A competing rifle outperformed the Army’s favored M4A1 carbine in key firings during a competition last year before the service abruptly called off the tests and stuck with its gun, according to a new confidential report.
The report also says the Army changed the ammunition midstream to a round “tailored” for the M4A1 rifle. It quoted competing companies as saying the switch was unfair because they did not have enough time to fire the new ammo and redesign their rifles before the tests began.
Exactly how the eight challengers — and the M4 — performed in a shootout to replace the M4, a soldier’s most important personal defense, has been shrouded in secrecy.
But an “official use only report” by the Center for Naval Analyses shows that one of the eight unidentified weapons outperformed the M4 on reliability and on the number of rounds fired before the most common type of failures, or stoppages, occurred, according to data obtained by The Washington Times.
The Army did not respond to The Times. At the time, the Army explained the cancellation by saying none of the eight showed a huge improvement over the M4. In the past, the Army, with an inventory of 500,000 M4s, has defended the carbine as reliable, accurate and popular among the large majority of soldiers. It has been upgraded throughout the war on terror to improve its magazine, barrel and sights.
SEE ALSO: Troops left to fend for themselves after Army was warned of flaws in M4 carbine assault rifle
Congress pressed the Army to hold the shootout in the face of mounting criticism from soldiers that the M4 is unreliable. The M4 is perhaps the most deployed weapon system in the war on terror — essential firepower in combating the Taliban, al Qaeda and other insurgents at close range during raids and firefights.
The Times earlier this year published a two-part series on the M4 revealing that, as the war on terror began, the carbine flunked several reliability tests when subjected to rapid fire. The Times spoke with soldiers who had used the M4 in intense combat. They said the magazine is tinny and subject to jamming. The gun itself requires constant cleaning. One Green Beret said he and his colleagues, once in theater, rebuild the gun with better parts.
The CNA report shows that one competing gun outperformed all other competitors, including the M4, on some key tests. The results show there was a potentially better gun for soldiers.
“It was misleading for the Army to say none of the weapons passed the test,” said a U.S. official critical of how the Army buys small arms. “It was true, but it was extremely misleading. They set the requirements for the mean round between failure at around 3,000 rounds. That’s extremely high.”
He added: “You had one weapon beat the pants off your incumbent, and the result of this was not to do more testing. You had the opportunity to keep working and pursuing a better weapon, and you chose not to.”
The data is contained in a broader Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) report on the military’s procurement of small arms, such as the M4, and small-caliber ammunition.
Like the carbine competition, this study was demanded by Congress, where some members believe the Army is wedded to inferior guns and ammo.
The CNA report does not name the eight guns and producers, apparently to protect proprietary information.
The U.S. official knowledgeable about the report said gun “A” was the Army’s M4A1, an enhanced model of the basic M4.
The CNA report contains three significant graphics. In one, reliability was measured against the M4 as the baseline. Gun “C” scored 25 percent more reliable than the M4A1 and better than all others.
A second graphic shows test results for “mean rounds between failures.” This is perhaps the most important test because it shows how many shots the rifle can fire before stoppage.
Again gun “C” was by far the best, achieving more than 2,500 rounds. The M4A1 failed after 500 — a gap that can make a significant difference in battle.
This test was a measurement of Class 1 and Class 2 magazine stoppages, in which one soldier can clear the gun himself within 10 seconds or more than 10 seconds, respectively. The U.S. official said classes 1 and 2 are the most common stoppages in battle.
A third graphic shows the M4A1 performed best for Class 3 stoppages, which are more significant failures that require a specialist, or armorer, to clear.
It achieved 6,000 mean rounds between failure. Gun “C” achieved about 4,500 rounds.
The guns competing to replace the M4 were at a disadvantage, the makers said, because the Army changed the ammo at the last minute to a new cartridge, the M855A1, being sent to war.
To adjust, the vendors were given 10,000 rounds to fire. But some told CNA “they did not have enough time to evaluate the results and make changes to their weapons before the competition,” the report said.
Still, the competition results “suggest that changing the weapon itself may not produce the effects the Army was looking for,” the CNA report said.
Last summer, after over two years of evaluation, the Army called off its competition.
The M4 was not considered a competitor, but it was fired during the competition, meaning it also failed to reach the Army’s exacting goals.
The Army’s statement in June 2013 justifying the cancellation said: “No competitor demonstrated a significant improvement in weapon reliability — measured by mean rounds fired between weapon stoppage. Consistent with the program’s search for superior capability, the test for weapon reliability was exceptionally rigorous and exceeded performance experienced in a typical operational environment.”
The Army also cited a report by the Department of Defense Inspector General, who said the competition was unneeded because of improvements to the M4.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, fought a long battle with the Army to persuade it to look at other carbines. He said Army National Guardsmen back from the wars told him the gun was unreliable and jammed frequently. All of Mr. Coburn’s work crumbled last year when the inspector general essentially sided with the Army by giving it a justification to cancel the Improved Carbine competition.
Mr. Coburn expressed outrage in an October letter to Inspector General Jon T. Rymer, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.
He said the IG ignored the fact that the Army has not held a competition for a new rifle in more than 30 years. He said it failed to take into account test results that showed the M4 finished last in firing in extreme dust, such as that found in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I am afraid the quality of this audit is not consistent with the standards I have seen” in other IG audits, Mr. Coburn said.
The Army has begun converting basic M4 rifles into the heavier-barreled M4A1, a gun used in the competition and originally developed for special operations troops who need continuous fire. Critics say the need for a transition proves that the conventional M4 fails too often in battle.
The Army also changed manufacturers last year. FN Manufacturing in South Carolina won a competition with Remington Arms Co. and Colt Defense, the longtime M4 maker, to make the M4A1.
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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