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Posts Tagged ‘Magpul Industries’

In the past, I have written about the PEO Soldier’s self-congratulatory reinvention of the wheel and DepSecDef Ashton Carter’s comment that PEO Soldier’s magazine was not “playing to our strengths.”  Last week, the Army announced that it was banning the use of MagPul Industry’s highly-regarded PMAG as well as other polymer magazines such as Tango Down’s ARC magazine. Clearly, the good idea fairy is at work here.  There is not much I can add to Matthew Cox’s story “In Reversal, Army Bans High-Performance Rifle Mags” but let me highlight a portion:

This seems to be a complete policy reversal, since PMAGs are standard issue with the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment and they have been routinely issued to infantry units before war-zone deployments.

Soldiers from B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, had been issued PMAGs before deploying to Afghanistan in 2009. On Oct. 3 of that year, they fought off a bold enemy attack on Combat Outpost Keating that lasted for more than six hours and left eight Americans dead. Some soldiers fired up to 40 PMAGs from their M4s without a single stoppage.

Militay.com asked TACOM officials if the Army had discovered any problems with PMAGs that would warrant the ban on their use. TACOM officials would not answer the question and instead passed it off to Program Executive Office Soldier on Thursday evening before the four-day Memorial Day weekend.

TACOM’s message authorizes soldiers to use the Army’s improved magazine, which PEO Soldier developed after the M4 finished last against three other carbines in a 2007 reliability test. The “dust test” revealed that 27 percent of the M4’s stoppages were magazine related.

The improved magazine uses a redesigned “follower,” the part that sits on the magazine’s internal spring and feeds the rounds into the M4’s upper receiver. The new tan-colored follower features an extended rear leg and modified bullet protrusion for improved round stacking and orientation. The self-leveling/anti-tilt follower reduces the risk of magazine-related stoppages by more than 50 percent compared to the older magazine variants, PEO Soldier officials maintain. Soldiers are also authorized to use Army magazines with the older, green follower until they are all replaced, the message states.

Military.com asked the Army if the improved magazine can outperform the PMAG, but a response wasn’t received by press time.

As the article indicates, the magazine is a common failure point. Even with the vaunted reliability of the AK system, a dented magazine can cause a stoppage. The only rationale that I can see behind this is that not every polymer magazine is great. There are many imitators of the PMAG and ARC that would be downright dangerous for warfighters to use. However, disallowing all polymer magazines is every bit as dangerous. While people fall in love with the whiz-bangery of The Next Carbine™, it is important to remember that better training, better maintenance, and better magazines would all save lives.

 

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Ashton Carter, Undersecretary for Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, addressed the Orlando Small Business Defense Procurement Summit with an anecdote about his rather long title.

“My kids say it’s too long, and nobody has ever heard of it.”

Carter will likely be trading his title for a shorter, more renowned one:  Deputy Secretary of Defense.  Before he does, Carter would spend the day in Orlando meeting with small businesses in defense contracting.

The economic climate is grave, and those representing small businesses were feeling considerable anxiety.  It is telling that Senator Bill Nelson, who opened the summit with remarks of his own, highlighted the achievements of once-upon-a-time small firms such as Lockheed Martin and Harris.  Successes, yes; small businesses, no.  Senator Nelson also pointed out the not-quite-dead-yet space program’s ongoing contributions to the development of vaccines for salmonella and MERSA.

Carter highlighted the efforts at being ‘smarter’ about defense spending.

“We have stopped doing things that either were not performing well or whose time had passed or we had enough of them,” he said.  “We’ve done a lot of that over the last two years, and now we’re getting to the point where the things we have left are things we do want and do need, and we need to get them for the amount of money the country has to provide and for that we need something the economists call ‘productivity growth.’”

He continued, “You go to Best Buy, you buy a new computer, and it’s a better computer than last year and it costs less.  Then, here I am coming up to Senator Nelson and his colleagues on the Hill with the same airplane, same ship, and same vehicle as last year and asking for more and they’re not very happy with the situation—and they shouldn’t be.”

Has Defense cut programs that need to be cut?  The case remains open on that.  Moreover, there is something that gets lost in this ‘productivity growth’ conversation:  capabilities creep.  Frankly, defense acquisitions personnel have long griped about ever-burgeoning price tags for high-tech weapons systems (longer than those two years Carter mentions), but those same acquisitions folks have had a tendency to demand ever-increasing features to defeat enemies real and imagined.  This gets lost in the narrative of big, bad defense contractors.  America must not only be smarter about buying but also in assessing the capabilities it needs.

Also lost in this conversation is the hemorrhaging of classified and/or confidential data from defense contractors that is pushing up prices not only in terms of reducing the cost of developing competing weapon systems but also enabling potential adversaries to produce better countermeasures to American weapons systems.  America must also be better about protecting its secrets.  Contractors deserve a fair share of the blame in this regard.

For all the talk of austerity, DoD is still spending quite a bit in Florida–$12 billion according to Carter. Florida is the fifth largest in terms of contracts spent among the states; $3.3 billion of those contracts are awarded to small businesses.

Carter also pointed to three key contributions of small businesses:  innovation, competition, and services provided at great value.  The two of these that warrant some expansion are “innovation” and “competition.”

“First, small businesses are a constant source of renewal and innovation for the defense industry,” Carter spoke. “We need to make ourselves attractive to young people, to new blood, to new ideas, if we’re going to continue to have the defense industry of the future that is as strong and as vibrant as it is today.  Small business is one of the ways that we get those new faces and new ideas.  In fact, it is the principal way.  Sometimes, those companies get bought up by our larger defense companies and that’s a good thing.  It’s a conveyor belt of new ideas and new faces in defense.”

“Second, small businesses add another source of competition, and competition is one of the principal ways we deliver value to the taxpayer and the warfighter,” he said.

Does it benefit the small contractor to team up or sell out to big firms?  Surely.  Do these monolithic firms purchasing smaller firms guarantee innovation and competition?  Absolutely not.  In this context, it is worth revisiting Senator Nelson’s remark I mentioned earlier.

Carter went on to explain that DoD was making efforts to make project managers more aware of small businesses’ capabilities as well as reduce barriers of entry for small business.  That all sounds good, certainly.

However, I remain skeptical having written about DoD’s risk aversion (as with the USMC’s IAR) and its tendency to reinvent the wheel when it comes to small firm’s contributions (as with MagPul’s PMAG).  In both cases, smaller firms were ignored in favor of larger ones.  (In the case of the USMC’s IAR, the Pentagon ignored multiple weapon systems designed and manufactured in America in favor of foreign companies.)

I asked Secretary Carter about the PEO’s “improved magazine” program.

“You mentioned that the Pentagon does not ‘make things,’ but PEO Soldier has recently developed an improved magazine for the M16/M4 system when a small business developed such a system in 2006 with the cooperation of the DoD, is in the supply chain, and has been combat-tested.  What message does this send to small businesses?”

Carter replied, “I am not familiar with this individual program, but it is certainly not playing to our strengths.  I don’t want to make a habit of it, because small business does it better.”

Is it too much to expect the soon-to-be Deputy Secretary of Defense to know about this one program in the million-dollar as opposed to billion-dollar range?  Perhaps.  Is the “Improved Magazine” representative given the more than $3 billion investment in Florida small businesses?  That remains to be seen, but the big firm focus for the small business summit does concern me.

What the PEO program and Carter’s unawareness of it does tell me is that the Pentagon is not examining its small business practices closely enough.

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According to Matthew Cox’s piece “Corps to Replace SAW With Automatic Rifle,” the commandant of United States Marine Corps General James Amos has approved Heckler and Koch’s M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle for full fielding to all infantry battalions:

Marine infantry squads will replace their M249 light machine gun with a highly accurate, auto rifle geared for fast-moving assaults. In late May, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, approved a plan to field the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle to all Marine infantry battalions.

The lightweight auto rifle, made by Heckler & Koch, is a variant of the 5.56mm H&K 416. It weighs just under eight pounds unloaded — almost 10 pounds less than the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon.

The decision comes after the Corps fielded 458 M27s to five battalions as they prepared for upcoming deployments to Afghanistan.

“We wanted to get through the limited fielding and get the feedback before we moved ahead with the full fielding,” said Charles Clark III, who oversees infantry weapons requirements at the Corps’ Combat Development and Integration office in Quantico, Va.

“The decision is made. It’s happening,” Clark said.

Program officials plan to spend about $13 million to field all 4,476 M27s by late summer 2013, Clark said. In addition to the guns, that money also pays for spare parts, tools and gauges, he said.

As I have written, the long procurement process has not been without controversy.  However, the anecdotal reports I have heard indicate that H&K’s rifle has performed well in its limited fielding so far.  What remains to be seen is how the entire system–including optic, magazines, and other accessories–will perform.  Trijicon’s TA11SDO, which had been employed on the M249 SAW, will be transfered to IARs; questions remain if its reticle will be well-suited to the IAR and its very different tactical philosophy.  Moreover, there is the issue of existing 30-round magazines.  Due different mag well dimensions, the M27 is also incompatible with MagPul’s PMAG.

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The Program Executive Office Soldier, or PEO Soldier, is a organization within the U. S. Army responsible for rapid development and fielding of technologies that support soldiers.  That is a noble mission no doubt, but my gripe with PEO Soldier is they invest time and money to develop technologies that private companies have already been fielded and that warfighters have battle-tested.  Case in point:  the U. S. Army improved magazine:

The Army has begun fielding the new 5.56mm 30 round Improved Magazine that delivers a significant increase in reliability for the battle-tested M16 and M4 weapons systems. Bolstering the already high reliability ratings of the M16/M4 systems, the Improved Magazine effectively reduces the risk of magazine-related stoppages by more than 50 percent compared to the older magazine variants. Identified by a tan-colored follower, over 500,000 of the improved magazines have been fielded to units in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the U.S.

“With the improved magazines, we’re taking weapons reliability up another notch,” said LTC Chris Lehner, Product Manager Individual Weapons. “By incorporating a heavier, more corrosion resistant spring, along with a new follower design that does not tilt inside the casing, our engineers were able to develop a magazine that presents a round to the weapon with even greater stability. Increased magazine reliability results in overall improved weapon system performance.”

Sounds great, right?  There’s only one problem.  MagPul Industries already developed such a magazine–the PMAG (PDF)–in 2006 and released it in 2007.  Since that time, the PMAG has been continuously improved, gaining a reputation for strength and reliability among civilian, law enforcement, and military users.  The thing is even strong enough to get run over by a truck.  (If one private company is not enough for you, TangoDown has its own high-reliability magazine, the ARC Magazine, which was released in 2009.)  To compound matters, the PMAG is in the military supply chain with its own NATO stock number.

Besides this obvious oversight, PEO Solder’s multimedia folks need a refresher on basic small arms operation:

[Apparently, PEO Soldier Live pulled the video.  No hard feelings! –Editor]

Catch the error?  As Lightfighter member XGEP quipped, “Well there’s your problem… you’re firing the whole cartridge out of the barrel!”  Already at a credibility deficit from “reinventing the wheel,” PEO Soldier takes another hit from a poor presentation.  I have written that those who design weapons could benefit from a humanities point of view; the same is true for humanities folks who are short on experience operating weapons.  There are few people who see both sides of the equation.  (And look!  Here’s one that needs a job!)

However, this is old, old news.  What reminds me of this sad tale?  While jonesing for some Portal 2, I came across this hilarious promotion video:

As Aperature CEO Cave Johnson (J. K. Simmons) lists the advantages of his company’s death-dealing robotic turret, he answers an age-old question:  “How do we get so many bullets in ’em?  Like this!  Plus, we fire the whole bullet.  That’s 65% more bullet per bullet.”  Perhaps, PEO Soldier was finally ahead of the curve!  I can’t help but think the people who put this video together had that silly PEO Soldier video in mind.

Be sure to pause on the “tech specs” of that turret.  There are some funny components including a “empathy generator” and a “empathy suppressor.”  I also had a good laugh at the roughly-multicam turret who says, “I’m different.”  Well done, Valve.  Well done.

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Unfortunately, my research (and a thinly-stretched travel budget) prohibited me from attending SHOT Show 2010 in Las Vegas.  However, I have come across a few announcements here and there that caught my attention.  First and foremost are a few new high-capacity box magazines, which might be good candidates for the IAR.  As I mentioned before, I am not sold on drum magazines.  In fact, a RPK-like box magazine might be just what future IAR gunners need.

The first, and perhaps best, candidate is a 40-round version of Magpul’s well-respected PMag.  There are photos and some preliminary thoughts on the Military Times’ Gear Scout page.  When you check out the new magazine, be sure to take notice of the hilarious “Hello, Kitty”-like rollmark on the rifle.

40-Round PMag

Image Courtesy of Stickman

The next potential candidate I saw in this month’s issue of American Rifleman, which features an article on various magazines for the AR15/M16 system. Lancer Systems has announced a 48-round L5 Competition magazine.

Lancer L5 Magazine

Image Courtesy of Lancer Systems

L5 Magazine in Action

Image Courtesy of Lancer Systems

The L5 Competition is being pitched to 3-Gun competitors, but it may be useful for the IAR or similar type weapons.

For those unfamiliar with the IAR concept, advocates of the weapon system have called for a re-thinking of “suppressive fire” laid down by M249 SAW gunners. The argument is that unaimed fire does little to deter the enemy and that the only true “suppressed” enemy is a dead one, so a Marine armed with the IAR ought to focus on aimed, lower rate fire. Given this, one might argue that high capacity box or drum magazines are unneeded in the first place. At least to me, “aimed suppressive” firing seems like an issue of training rather than new technology, but the concept holds promise.

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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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Sharon Weinberger at Danger Room has found another gem, “Blackwater mixes business glitz with military grit (AP).” Labeled by some as mere “mercenaries,” Blackwater Worldwide has made a name for itself as a security contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan attracting both positive and negative attention. The company intends to expand upon its present services–plans which may include developing a high-tech “care package” for American soldiers serving in Afghanistan:

Blackwater recruiter James Overton is working on packing a Microsoft Xbox video-game console, modem, TV projector and “Guitar Hero” video game into a kit that can be kicked out of a Blackwater cargo plane and dropped to troops in Afghanistan.

“When I was in Baghdad, we’d bring soldiers over to our camp over there, and we’d play this thing for hours on end,” Overton said. “Every (military) place I’ve ever been to overseas, they’ve got like backgammon and Parcheesi and chess, and they’re all gathering dust. But this is the stuff they play at home. And any semblance of home we can give them is best.”

Blackwater has been a popular target for critics of the war who point to the company as the worst kind of war profiteering.  (Among them is presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama who reportedly contracted Blackwater for security on his recent tour of Iraq and Afghanistan.) Despite the negativity towards the company today, the article makes the case for some of the creative and cost-efficient ways private enterprise can support the military, diplomatic, and humanitarian goals.

Among its other missions, Blackwater enjoys a reputation for some of the best small arms training in the United States, catering to military, law enforcement, and civilian clients.  In one photographs included with the article, one of Blackwater’s instructors stands with his M4A1-type rifle. This image shows many of the small but notable companies at the forefront of small arms design:

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

The rifle’s pistol grip and vertical foregrip (VFG) are products of TangoDown, a California-based company whose products have found favor with military and law enforcement.  (“Tango down” is an expression to indicate a target–read “enemy combatant”–has been killed.)  LaRue Tactical, located in Texas, manufactures the rear sight and optics mount on the rifle, which have become popular due to their “quick-detach” design. The rifle’s magazine is another new design, developed by Magpul Industries, addressing a weak point for the M16 family of rifles. (Cultural critics and patriotic souls alike will enjoy–for different reasons, perhaps–the interplay of photography, quotations, and the occasional sardonic remark on Magpul’s website.)  While their names might be as familiar as larger arms contractors, these companies have used new materials and designs to augment existing weapon systems in very significant ways, making a substatial mark in small arms design and practice.

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