Colt Again Blocks Army's Advanced M4 Plan

The Army’s push to field Special Operations Command’s version of the M4 carbine hit another snag recently when the weapon’s designer, Colt Defense LLC, again protested the service’s attempts to select a new gun maker to build the compact weapon.

The Army’s push to field Special Operations Command’s version of the M4 carbine hit another roadblock recently when the weapon’s designer, Colt Defense LLC, filed a second legal protest of the service’s attempts to select a new gun maker to build the compact weapon.

This is the second time in five months that Colt officials have protested the Army’s handling of its effort to upgrade the service’s fleet of M4s to M4A1 carbines. Colt won its first protest of the Army’s selection of Remington Defense to build its M4A1s and its miscalculation of royalties Colt would receive for contract awards on the M4 design.

The Government Accountability Office’s July 24 ruling forced the Army to rework the original solicitation so the vendors that fell into the competitive range could submit new price bids. All gun makers involved were forced to reveal their previous price bids for the $84 million contract to keep things fair.

Colt officials then filed an Oct. 9 protest with the GAO three weeks after the Connecticut-based gun maker received the Army’s amended Sept. 21 solicitation, according to industry sources and the GAO.

Colt officials declined to comment for this story and it remains unclear why Colt issued a second protest.

This is the latest wrinkle in the Army’s drawn-out effort to improve the carbine that most soldiers take into combat.

Army weapons officials launched its plan to radically improve the M4 carbine about a year after senior leaders announced a plan in November 2008 to search for a possible replacement for the M4.

In the beginning, the M4 Product Improvement Plan officials briefed to Congress included potential upgrades such as a heavier barrel for better performance during high rates of fire, replacing the current gas system with a more reliable design, improving the trigger pull, adding an improved rail for increased strength and ambidextrous fire controls.

Roughly three years later, the improved carbine that will emerge from the effort is the M4A1, a weapon that has been in the special operations inventory since the mid 1990s.

“We are modernizing the entire fleet of M4s to the M4A1 configuration, which includes a heavier barrel, a full automatic trigger assembly and ambidextrous fire controls,” said Col. Scott Armstrong, who runs Project Manager Soldier Weapons.

Right now, the Army has no plans to improve the reliability of the M4 platform’s gas system. Weapons officials looked at upgrading the bolt and bolt carrier group but abandoned the effort.

“There were 11 [vendors] that competed in that; they went through nearly a year of testing,” Armstrong said, explaining that plan was to down select a few candidates after one phase and make a selection at the end of the second phase.

“None of the offerers completed the first phase or outperformed the current bolt and bolt carrier group on the M4A1 configuration. Areas that the competitors really fell short in were reliability, durability as well as high temperature and low temperature conditions. The M4A1 bolt outperformed [the competition] in all of those areas,” Armstrong said.

He explained the decision to terminate that effort saved the Army $2 million.

The Army is also considering designs for an improved forward rail, or free-float rail system -- a design that has long been proven to increase accuracy. Weapons officials plan to down select to three vendors in early 2014 and could select a winner by fall of that same year, Armstrong said.

“If that technology is mature enough and outperforms the current M4A1 configuration, primarily in zero retention, then we would consider it and the Army would have to make a decision as to whether the performance improvement is worth the cost to the Army to further change the configuration of the M4A1,” Armstrong said.

The Army has fielded more than 6,000 M4A1s to soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell, Ky., this summer, Armstrong said, who added that the service plans to begin upgrading existing M4s to M4A1s with special conversion kits next summer.

It is unclear what Colt is protesting this round or how it will affect the future contract award date and fielding schedule for M4A1s. The potential loss of M4 and M4A1 sales would be a huge blow to Colt’s financial outlook.

“It’s a matter of Colt’s survival, so they are going to tie it up as long as they can,” said one small-arms industry source who asked to go unnamed.

Any company has the right to protest a government contract award. Once a protest is filed, the process is frozen until the GAO makes a decision. Additional protests involving the same issue typically don’t carry as much weight and do not prevent the process from moving forward, industry sources said.

But Army officials said the issue will likely have to be resolved before a new M4A1 contract will be awarded.

“Agencies do not normally award a contract prior to the resolution of the protest,” said Don Jarosz, a spokesman for the Army’s TACOM Life Cycle Management Command.

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