Posts Tagged ‘M4’

As I bury myself in writing chapters and looking for jobs, I have not had much time to keep up with the blog circuit. However, I finally got around to this interview with LTG Paul Van Riper, USMC (Ret.), on Midrats–and it is awesome. There is a good amount of time devoted to John Boyd, media-military relations, and the learning culture of the military, but the most fascinating bit for me was a discussion of training infantry in the same way combat aviators are trained a la “Top Gun” and the like. Small arms training has been an interest of mine for a long time, and the feedback I have gotten from those who know much more about the topic than I do is that the military needs to spend more time training the basics and training them in line with current best practices. This is much more important than worrying about the latest, whiz-bang SALW system whether we are talking the faux-revolutionary XM25 or the endless string of M16/M4 replacements that get proposed every year.  At any rate, go listen to that interview.  There is something for everyone.


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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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