In a move that could ruffle the feathers of an Army command that views the Colt Defense-built M4 as the best carbine in the world, a select group of top senate staffers is gathering today to look at what could be the future of the military's standard assault rifle.
About 30 legislative aides have signed up to attend a July 11 demonstration at Marine Corps Base Quantico, just outside Washington, D.C., that will feature weapons from various manufacturers vying to end the reign of the M16 and M4 as the U.S. military's most fielded personal weapon.
The range day is intended to help familiarize key lawmakers with possible alternatives to the M16 and M4 once the exclusive contract with Colt Defense of West Hartford, Conn., ends in the summer of 2009, a senior senate aide told Defense Tech.
"When you re-compete the M4 it shouldn't just be for the same thing we've been building for the last 20 to 30 years," said the senior senate staffer who requested anonymity because the issue is so sensitive with the Army.
Over the past year the Army has taken fire from M4 critics who say there are better options available to troops, weapons that require less intensive maintenance and fire more lethal rounds. While the Army -- which is responsible for procuring small arms for all the services -- continues to stand by the M4 and M16, a small group of tenacious senators, including Oklahoma Republican James Coburn, have pressed the issue, forcing the service to subject the M4 to rigorous environmental tests and pushing for side-by-side competitions with several M4 alternatives.
"There's no urgent need to improve the M4, it's clearly working better than the M16," the senior senate aide said. "Our concern is that, urgent or not, we really ought to be improving it on par with technological improvements [and] not be wedded to an older weapon just because that's the way we've always been doing it."
While the aide declined to list all the companies participating in the demo, congressional and industry sources say the shoot will feature the standard 5.56mm M4 carbine, the FNH USA-build Mk-17 -- which fires a 7.62mm round -- and a modified "M4-style" rifle that fires a new 6.8mm special purpose cartridge round, among others.
The 6.8mm SPC round was born of a 6-month program launched by the interagency Technical Support Working Group which looked into how an M4 or M16 could be easily modified to fire a round that had better ballistic characteristics than the current arsenal when fired from a short barrel.
According to the TSWG, the so-called "modified upper receiver group" that accommodates the 6.8mm round "can be installed on [government-issued] M4 carbine lower receivers by operators in the field quickly and without tools for an immediate, considerable increase in projectile weight, surface area, and on-target terminal performance."
"The 6.8mm MURG offers improved combat capability and user survivability over comparable 5.56mm platforms," a TSWG statement said.
A consistent criticism of the M4 has been the 5.56 round's perceived lack of stopping power. A 2006 Center for Naval Analyses report conducted for the Army showed 30 percent of Soldiers surveyed wanted a rifle with a more deadly round.
"Across weapons, Soldiers have requested weapons and ammunition with more stopping power/lethality," the report said.
And one special operations Soldier who spoke to Defense Tech couldn't agree more.
"I know that when I'm shooting at someone I want to be confident that when I hit him, he's going to go down," the Special Forces operator said during a recent interview. "That's why I like the AK and its 7.62 round. It'll drop whatever you're aiming at."
The Army brushes off such criticism, saying lethality is closely tied to marksmanship. If you hit a target in the right place, you'll stop him, Army leaders argue.
The point of the July 11 test shoot is to allow manufacturers to showcase their M4 alternatives before an audience that's becoming more influential on small arms procurement decisions. The senate group tried to hold a similar demo last year, but the Army abruptly pulled out when news reports of the event leaked out, senate sources said.
Participants will have the opportunity to observe the effects of different caliber rounds in ballistic jelly, be shown how to fire each weapon and, of course, there will be some hands-on time as well.
Colorado Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar is heavily involved in the M4 alternative push and wants a competitive process that rewards the kind of innovation that leads to a host of choices when the M4 is re-bid in June of next year.
"Senator Salazar's concern is that the process itself could stifle industry innovation, it can result in lower weapons reliability and it can increase costs," said Salazar spokesman, Matt Lee-Ashley.
"He's going to work through the Army and the Armed Services Committee to make sure that when [the M4] is re-competed next June the process is open, that it's based on performance-based requirements and that it encourages industry innovation."