Marine commanders were grilled by members of Congress on Tuesday over their decision to seek a single-source contract from a foreign company to procure the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle, or IAR.
The Corps is seeking to procure nearly 15,000 Heckler & Koch M27 rifles to field to the infantry. But the nearly $3,000 automatic rifle is being sourced to a German company, an issue raised by members of Congress at a House Armed Services Committee meeting on readiness late Tuesday.
“Do you believe that it is the best option to not compete a contract that could be as many as 50,814 rifles?” Congressman Joe Wilson, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, asked Marine commanders at the hearing. “Do you believe the U.S. defense industrial base could support such a request?”
To date, the Corps has already fielded 6,500 rifles, a process that began in 2008 through open competition.
“Our plan is to outfit our infantry Marines with that M27,” Lt. Gen. Brian D. Beaudreault, deputy commandant of Plans, Policies and Operations, told Wilson.
But any new decision to source the weapon from a new U.S. supplier could result in costs as high as $24 million and a two-year delay in getting the weapons in the hands of grunts.
“We’d basically be starting over,” Beaudreault warned.
But not all lawmakers were satisfied with that answer.
There is a tremendous “number of U.S. manufacturers that make just as good of a rifle as H&K [Heckler & Koch], which H&K is also a good company,” said Congressman Austin Scott, R-Ga.
Scott said that American defense manufacturers “could use the business” and that those companies have been “hurt by the sequester” just like the military.
Sequestration enacted automatic budget cuts and set spending caps for the Defense Department as part of the Budget Control Act of 2013.
Those caps have taken a heavy toll on military readiness, an issue military leaders have routinely complained about to Congress, especially as the force is now amid a shift towards conflict with rising near-pear adversaries like Russia and China.
Moreover, lawmakers were concerned that a foreign company might not have the capacity to meet the demand and that it could pose a readiness challenge for the Corps if spare parts couldn’t be delivered on time from the German manufacturer.
In its presolicitation, the Corps sought a production capacity of 50,184 M27s to ensure any sole source provider could meet the demands if the Corps needed more than 15,000 rifles. Heckler & Koch met those requirements.
And a report by the Government Accountability Office found the process undertaken by the Corps to be legal for the service to pursue a sole source contract, Beaudreault told lawmakers.
Kitting up grunts with new weapons and tech has been a priority for Marine Commandant Robert B. Neller. A new open competition to seek a U.S. manufacturer for an automatic rifle could prove to be a major setback.
The M27 is a proven weapon that has afforded grunts increased lethality. The 30-round capacity rifle has increased range over its predecessor the M4. As such, the Corps made a marksman version of the M27 known as the M38.
The M38 can accurately engage targets at 600 meters or more, a learned lesson borne out of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. A single designated marksman in an infantry squad will carry the M38, Marine officials say.
But while the infantry has fallen head over heels over the IAR, Marine special operators don’t want it.
The M27 is not compatible with SOCOM’s low receivers and adopting the rifle would mean Marine operators would lose the flexibility of changing out various rifle barrels and configurations for a multitude of diverse mission sets carried out by the elite commando force.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.