- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Army is botching the procurement of what should be one of the simplest weapons to buy: the pistol.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain will soon issue a report called “America’s Most Wasted: Army’s Costly Misfire.” It says the Army has spent 10 years preparing a competition for a gun that will cost about $500. During all that time, he says, the Army has little to show but a thick, complex requirements package that perplexes gun makers and may produce a rigged result.

“Worse, the Army may fail to field a handgun at all because of the way it has structured this weapon system acquisition,” said the upcoming report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.

All the while, Army soldiers continue to pack the Beretta 9 mm, or M9, model handgun first introduced 30 years ago. As a comparison, law enforcement and special operations troops change out to a newer more advanced model about every 15 years.

A battlefield survey by the Center for Naval Analyses found 46 percent of soldier respondents expressed unhappiness with the M9 because of malfunctions and high maintenance. Twenty-five percent reported stoppages, or jamming, during a firefight.

“The Army has managed to create entirely new acquisition problems for what should be a simple, straightforward purchase of a commercially available item,” says Mr. McCain, who has made acquisition reform a hallmark of his chairmanship. The Arizona Republican has been particularly tough on the Pentagon’s largest, and, some would say, most cost-bloated weapons system: the F-35 Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps strike fighter.

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Now he is targeting one of the smallest, the $1.2 billion Modular Handgun System. He concludes the Army simply does not know how to buy an off-the-shelf pistol.

“The Army’s effort to buy a new handgun has already taken 10 years and produced nothing but more than 350 page[s of] requirements micromanaging extremely small unimportant details and Byzantine rules and processes the Army wants followed, many of which are unnecessary or anticompetitive,” he said.

Mr. McCain said the excess paperwork is adding $50 in cost per-gun, or about $15 million “wasted on paperwork and bureaucracy.”

Queries to Army headquarters by The Times were not answered.

In the war on terror, small arms can often make a life-or-death difference for infantrymen as they find themselves embroiled in close contact with the enemy, be they Taliban, al Qaeda or other terrorists.

The Times last year did a series of stories on the Army’s main rifle, the M4 carbine. Some soldiers complained the gun was ill-suited for intense firefights because the barrel overheated and the magazine jammed.

Congress forced a reluctant Army to conduct a competition to find a better rifle. But the top brass abruptly canceled the shoot-off midstream and declared no gun greatly exceeded M4 capabilities. The Times obtained test results that showed at least one rifle did beat the M4.

As voluminous as the Army’s requirements — known as a request for proposal (RFP) — are, the 350 pages lack one critical guide to gun makers: the caliber.

Mr. McCain’s report said this omission will make it impossible for some manufactures to compete.

“The caliber of the cartridge and the type of bullet it launches is arguably the most important performance component of the handgun,” he said. “One of the principles of a commercial off-the-shelf acquisition is that the government must be clear on what it is seeking to buy. This lack of clarity will likely result in top handgun makers not competing as many of them are not large defense contractors, which means that our soldiers won’t necessarily get the best handgun that commercial industry has to offer.”

Mr. McCain said the Army perhaps already knows who the winner will be, or what he called a “preferred outcome.”

In another flaw, he said, the Army plans to whittle down competitors to a final three via mechanical firings before actual human soldiers get to test each gun and provide feedback.

“This means that back-office bureaucrats will have more say in selecting the next handgun than our front-line troops,” he said.

While the RFP lacks a designated caliber, it is not shy about dictating specifics for an up-to-500,000 buy. These include the gun’s color, whether the bore brush is compatible with existing cleaning kits and the size of the paper used to correspond with Army selectors.

In another disincentive to compete, the Army also wants complete data rights, meaning the winner could see all the hard work turned over to a competitor at some point.

“It is unacceptable that the Army took a decade to determine its handgun requirements and gives industry less than four months to comply with 350 pages of regulations and requirements,” the report said.

The solution, Mr. McCain said, is to cancel the burdensome RFP, then make fast-track purchases of guns already evaluated and holstered by American special operations troops.

According to Military.com, special operations units carry a variety of sidearms. The Marine Corps, for example, two years ago began buying Colt .45-caliber Close Quarter Battle Pistols. SEAL Team 6 sailors pack the same caliber in a Heckler & Koch model. Some Army commandoes use the M9A1, an improved Baretta 9 mm and also Glocks, which are popular with police.

In his handgun fight, Mr. McCain has an ally in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served during the 2007 Iraq troop surge. He can talk first-hand about his frustrations with red tape and how difficult it is to move the Pentagon bureaucracy even a little bit faster.

At an Armed Services hearing last week, Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican, looked down at Mr. Gates at the witness table and told him about the long search for a pistol.

“The Army has spent 10 years trying to figure out how to buy a new handgun,” Sen. Ernst said. “Ten years on how to buy a new handgun, an end item with a total cost of just a few hundred dollars per item. Ten and a half years, or half a dozen industry days later, the Army produces a 351-page request for proposal — 351 pages for a handgun.”

Continuing the indictment, she said, “And whatever is in these pages, it isn’t a lean or a streamlined acquisition process responsive to the needs of our war fighters, and because of the bureaucracy and a lack of responsiveness to anyone who isn’t engaged in the special operations arena, our soldiers have handguns that are over 30 years old. And in recent surveys they have stated that they absolutely hate those small arms.”

Mr. Gates, who quickly shook up the bureaucracy to force the Army and Marine Corps to buy a new armored vehicle that better protected soldiers, was a sympathetic ear.

“What this is about is calling the secretary of the Army and the chief of staff of the Army and the chief of acquisitions to sit at this table and ask that question,” Mr. Gates said. “Why is it taking you guys 10 years? This is absurd. And why is it a 350-page RFP? It’s a handgun, for God’s sake.”

Mr. Gates’ solution: “I always come back to the same theme. Most bureaucracies have [a] stifling effect. It’s just in the culture. It’s in the DNA, and what is required are disrupters. And if you have people in senior positions who are not disrupters, you need to make them into disrupters. And the way you do that is by holding them personally accountable.”

The Army caught flak even before last September’s RFP came out.

The Defense Small Arms Advisory Council wrote a Dec. 4, 2014, letter to Army top brass saying a draft RFP contained “significant problems.”

“Foremost among those problems is the fact that the Army hasn’t selected either the basic caliber or the specific ammunition for the new handgun, a major and potentially fatal flaw,” wrote retired Maj. Gen. D. Allen Youngman, executive director of the group that represents a number of small-arms makers.

Mr. Youngman harked back to the Army’s mishandling of the M4 rifle competition.

“The fact that the Army has identified the desired color but not the caliber of the desired weapon is both difficult to understand and unfortunately reminiscent of the recent individual carbine competition in which the relationship between the designed weapon and its ammunition received inadequate attention,” he said.

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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