Pentagon Watchdog Doubts Army Needs New Carbine

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 Pentagon’s Inspector General is reviewing the Army’s Improved Carbine effort, questioning whether the service’s plan to replace the long-serving M4 Carbine is worth the new weapon’s $1.8 billion price tag.

The Defense Department’s watchdog released its testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on March 19 as part of its effort to “reduce waste and improve efficiency” within the Defense Department.

“We are auditing the Army’s acquisition of the individual carbine program, which is an acquisition the department may want to re-evaluate,” said Lynne Halbrooks, principal deputy inspector general for DoD’s IG. “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.”

Army officials and program experts maintain, however, that the IG testimony contains misunderstandings about basic facts of the carbine improvement effort.

The testimony comes after the recently enacted sequestration law that could hack $46 billion out of the Defense Department’s budget over the next six months.

The Army is currently in the middle of its Improved Carbine Competition. The effort was launched in June 2011, four years after the Army’s senior leadership pledged to scour the small arms industry for a better-performing weapon than the current M4 carbine.

Colt Defense LLC -- the M4’s original maker -- is competing against Heckler & Koch, Remington Arms Company, FNH USA and Adcor Defense Inc., in exhaustive tests that will result in hundreds of thousands of rounds fired through the competitors’ weapons.

The Army released the following March 19 response to the IG testimony:

“We are currently in Phase II of the Individual Carbine Competition. The purpose of this effort is to determine if there's a commercially-available carbine that can provide significant value over the M4. The greatest care and consideration is being placed in this process as we determine the next individual weapon system for the soldier,” Army spokesman Mathew Bourke wrote.

At the same time, the Army has decided to improve the M4’s existing design as an alternative if the carbine competition doesn’t yield significant improvements over the M4, which was adopted in the mid-1990s.

“Currently, the Army is modifying its existing M4 rifle and, at the same time, seeking to develop a new rifle. However, key performance parameters such as accuracy, reliability, and lethality have not been established,” Halbrooks wrote.

This is where DoD IG officials appear to be confused.

The Army established its requirements for the improved carbine effort three years ago. The requirements document calls for a weapon that’s almost twice as accurate as the current M4, according to a source familiar with the document. It also emphasized improved reliability, serviceability and a longer-lasting barrel.

The IG also questions why the Army is “seeking to acquire more rifles during a time when their total force structure will be reduced,” Halbrooks states. “In addition, it is unclear what additional capability this new rifle will have over the modified M4.”

The Army is in the process of cutting its active force down to 490,000 -- more than 10 percent from current levels -- by 2017, but senior leaders announced last year that the service plans to replace its current M4s with M4A1s.

The M4A1 is the Special Operations Command version of the M4. It features a heavier barrel and a full-auto trigger. The Army’s decision to dump the current three-round burst trigger will give shooters a more consistent trigger pull and lead to better accuracy, weapons officials said.

Once the carbine completion is completed, Army officials will conduct an analysis of alternatives to see if the winner is a significant improvement over the M4A1 to justify the investment, Army officials said.

The IG is scheduled to release its draft report “within the next two months that will further elaborate on these concerns and provide recommendations for the Department to increase efficiencies,” Halbrooks wrote.

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