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Posts Tagged ‘FN Herstal’

My post on the IAR solicitation continues to get hits, so when I saw this article in the Marine Corps Times I thought you would be interested:

Marine acquisition officials are considering a high-capacity magazine that could hold 50 or 100 rounds and fit numerous 5.56mm weapons, raising questions about the Corps’ plans to move forward with development of the controversial infantry automatic rifle.

Marine Corps Systems Command, based at Quantico, Va., is “seeking potential commercial sources for a high capacity magazine for use in a semi or fully automatic rifle,” with responses that were due by Nov. 17, according to a new advertisement to industry. The magazine would need to fit “the M16/M4/HK 416 family of weapons,” which includes the new 5.56mm auto-rifle SysCom is considering as a replacement for the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon in most fire teams.

Marine officials did not respond to requests for comment, but adopting a high-capacity magazine for the IAR would address concerns posed by some grunts worried that replacing the SAW with the IAR would cut firepower in situations where a sustained rate of fire is needed.

The SAW typically holds a 200-round drum of 5.56mm ammunition, while the IAR is designed for use with 30-round magazines.

Maj. John Smith, the weapon’s project officer, said in September that the Corps was “close to having a decision” on the IAR contract competition, which pits one rifle from FN Herstal, two variants from Colt Defense and one from Heckler & Koch against each other. At the time, Smith acknowledged that Commandant Gen. James Conway had questioned how the IAR will fit into fire teams, but said that his concern was “answered in short order.” Smith declined to elaborate, and Maj. David Nevers, a spokesman for Conway, said the commandant was unavailable for comment.

At the Modern Day Marine exposition held at Quantico in October, FN Herstal displayed a high-capacity magazine for its IAR variant that can hold 100 to 150 rounds. Another contractor, Armatac Industries, has approached the Corps about a 150-round magazine it makes and says is compatible with each of the finalists’ weapons.

Early in the evaluation process for the IAR, the Corps’ requirement called for the weapon to use 100-round magazines. That was eventually eliminated in favor of using the same 30-round magazines, as Marine officials sought to cut weight from the SAW’s replacement.

According to Darren Mellors, LWRC had been developing a high-capacity magazine like this for its candidate as well. I am not sure what this bodes for the IAR or the SAW, but I would be curious to see how well they perform in the field. To say the least, the BETA C-Mag has not gotten very flattering reviews. In theory, I like the idea of a system like the RPK that can alternate between drum and box magazines. However, drum magazines are much more complex and getting them ‘right’ is no easy task. It might be worth looking into 40- and 50-round box magazines akin to the RPK and Galil as another option. (For more information on Kalashnikov drum magazines, see this thorough article in Small Arms Review.)

With all this talk of high-speed low-drag mags, it is worth noting that soldiers could always use more regular vanilla 30-round magazines. These things are intended to be disposable items, and their springs wear out from repeated compression and decompression. Bad magazines are a top culprit of M16/M4 malfunctions, and they are a lot cheaper than a brand-new weapon system–particularly when the new system uses the same mags a la the SCAR. I have heard too many stories about warfighters not having enough, good-quality mags, and it is a pretty sorry commentary. I do not have an exact figure for what the DoD pays for a plain Jane STANAG magazine, but I have to imagine its less than $10. That’s $10 for truly life-or-death equipment.

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“To put it simply,” said one insider who wished to remain anonymous, “the Marines fucked up.”

He was speaking of the Marine Corp’s ongoing Infantry Automatic Rifle (IAR) solicitation, which intends to replace the infantry’s M249 squad automatic weapon (SAW) with a lighter, more maneuverable machine gun better suited to close quarters urban combat that will continue to be the predominant battle space of the twenty-first century.  The first round of the selection process has been completed, and candidates from FN Herstal and Colt Defense have advanced.  Both are well-established players in the defense industry, but the choice was not without controversy.

In recent months, there has been no shortage of aspersions cast towards the Pentagon’s weapons procurement process.  A common complaint is that high-tech, big-ticket weapons systems like the F-22 and the FCS are inappropriate for combating low-tech global insurgencies.  Other analysts have critiqued the Department of Defense’s freewheeling spending and lack of accountability.  In one notable example, journalist David Axe, author of War Bots, has pointed to the private sector and the use of lead systems integrators (LSI) as a source of the most egregious oversights in Defense Department procurement.  There is some indication that reform is on the horizon.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has put contractors on notice that “the spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing.”

However, there has been little said about how institutional culture of the Pentagon affects weapons buying.  Culture—particularly mapping “the human terrain”—has become an important lens to examine our enemies, but rarely do we turn that lens on ourselves.  Most famously, John Nagl examined the institutional cultures of the British military and the American military in order to understand why one succeeded and the other failed to defeat insurgencies in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife.  As we will see, the IAR solicitation demonstrates a latent cultural phenomenon within the military that might be keeping the best weapons systems from reaching American warfighters.

As I have written before in “Technology, Risk Aversion, and Counterinsurgency,” risk aversion can make a serious impact on the choices the military makes not only about strategy and tactics but also equipment.  This institutional culture within the US military has, at times, left soldiers overburdened for effective counterinsurgency praxis.  The IAR solicitation gives some clue as to how this same mindset impacts procurement.

The most controversial element of the solicitation has been its exclusion of smaller, innovative companies from the latter stages of competition.  It is not an uncommon consideration to select companies based on their capacity to manufacture and deliver weapon systems in the quantities and time frame that the DoD requires, but the IAR solicitation goes a step further.  According to the criteria laid out in Marine Corps de-briefs, candidates must have “[m]inimal experience in large government weapons contracts of IAR size and scope.”  However, this factor alone eliminates all small companies, leaving a cadre of defense contractors only one of which is an American-based company, Colt.

One company that was eliminated was Knight’s Armament Company in Titusville, Florida.  A leader in innovation, KAC developed a rail interface for the M4A1 and M16A4.  Previously, operators had used duct tape to affix flashlights and other mission-critical tools to their weapons.  Today, militaries all over the world use this system to attach everything from vertical foregrips to infrared illuminators to their weapons.  Knight’s also manufactures the US Army’s M110 semi-automatic sniper rifle.

According to founder and CEO of Knight’s Armament, C. Reed Knight, Jr., the IAR solicitation has proven to be another red flag for contractors in already uncertain times.

“I spent somewhere close to $200,000 in responding to the RFP,” he said. “If they are going to disqualify me because they thought I was too small of a company or that I was not up to speed, then they should have put those qualifications up front so that we could have looked at that up front qualification and we could have made a judgment whether we wanted to respond to that or not.”

“I will guarantee you that the people that made the decision on that IAR not one of them have ever stepped foot in my factory. More importantly, we have more CNC table space [within the United States] than Saco Defense, Colt, and FN all added together,” said Mr. Knight.  “I just feel like if they told me that they didn’t like my gun because it was the wrong color or if was too little, too light, too heavy or whatever, that is one thing, but they disqualified—partially disqualified—it because of us as a manufacturer.”

“Of the companies that they accepted to the second level, H&K does not have to my knowledge an M- gun,” Knight continued.  “I do have one.  I have an M110.  I have a US Army type-classified rifle, yet H&K does not, but H&K moved to the next level.  Now, I could cry over spilt milk, but all those things being said, it has just cautioned me on how I bid on my next RFP, and basically that’s what it all boils down to.”

LWRC International was another small company excluded from the second round.  Their candidate utilized the same ergonomics of the M4 while employing new features such as a cleaner and cooler short-stroke piston as well as the ability to fire from a closed or open bolt.  LWRC has also deployed a surface conversion process that exceeds traditional anodizing and chrome lining.  This rifle was featured on the third season premier of Discovery’s Future Weapons:

According to Darren Mellors, LWRC’s Vice President of Business Development, there is another factor that makes the Marines reluctant to choose small companies and innovative, new weapon systems:  risk aversion.

“Often times, junior officers—say, a major—are in charge of the selection, and they don’t want to hang their hat on anything but a sure thing,” he said.  “If the design fails or the company can’t deliver, their career is over, so they choose the system that involves the least risk.”

Initiatives like the Marine Enhancement Program (MEP) and Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI) have taken a chance on smaller companies who have provided innovative solutions to meet the needs of soldiers on the ground. However, procurement still involves a process better suited for the industrial age rather than the information age at a time when product development may only take a few months.  Complex procurement systems may be suited to complex weapons, but current processes have failed to balance government oversight and fast-paced innovation.  More importantly, the current system fails to reward small companies that operate at this pace.

To offset this disadvantage, some companies have allied themselves with larger companies.  Recently, MagPul Industries partnered with Bushmaster Firearms, itself a recent acquisition of private equity giant Cerebrus Capital Management.

“We’re more of a fast-paced entity,” said Eric Burt, product designer for Magpul.  “We’re going in knowing it’s an uphill battle [for smaller companies].  They don’t know us, our capacity, or our quality control.”

Even if the Pentagon does realize the value of “betting” on smaller companies, small companies themselves may no longer be willing to take the risk in the current climate.

“I have been very fortunate in that I have put a lot of effort, a lot of guestimation, a lot of capital into what I saw as the future and the numbers that I bet on—whether it be red or blacks—I’ve been more right than I’ve been wrong,” said Mr. Knight. “That’s not what I see in the future.  I am totally confused.  I don’t have any idea where it’s going from here, and I don’t know which color to bet on.  It could come up double-aughts or single-aughts green just as easily as red or black.”

According to Mr. Knight, there are a variety of forces contributing to this atmosphere of uncertainty among defense contractors.

“Mixed signals.  Lack of adult supervision.  The Marine Corps IAR is a perfect example,” Mr. Knight continued.  “The economy is in disarray.  The military climate is in disarray.  We’ve already seen an incredible shift from Republican to Democrat, and that political shift has got an entrepreneur, a capitalist, like myself looking at a very socialist-looking economy and saying I don’t want to give up, I don’t want to take a chance at giving up anything I have.  I’m just going to sit tight.  I don’t need to take the risk.  I have no need to continue betting.  I have what I have and what I have is safe if I don’t bet it on the next game.  I’m not going to double down, because it looks too uncertain.”

“I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking like this,” he said.

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