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Carbine competition may be killed

May. 7, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The M4 Carbine.
The M4 Carbine. (Rob Curtis / Staff)
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The $50 million competition to build a better carbine is on its way to being canceled.

The decision is not yet official, but Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno on Tuesday said word is coming soon. He was hesitant to elaborate, but did take the opportunity to salute the venerable M4 carbine that would have been replaced.

“My position on the M4 [is] we’ve modernized it and it’s a great system,” he said. “I feel very comfortable with the M4. Very comfortable. I think it’s a great system. We’ve made like 95 improvements with it, we’ve improved ammunition, I feel very good about it.”

The Army is moving forward with efforts to pure-fleet its M4 inventory with the ambidextrous M4A1, which has a better barrel and bolt. A reprogramming proposal will see $7 million, or one-fourth the budgeted total, cut from that effort this year. That money is part of larger cuts designed to help cover a $7.8 billion shortfall in emerging overseas contingency operations.

The pending cancellation does not come as a surprise to at least one industry official whose company had a weapon in the competition.

“You had a number of things going against this competition,” the industry official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity since “he would like to get contracts in the future.”

“The requirements didn’t do it any justice. There are carbines better than an upgraded M4 out there, but the requirements practically cut out any chance of exceeding that standard. And the budget situation put the final nail in the coffin.”

Indeed, the burdensome rules led some key competitors to drop out early. Colt stayed in, but pulled its next-generation CM901. The weapon fires 5.56mm and 7.62mm rounds with a cyclic rate of 700 to 950 rounds per minute. A free-floating barrel helps maintain tight accuracy. It also boasts a universal 7.62mm lower receiver and multiple barrel lengths. But the Army, in a move that shocked industry, neither required nor provided points for multiple calibers or barrel lengths. All weapons enter as one caliber with one barrel length.

But what discouraged Colt most was an Army requirement that the winner turn over technical data rights. The service will distribute the blueprints to two other companies that will each produce one-third of the weapons purchased. Colt was not willing the reveal its trade secrets. The company instead entered the Enhanced M4.

Smith and Wesson's M&P 4 is another strong competitor that backed out for financial reasons. Company officials said at the time that they were confident they had a shot at the contract. But research and development cost a chunk of change, and the competition is drawn out over three years with no guarantee of payoff. Smith and Wesson decided the better financial strategy would be to focus on existing sales and walk away from the carbine competition.

Some smaller companies with strong carbines also sat this one out, such as Stag Arms, LWRC International and Knight Armament.

Army officials cited legal reasons for the decision to not identify competitors. Army Times had confirmed that, in addition to Colt, competitors included the B.E.A.R. by Adcor Defense, SCAR by FNH, the Adaptive Combat Rifle by Remington and an improved HK416 variant from Heckler & Koch.

The HK416, developed for special operations forces, uses a gas-piston system but does not introduce propellant gases and carbon fouling into the weapon's interior. This reliability was evident in a 60,000-round dust test conducted by the Army in 2007.

The HK416 had only 233 stoppages as compared with 882 stoppages by the M4. The Army later modified the M4's numbers to 296 stoppages, attributing the difference to discrepancies in the test and scoring.

The SCAR performed better, with only 226 stoppages. But the top dog was the XM8 — a prototype built by H&K that seemed destined to replace the M4 in 2005. Instead, the $33 million program fell prey to a broken acquisition process and bitter infighting within the Army until the Pentagon put a halt to the heir-apparent.

The XM8 included a 20mm airburst weapon, which today is the XM25 "Punisher" that is gaining rave reviews in Afghanistan.

The carbine competition was in the second of three phases, in which about 86,000 rounds was to be fired through each vendor's weapon in an effort to measure reliability, durability and accuracy.

As many as three finalists were to be announced by early spring. The subsequent Phase 3 was to focus on technical testing with an additional 180,000 rounds per vendor fired. Also, soldiers were to get a chance to try out the carbines for limited-user evaluations.

The winning carbine was to be announced in fall 2013. A cost-benefit analysis was scheduled to follow that would determine whether the Army would be better off buying the winning carbine or sticking with the M4A1, which was being tested alongside the carbine competitors.

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