I guess it's not news unless AP or one of the majors reports it, but today's lead story on Military.com has an interesting advance on the M4 debate.
It seems that Colt's strangle hold on the Army's carbine buy might be slipping as M4 oponents on Capitol Hill look to the 2009 budget season as an opportunity to force a competition for a new carbine.
There's not a weapon out there that's significantly better than the M4," says Col. Robert Radcliffe, director of combat developments at the Army Infantry Center in Fort Benning, Ga. "To replace it with something that has essentially the same capabilities as we have today doesn't make good sense."
Colt's exclusive production agreement ends in June 2009. At that point, the Army, in its role as the military's principal buyer of firearms, may have other gunmakers compete along with Colt for continued M4 production. Or, it might begin looking for a totally new weapon.
"We haven't made up our mind yet," Radcliffe says.
As you already know from our reporting here, the gas system on the M4 has been criticized for being way too maintenance intensive. The AP story goes into all that and delivers a pretty good summary of the testing and debate so far.
It also advances the story a bit by injecting another senator into the "let's have a competition" camp, as well as former Army chief Jack Keane voicing agreement with Coburn.
In 2006, a non-profit research group surveyed 2,600 soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and found 89 percent were satisfied with the M4. While Colt and the Army have trumpeted that finding, detractors say the survey also revealed that 19 percent of these soldiers had their weapon jam during a firefight.
And the relationship between the Army and Colt has been frosty at times. Concerned over the steadily rising cost of the M4, the Army forced Colt to lower its prices two years ago by threatening to buy rifles from another supplier. Prior to the warning, Colt "had not demonstrated any incentive to consider a price reduction," then-Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, an Army acquisition official, wrote in a November 2006 report.
Coburn is the M4's harshest and most vocal critic. But his concern is shared by others, who point to the "SCAR," made by Belgian armorer FN Herstal, and the HK416, produced by Germany's Heckler & Koch, as possible contenders. Both weapons cost about the same as the M4, their manufacturers say.
The SCAR is being purchased by U.S. special operations forces, who have their own acquisition budget and the latitude to buy gear the other military branches can't.
"All I know is, we're not having the competition, and the technology that is out there is not in the hands of our troops," says Jack Keane, a former Army general who pushed unsuccessfully for an M4 replacement before retiring four years ago.
Again, I think it's important to give the troops the best technology out there. And if there's something that takes a beating better than the current system, let's field it.
The dispute over the M4 has been overshadowed by larger but not necessarily more important concerns. When the public's attention is focused on the annual defense budget, it tends to be captured by bigger-ticket items, like the Air Force's F-22 Raptors that cost $160 million each.
The Raptor, a radar-evading jet fighter, has never been used in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the troops who patrol Baghdad's still-dangerous neighborhoods or track insurgents along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, there's no piece of gear more critical than the rifles on their shoulders. They go everywhere with them, even to the bathroom and the chow hall.
Yet the military has a poor track record for getting high-quality firearms to warfighters. Since the Revolutionary War, mountains of red tape, oversize egos and never-ending arguments over bullet size and gunpowder have delayed or doomed promising efforts.