army to look at what is available, but they could have done that just as easily by going to a gun shop and buying the commercial versions and taking them out back and firing them,” he said.

The Army ended up with eight rifles that each offered marginal improvements to the M4, but none that would substantially increase a soldier’s battlefield capability, he said.

“When you’re thinking of spending billions of dollars on weapons, you want to make sure there is a substantial increase in reliability,” Westrom said. “To justify the expense of replacing the entire inventory, you need to come up with a tactically superior advance, and none of the rifles submitted did that.”

The process to find an M4 replacement began in 2008, when then-Secretary of the Army Pete Geren requested that service officials find commercially available rifles that could best the current design.

The original draft solicitation for industry bids was released in February 2011. The request for information sought feedback on state-of-the-art firearms technology and whether the Army’s published requirements were realistically achievable, Ostrowski said. Vendors were asked for proposals and bid samples by October 2011, when eight competitors submitted rifles.

Those were the Adcor Defense BEAR Elite, the Colt ACC-M (sometimes called the ACM), the FN FNAC, the Heckler & Koch HK416, the Remington ACR, the ARX160 rifle made by Beretta USA Corp. and submissions from both Troy Defense and Lewis Machine and Tool.

Phase one of the three-phase competition got underway in November 2011. That portion consisted of taking measurements of the various carbines like length and weight. None were fired.

The following spring, all eight weapons were cleared to begin phase two, in which each was “stressed” to determine accuracy, reliability, compatibility with the Army’s existing optics and long-term durability, Ostrowski said.

“It was during this phase of the competition that none of the vendors were able to meet the requirements to pass into phase three,” he said. “The Army is not cancelling the individual carbine competition, it is in a position where it must conclude the competition. If the Army could have moved forward in any way, shape or form, we would have. We could not. We were surprised by these findings.”

After phase three, an analysis of alternatives was 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.

The competition drew the attention of the Pentagon inspector general after lawmakers questioned the need to replace the existing weapon. Many of the improvements touted by IC hopefuls — such as ambidextrous controls and a heavier, floating barrel — can be achieved by modifying the existing M4 for less money than new rifles cost. The service is already making some of those improvements.

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. The Army’s 2014 budget request includes plans to purchase 12,000 M4A1 carbines for just over $21 million.

The third phase would have taken the best competitor’s carbine and compared it side by side with the M4A1 for accuracy, reliability, life cycle cost and soldier acceptability, Ostrowski said.

Because the competition never made it that far, none of the rifles were tested side-by-side with the rifle they were competing to replace. Army officials admitted the M4A1 had been held to a less-stringent performance standard than the IC competitors.

While the rifles were expected to fire an average 3,592 rounds between failures, the M4A1 was never held to that standard, Ostrowski said. The M4A1 was able to fire an average of 1,691 rounds without failure in a series of tests in 2009 and 2010. That far exceeds the 600-round requirement set in 1990 for the M16 family of weapons, but is far below the standard to which the carbine competitors were held.

Controversy has surrounded the ammunition the Army chose to use in the rifles during phase two of the IC competition. The service’s existing carbine requirement assumes the use of the M855 ammunition — a copper-jacketed, lead-steel 5.56 NATO standard round. But during the tests, the Army fired the M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round with a copper-alloy core and steel penetrator tip. The round is optimized for use in the M4 carbine. It could have been this change that caused the unexpected failure rates, the Army said in its initial statement announcing the conclusion of the competition.

“Based upon Army analysis, test results may have been affected by interaction between the ammunition, the magazine and the weapon,” the statement read. “The use of the M855A1 round likely resulted in lower than expected reliability performance.  These effects are unique to testing conditions and are not known to affect the reliability of any weapon in the operational environment.”

Ostrowski said the Army has “not done the forensics on those weapons to determine the exact given cause” of why the weapons failed.

The IC competition began before the improved round was fielded, so competitors optimized their rifles for the previous standard ammunition. The improved round was fielded starting in June 2010, said Col. Paul Hill, program executive officer for maneuver ammunition systems. The competition began using the new round in August of that year, Hill said.

Army officials insist they communicated with industry early and throughout the process and made them aware that the new ammunition would be used in the test in time for manufacturers to tweak their designs.

In November, service officials arranged for each vendor to fire 10,000 rounds of 855A1 at a private range, Hill said.

Officials from competing companies complained that the Army had let the competition languish after beginning the second phase of testing. Many expressed concerns before the competition was canceled that they learned of the impending termination from media reports instead of the Army.

Gabriele de Plano, vice president of military marketing and sales for Beretta USA Corp., knew nothing of what the Army was planning mere weeks before the competition’s cancellation. De Plano expressed concern about a lack of communication since the outset of phase two and that the program would be canceled before any of the rifles could go up against the M4A1 and be handled by soldiers.

“They’ve been notoriously bad about keeping industry informed about what’s going on,” de Plano told National Defense in May. “It seems like everything is lining up for failure. The Army has been very, very quiet, and we’ve been in phase two now for over a year.”

Westrom said squabbles over ammunition and caliber were moot because none of the sought after improvements to the M4 would have fundamentally changed the battlefield capabilities of a soldier or small unit.

“None of the new rifle designs advance us to another basic combat shooting doctrine to increase our fighting capability in battle,” Westrom said. “None of the new cartridges do, either.”

The Army changed infantry doctrine from massed musketry to precision fire when the rifle was invented and demonstrated its lethality against grouped troops in the Civil War. The self-contained cartridge and semiautomatic rifle further advanced tactics to where an individual soldier carried the firepower of several troops. Automatic fire allowed troops to wield devastating bursts of lead with the introduction of the M16, which was shortened and slimmed down to the lighter M4. The switch from a .30 caliber round to the smaller 5.56 NATO round currently in use allowed soldiers to carry more ammunition without adding to their load.

“It’s little understood, but when we bought the M16 rifle we advanced from the previous school of combat marksmanship — precisely aimed fire — to rapid semiautomatic,” Westrom said. “The real gain was a new firing capability that combined excellent accuracy with the ability of engaging targets with a series of well aimed, quickly fired shots that combined accuracy and probability to increase the soldier’s hit rate.Bottom line is that if you’re willing to fire some more rounds and accept more misses, you gain hits.”

A return to automatic riflery is the evolutionary step in small-unit tactics, Westrom said.

“I am convinced we have had guys get killed because of the three-round burst fire,” he said. “If you go into a room and there is 10 feet of wall you want to render uninhabitable, you don’t do that with a three-round burst. One of the best things they are doing is going back to automatic fire. Meanwhile, the incremental improvement of the M4 is absolutely acceptable.”

Armalite did not participate in the competition. Westrom determined that his own rifles weren’t a revolutionary improvement over the M4 and that the Army’s published requirements set the bar so low that the outcome almost predetermined that no contestant would win a contract.

“There is always a background of discontent with the current firearm, whatever it is,” he said.

Ostrowski said 80 percent of soldiers are completely satisfied with the M4 and the rate at which the rifle is given high marks is trending upward.

For the last two years, 86 percent have praised the weapon in after-action reports, he said.

Topics: Armaments, Gun and Missile, Small Arms, Defense Department, DOD Policy, Procurement, Defense Department

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