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Army Shifts Modernization Focus to M4 Carbine “Improvements”

Against a backdrop of recent large system fielding, development and modernization programs for platforms like the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV), Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) and, most recently, Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), the Army has recently shifted some of its modernization focus to the ubiquitous M4 carbine.

The U.S. Army has fielded more than 400,000 M4 carbines as replacements for the M16s in its combat brigades and division headquarters.

In late January, the Army’s Joint Munitions and Lethality (JM&L) Contracting Center released a “sources sought/market survey” announcement “seeking companies with experience in small arms manufacturing and associated technologies (corporate knowledge, technical expertise, facilities, manufacturing equipment, and product acceptance test hardware)” in an effort to “test and potentially qualify a Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS)/Non-Developmental Item (NDI) Modification Kit for improvements to the M4 Carbine.”

According to the announcement description, government planners anticipate that the modification kit will be evaluated as a system and be able to drop-in/be installed on “stock” M4 carbines.

“It is the Governments [sic] intent (via the application of this Modification) to provide measurable improvements in reliability, durability, and maintainability of the M4,” it noted. “Specific areas of interest may include but shall not be limited to the bolt and bolt carrier assembly, upper receiver and barrel assembly, gas operating system, trigger group assembly, and robust MIL-STD-1913 rail system (Picatinny Rail). All upgrade possibilities are encouraged and welcome, from replacement of individual components up to and including the replacement of the entire upper receiver. There are no anticipated modifications to the standard lower receiver; however minor modifications to the trigger mechanism and the interface of the upper to lower receiver may also be submitted.”

The announcement cautioned that the modified weapon “must retain the existing 5.56x45mm caliber (M855, NATO SS109)” and that “The application of the Modification Kit must not result in the diminution of any performance characteristic associated with the current M4 Carbine.”

The sources sought release estimated the quantity of M4 modification kits that might be required as “500,000 each” and requested that interested firms submit “literature/brochures not exceeding twenty (20) pages describing product technical capabilities, design details and operational characteristics, and production capability (monthly sustainable production rate)” by Feb. 16, 2010. Submissions were also to include a Rough Order of Magnitude (ROM) unit price (per kit) estimate for quantity ranges 500-1,000; 1,001-5,000; 5,001-10,000 and 10,001-20,000 for each production year from FY12 thru FY17.

Elaborating on the M4 modernization effort during recent Congressional testimony (March 10, 2010, before the Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces, House Armed Services Committee), senior service representatives jointly described the M4 compared to the M16 as a “smaller, more maneuverable weapon [that] has been the overwhelming individual weapon of choice for our soldiers in combat.”

“Regardless of the successes we have seen in our small arms, we continue to pursue improvements in our individual weapons’ capability,” the statement read. “We are currently taking a dual approach to improve the current weapon, the M4, as we move forward with a new carbine requirement. The Project Manager (PM) released a market survey in January 2010, seeking the best industry has to offer for improvements to the current M4. The PM expects to release an RFP [request for proposals] soon to compete the upgrade program.”

It continued, “Additionally, the Army will conduct a full and open competition to address a new requirement for an individual carbine. Once the Joint Requirements Oversight Council approves the new requirement, the PM will initiate the competition with the release of an RFP for comments from industry. This is the first step in conducting the competition. The Army is working with the other services in these programs to ensure their requirements are included in our process and they are always invited to participate in the programs’ development and production.”

By

Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-149">
    Bryan Van Hoose

    Weapons that are meant to protect our soldiers should NEVER be made by any lowest bidder. No matter how much money they cost, being effective, reliable and easy to maintain are top on any combat soldiers list as far as a “good” weapon goes. With the 6000 round test, it is quite obvious that the companies contracted to produce these firearms are cutting corners with materials and workmanship.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-150">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    A lot of people consider the direct gas impingement system itself as the culprit rather than any manufacturer. Argument against that is that the AR-10, for example, and a couple of French and Swedish designs are said to have used direct gas impingement with few or no major problems. Then there is the type of ammunition being used, as powder composition can cause more or less fouling. There aren’t many who would deny that you have to keep the weapon scrupulously clean, and that’s not easy sometimes in a combat zone. On top of that, the sand in SW Asia isn’t like beach sand, it’s a fine dust, more like what you see in the photo accompanying the story, and whether the bolt cover is closed or not, it WILL get in the action.

    The argument for a change to a gas piston system has merit. Yes, it’s more expensive, and has more parts to break, but it operates more cleanly, is easier to clean, and maybe most importantly, operates at cooler temperatures than direct gas. I’ve read reports that claim the direct gas impingement system can reach temperatures high enough to cause failure of components. But debate rages between those for and against either system. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

    Bottom line, we have to know exactly why so many weapons failed at Wanat and fix the problem. We cannot tolerate any of our troops being put in even greater danger because the weapon they depend on fails.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-151">
    David Shoemaker

    I am currently on active duty with the US Army. I have been following this debate for sometime now. As a soldier I want a weapon that I can depend on. The army is spending millions on new high tec weapon systems that will only be used for special missions. I can clean a weapon correctly as well as any soldier I have ever met and I have had problems with the M16A2 and the M4. This is a forty year old design, and there arm much better weapons out there. Cheap is cheap. The Bushmaster ACR does everything that I have ever heard the Army ask for. The amount of money that the army is going to spend buying new M4’s and then fixing them is stupid, just man up and buy a good weapon that needs nothing to fix it.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-152">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    The phrasing of the announcement seems to be wide open, which could mean they end up buying new upper receivers for the M4s that will use a gas piston system rather than direct gas.

    There are quite a few solutions out there, and Colt themselves even offered a gas piston upper at one point, but nothing ever came of it.

    When you come right down to it, though, you’re right. The weapon has been around a long, long time, and there hasn’t been a very serious effort to look into a next generation weapon that has gotten much beyond the R & D stage.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-153">
    Scott Gourley

    In response to David Shoemaker’s comment…

    First, thank you for your service!

    Second, the Army does appear to be pursuing a “dual track” concept of modernizing existing M4s while starting a methodical approach to eventual replacement with a new carbine. Evidence of the latter thrust can be found in the release of a 27 May “sources sought” announcement (posted as news on Year in Defense) for a new carbine. We will certainly continue to follow these efforts as they evolve.

    Thanks again for what you do.