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Colt M4 Carbine’s Future Uncertain: Dark Clouds Forming

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By David Crane
defrev at gmail dot com

Perhaps the single most exciting thing that happened at NDIA International Infantry & Joint Services Small Arms Systems Symposium 2008–away from the firing range, of course–was a confrontation between Jim Battaglini (Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James R. Battaglini) of Colt Defense and U.S. Air Force Col. Robert Mattes, the director of the Comparative Test Office for the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Advanced Systems and Concepts, while Col. Mattes was giving a speech and promoting the idea of an open competition to determine the best infantry/assault carbine that can be supplied to U.S. military infantry warfighters. Specifically, the purpose of the competition would be to determine whether or not the Colt M4 Carbine is still the best carbine solution for our warfighters, and if there might be a better (i.e. more reliable and combat-effective) carbine out there than the M4.

Col. Mattes wasn’t the first to promote the open-competition idea. In a short May 21 speech at the symposium, Bryan O’Leary, National Security Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), also…

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proffered the opinion that the Colt M4 Carbine should have to compete against other carbine candidates and thereby justifiy its continued existence as the standard U.S. Army and Marine Corps infantry/assault carbine. If it wins, it lives. If it doesn’t, it dies (i.e. loses the contract). Pretty simple. O’Leary and Mattes might argue: what’s Colt Defense afraid of? If the M4 is really the best carbine out there, it should be able to beat all the competing designs, no problem. Let’s compete it and see.

Well, o.k., except let’s look at it from Colt’s perspective. Just like any other company, why would they want to take the risk of competing for a contract when 1) they’re the current contract holder, 2) there might be a way to avoid it, and 3) soldier satisfaction with the M4 is reportedly currently at approx. 89% (according to a U.S. Army report)? But this is soldiers’ lives, you say. Well, that’s true, but you have to prove that there’s another weapon out there that’s not only better, but appreciably better (i.e. significantly and measurably more reliable and combat-effective) in order to justify the rather significant mass weapon-replacement costs, warfighter retraining costs, new-weapon production costs, supply chain issues, etc.

Now, while it’s true that the M4 Carbine came in last in recent "extreme dust tests" when it went up against the HK416, FN Mk16 SCAR-Light (SCAR-L), and HK XM8 LAR (Lightweight Assault Rifle), it’s questionable as to how combat-relevant those tests were, and how fairly those tests were conducted. I mean, let’s face it, the Army has a problematic testing history (and that’s putting it diplomatically) when it comes to small arms and body armor, let alone higher-ticket items. Even so, the M4 represents the status quo and Colt is a favored contractor/DoD darling, so the M4 should hold the advantage in that regard. By the way, it’s DefenseReview’s understanding that the original test protocol called for sand and dust, but this was changed to dust-only tests for some reason.

So, where does Defense Review come down on the open carbine competition issue? Well, we’re actually for it, provided 1) the testing is conducted honestly, fairly and openly, 2) is videotaped at every step for later review, and 3) has civilian oversight (or some other type of trustworthy, non-Army oversight).  Any/all testing and/or competing should be done in
conditions that are as combat-relevant and combat-realistic as
possible. Part of the testing and/or competing should definitely be operational testing
(OT) by infantry warfighters, including U.S. Army general infantry,
Rangers, Marines and SOCOM elements (SpecOps personnel). Also, the M4A1 Carbine with semi-auto and true full-auto
settings should be tested and/or competed instead of the M4 Carbine. The M4 Carbine’s 3-round burst was a
really stupid idea from the get-go, and needs to go away. The M4′s
trigger is lousy and not conducive to good marksmanship. The M4A1 is a
much smarter idea and its trigger is far superior. If you don’t believe
me, ask members of the U.S. Army Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG). Don’t
just take my word for it.
If the M4A1 Carbine is really the best assault/infantry carbine out there, it should be able to beat all comers, and Colt Defense shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Our warfighters deserve the best weapon available, so may the best weapon win.

By the way, another proponent of open competition is Jim Schatz, former military sales manager for HK Defense (Heckler & Koch Defense) and vocal promoter of the the HK XM8 development program. Mr. Schatz, now working for the Technical Support Working Group, a test and evaluation agency under DoD (Department of Defense), gave a presentation at the symposium titled Time for a Change – U.S. "Incremental" Small Arms Fielding: Failures and Solutions. Needless to say, Mr. Schatz is not an M4 proponent, nor is he very satisfied with the U.S. military small arms development, procurement and adoption system. He believes it’s broken, and DefenseReview agrees. Schatz isn’t stupid. The U.S. military small arms development and procurement system is, excuse our language, a total clusterfuck (military term). Every independent analyst with whom we’ve ever spoken, that’s well-versed on the topic (U.S. military small arms development and procurement system), to a man, agrees that the system’s broken, corrupt, counterproductive, pick your own negative adjectives. It’s bad. Real bad.

DefenseReview spoke with Mr. Schatz after the symposium and tried to get a written copy of his presentation for at least private review and analysis. We were unsuccessful, however.

Defense Review did, however, get to speak with Mr. Battaglini at the end of the symposium about his confrontation with Col. Mattes, and got his take on things. Battaglini believes in his product (the M4 Carbine), and feels like Colt Defense is being, essentially, ganged up on.  He also feels that the M4 is being unfairly challenged, considering what Colt contends to be tremendous success in combat and overwhelming end-user satisfaction. On a personal note, I respect Mr. Battaglini for confronting Col. Mattes during Mattes’ speech. Mr. Battaglini believes in his product and was defending it, just like any good corporate officer should. Can’t knock him for it. We found Mr. Battaglini to be open, friendly and likeable when we spoke with him at the symposium.

So, is the M4 Carbine being treated unfairly? Maybe, maybe not. DefRev’s going to analyze the situation and try to follow up on it. Whatever the case, the next 1-1.5 years is going to be interesting for Colt Defense and the M4. The M4′s going to be fighting for its life. In addition to potentially having to compete against gas piston/op-rod-driven carbines like the FN SCAR, HK 416, etc., Colt is apparently going to have to turn over the M4 technical data package (TDP) rights to the Army in 2009, and the Army may let other companies compete for future M4 contracts–not exactly a great confluence of events for Colt. The U.S. Army has budgeted $313M in M4 contracts for fiscal years 2010-2013.

That being the case, it’s DefenseReview’s opinion that Colt should seriously consider updating/improving the M4 with the latest hardware and technologies that can bring the M4 Carbine into the 21st Century, optimize the M4′s direct-gas-impingement operating system, and give it the best chance to win any future open carbine competition against the HK416, the FN SCAR-L, and any other gas piston/op-rod-driven carbine out there. We believe we know exactly what modifcations/improvements need to be made. However, even if we’re right, it may be difficult for Colt to make any changes to the M4, at least in the near term. Since the M4 is made to a U.S. military specification and according to an exacting TDP (technical data package), even if Colt were willing to make changes to the weapon, they woud have to navigate through the military bureaucracy to do so. Specifically, they would have to make an engineering change proposal (ECP) for each and every change, and the government would have to agree to it. This is easier said than done, but we believe it needs to be done. Defense Review may discuss our recommended M4 mods/improvements in a subsequent article. We’re not sure whether or not we should make these recommendations public, yet, based on some things that are currently going on behind the scenes.

If worse comes to worse for Colt Defense, they’ve got their own gas piston/op-rod
select-fire AR carbine/SBR/subcarbine solution that’s supposedly
superior to the HK416, according to rumor (i.e. unconfirmed/unverified reports). It’s Defense Review’s understanding that Colt’s gas-piston-driven
system was competed in the 2004 SCAR competition and did quite well
(unconfirmed/unverified). Colt’s gas-piston/op-rod-driven SCAR
candidate, which we believe was the Colt M5 Gas Piston Carbine
(unconfirmed/unverified) was reportedly very reliable
(unconfirmed/unverified). DefRev’s seen and handled the Colt LE1020 (also written Colt LE 1020) at SHOT Show
and other shows.  The LE1020 is semi-automatic-only (semi-auto-only) and similar to
the Colt SCAR candidate, and the system looks solid. We’ve seen the
weapon broken down and the individual piston/op-rod components. The
late Mike LaPlante (Michael LaPlante) showed us the gun. Mike was a
nice man.

So, that’s it for now.


Related Articles:

Some call for open carbine competition (Army Times)

DefRev Receives M4 Carbine Extreme Dust Test Brief (PowerPoint Document) (DefenseReview)

M16 Rifle and M4 Carbine: Time For a Change
(DefenseReview)

Colt M4 Carbine Finishes Last in Latest U.S. Army Small Arms Reliability Test (DefenseReview)

Colt M4 Carbine’s Future Uncertain: Dark Clouds Forming by
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About David Crane

David Crane started publishing online in 2001. Since that time, governments, military organizations, Special Operators (i.e. professional trigger pullers), agencies, and civilian tactical shooters the world over have come to depend on Defense Review as the authoritative source of news and information on "the latest and greatest" in the field of military defense and tactical technology and hardware, including tactical firearms, ammunition, equipment, gear, and training.

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