Move over, shopping addicts, you've got nothing on Uncle Sam.
In the latest example of wasted tax dollars, the Pentagon spent a whopping $14 million to go shopping for semi-automatic rifles that the Army now acknowledges it doesn't need or want.
The tale of the replacement search for the M4 carbine rifle — the preferred weapon of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan since first issued in 2010 — illustrates how military leaders and taxpayers can get squeezed by the whims of congressional players.
Under pressure from a powerful senator, the Army reluctantly launched the Individual Carbine program to find a replacement for the M4, even though top Army officials seemed pleased with the weapon's performance despite a few cases of jamming in the field. Then, after a lengthy effort to test new alternatives, the Pentagon decided to stay with its current gun, leaving behind a hefty bill for browsing, not buying.
"The Army wasted about $14 million on a competition to identify a source to supply new carbines it does not need," the Pentagon's chief watchdog, the inspector general, warned in a report this month.
For conducting a shopping spree that was unnecessary and unproductive, the Army Individual Carbine program wins this week's Golden Hammer, an award highlighting fiscal waste and abuse.
The tortured path of the M4 controversy began in 2007, when Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, placed a hold on the nomination of Pete Geren to be secretary of the Army until the service agreed to evaluate replacements for the rifle.
That led the Army to pursue a "dual-path strategy": It would look for ways to improve the M4 and continue purchasing the weapon while starting the Individual Carbine program to research an eventual replacement.
After his confirmation, Mr. Geren in October 2008 issued a memo ordering officers to look into replacements for the M4, "given the department's significant interest in providing our soldiers with the best small arms weapons available."
But the inspector general said the Army didn't need new weapons and "did not justify the requirement for a new carbine." An internal analysis by the Army showed that the M4 could be used for another 10 years with no impact on troop capabilities.
Investigators were worried about the cost of weapons that they considered to be unnecessary, as the Army was planning to spend $2.52 billion over 20 years purchasing and maintaining the guns.
The program also faced internal resistance. The commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, now at Fort Benning, Ga., said most of the things soldiers needed to do could be achieved by improvements to the M4 and "that the Army should focus its limited funding on its highest-priority capability needs."
The inspector general said that although "gaps existed in soldier and small-unit capabilities that needed to be addressed, none of the solutions for resolving the gaps required replacing the M4."
Several sources on Capitol Hill familiar with the program told The Washington Times that they believed the Army maintained the effort to consider new weapons only because of pressure from Mr. Coburn, who also placed a hold on the nomination of Heidi Shyu to be the assistant secretary of the Army in charge of acquisitions.
But Mr. Coburn has long been one of Congress' chief advocates for reducing federal waste, often publishing reports that highlight examples of fiscal abuse, redundant programs and monetary mismanagement in the federal government. For a long time, he published "The Pork Report" on his congressional website to shine light on the ways taxpayer funds were being wasted.
Nor did the demand that the Army look at new weapons come attached with any economic perks for Mr. Coburn's home state of Oklahoma, a telltale sign for fiscal watchdogs looking for earmarks.
Instead, the senator has been a critic of the M4 rifle.
In 2007, tests conducted by the Army showed that heavy dust — a common occurrence in theaters such as Iraq and Afghanistan — could clog the gun and prevent it from firing.
In 2008, a series of high-profile incidents in Afghanistan drew attention to the fact that guns often were jamming during firefights, leaving U.S. troops defenseless as they faced insurgents. After hundreds of insurgents attacked a U.S. outpost in eastern Afghanistan in July 2008, killing 13 people, some soldiers reported that their guns had overheated and stopped working.
"The M4 has served us well," Mr. Coburn told The Associated Press. "But it's not as good as it needs to be."
John Hart, spokesman for Mr. Coburn, said the senator "was concerned the Army was providing its soldiers with subpar weapons while providing Special Forces with superior weapons."
"The charge that the Army was going to waste money with this purchase is questionable," Mr. Hart said. "For instance, how do you calculate the cost of giving a soldier a weapon that doesn't work in a firefight? That's not a justification for a blank check, of course, but that's the central question."
Mr. Hart said the senator would be sending a letter to the inspector general, addressing issues and questions raised in its report about whether the Individual Carbine program is needed.
Army officials maintain that improvements to the M4 have been made and many soldiers are being equipped with an upgraded variant — the M4A1. No major incidences of the guns jamming during combat have been reported recently.
Some of Mr. Coburn's counterparts in the House didn't share his view that the rifle needs to be replaced. In its recommendations for the defense budget next year, the House Armed Services Committee cut the amount of funding that would go toward purchasing rifles, while keeping the full amount requested for improving the M4.
"The committee is concerned that the amount of procurement funding requested for new carbines is too high," said a report from the committee, citing that members' belief that the Pentagon had conducted a proper business case assessment. The committee chairman is Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, California Republican.
The Army, meanwhile, said it stopped the Individual Carbine program because it was unsatisfied with its choices.
"None of the carbines evaluated during the testing phase of the competition met the minimum scoring requirement needed to continue to the next phase of the evaluation," the Army said in a statement. "In lieu of a new competition for an IC, the Army will continue fielding and equipping soldiers with the M4A1 carbine, which consistently performs well and has received high marks from soldiers."
A House staffer familiar with the issue said it is unlikely the Individual Carbine program will continue.
"Given the Army's budget situation, I don't see it being resurrected at all," the staffer told The Washington Times.
The program to replace the M4 rifle illustrates a harsh truth about Washington: Sometimes lawmakers and military leaders do what they believe is best, but taxpayers still wind up being out $14 million.
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