The debate over the Army’s choice to purchase hundreds of thousands of M4 carbines for its new brigade combat teams is facing stiff opposition from a small group of senators who say the rifle may be inferior to others already in the field.
In an April 12 letter to acting Army Secretary Pete Geren, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn said purchase of the M4 – a shortened version of the Vietnam-era M16 – was based on requirements from the early 1990s and that better, more reliable weapons exist that could give Army troops a more effective weapon.
Coburn asked the Army to hold a “free and open competition” before inking sole-source contracts worth about $375 million to M4 manufacturer, West Hartford, Conn.-based Colt Defense – which just received a $50 million Army contract for M4s on April 20.
“I am concerned with the Army’s plans to procure nearly half a million new rifles outside of any competitive process,” Coburn wrote in the mid-April letter obtained by Military.com.
A Geren spokesman said the secretary’s office is putting together a reply to Coburn’s letter, but provided no further details.
Coburn has banded together with a small group of like-minded senators to push the Army into a competition to determine whether the M4 is the best choice to equip newly-forming brigade combat teams, a top Coburn aide said.
The senator’s concerns grew out of media coverage that showed the M4’s design fails in critical situations and that special operations forces prefer other designs.
“Considering the long standing reliability and lethality problems with the M16 design, of which the M4 is based, I am afraid that our troops in combat might not have the best weapon,” Coburn wrote. “A number of manufacturers have researched, tested and fielded weapons which, by all accounts, appear to provide significantly improved reliability.”
Special operations forces, including “tier one” units such as the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Development Group – or SEAL Team Six – have used their own funds to purchase the Heckler & Koch-built 416, which uses a gas-piston operating system less susceptible to failure than Colt’s gas-operated design.
“That’s significant, because these guys don’t screw around,” the aide said.
In fact, Colt included four different weapons in the competition to build the Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle, or SCAR, none of which used the M4s gas system, the aide said.
In a routine acquisition notice March 23, a U.S. Special Forces battalion based in Okinawa announced that it is buying 84 upper receiver assemblies for the HK416 to modify their M4 carbines. The M4 fires using a system that redirects gas from the expended round to eject it and reload another. The 416 and SCAR use a gas-operated piston that physically pushes the bolt back to eject the round and load another.
Carbon buildup from the M4’s gas system has plagued the rifle for years, resulting in some close calls with Soldiers in combat whose rifles jammed at critical moments.
According to the solicitation for the new upper receiver assemblies, the 416 “allows Soldiers to replace the existing M4 upper receiver with an HK proprietary gas system that does not introduce propellant gases and the associated carbon fouling back into the weapon’s interior. This reduces operator cleaning time, and increases the reliability of the M4 Carbine, particularly in an environment in which sand and dust are prevalent.”
Yet the Army has still declined to buy anything other than the M4 for its regular troops, requesting about $100 million in the 2007 wartime supplemental to buy M4s for its Soldiers.
The office in charge of equipping Soldiers said in a March 30 statement the service has no plans to purchase the HK416.
“I am certain we can all agree that America’s Soldiers should have the best technology in their hands,” Coburn wrote. “And there is simply no excuse for not providing our soldiers the best weapon – not just a weapon that is ‘good enough.’ “
The Army has not yet responded to Coburn’s letter, but his aide said if the senator doesn’t receive a response to the letter by Monday, Coburn plans to call Geren personally to address the issue.
“Our feeling is once people see the facts on the face of it they’re going to say that this is ridiculous and demand that the Army does it right and competes the contract,” the aide said.