(MILITARY TIMES) As of July 1, the Army has taken control of the design rights to the M4 carbine from its sole maker, Colt Defense LLC. Translation: With an uncertain budget looming, the service is free to give other gun companies a crack at a carbine contract.
The transition of ownership of the M4 technical data package marks the end of an era and Colt’s exclusive status as the only manufacturer of the M4 for the U.S. military for the past 15 years.
In late November, Army senior leadership announced the service’s intent to open a competition for a new carbine this fall in preparation for the June 30 expiration date of Colt’s hold on the M4 licensing agreement.
The Army is slated to finish fielding the last of its 473,000 M4 requirement some time next year.
Army weapons officials maintain that it’s good to have the option of inviting other gun companies to compete to make the M4 as it is now, if the need arises, said Col. Doug Tamilio, project manager for soldier weapons.
“We probably won’t do anything with it right now. … We have what we need,” Tamilio said. “The good news is we will own it now; that gives us the flexibility to do what we need it to do.”
Small-arms companies waiting for the chance to compete for the Army’s next carbine view Colt’s loss of the M4 TDP as a new beginning for the industry and for soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Now that the sole-source era is over, we hope to see free and open competition of any interim or long-term solution for the service rifle or carbine for the American soldier,” said Jason Schauble, vice president of the military products division of Remington. “Now there is a chance to get something better in the hands of the soldier. Why not do it? If Colt wins again, God bless them.”
Colt officials didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
Some in the small-arms industry say Colt’s 15-year control over the M4 is a natural part of the gun-making business.
“If a company designs and develops a product, they don’t do that for fun; they have a whole factory of people to feed,” said George Kontis, who is now the vice president of business development for Knights Armament Company but has worked for multiple small-arms firms since 1967.
“This is not anything new in history. It has always happened this way,” he said.
THE NEXT COMPETITION
For now, the Army is planning to begin a competition in October that could produce a new carbine by sometime in 2012, but there are no guarantees, weapons officials maintain.
Before that can happen, the Army’s updated carbine requirement — the document that lays out what the service wants in the future weapon — still has to clear the senior Army leadership and win joint approval, he said.
Funding is another uncertainty, he said. The Army can’t begin the request for proposal process this year if the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill doesn’t include the start-up costs for the venture, Tamilio said.
“I don’t need a lot of money,” Tamilio said. “I think it’s less than $10 million for fiscal year 2010. … It’s obviously tied into the president’s budget in 2010.”
Colt still owns the TDP for the M16 rifle, but its status as the sole supplier for the military ended in the late 1980s, when FN Manufacturing LLC won its first contract. The Army still uses versions of the M16, but stopped buying them when it decided to field M4s to all deploying combat units in 2006.
The M4 became the subject of congressional scrutiny in 2007 when lawmakers expressed concerned about whether soldiers had the best available weapon.
In November 2007, the weapon finished last in an Army reliability test against other carbines. The M4 suffered more stoppages than the combined number of jams by the other three competitors: the Heckler & Koch XM8; FNH USA’s Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle, or SCAR; and the H&K 416.
Army weapons officials agreed to perform the dust test after a July 2007 request by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Coburn took up the issue after a Feb. 26, 2007, Army Times report on moves by elite Army special operations units to ditch the M4 in favor of carbines they consider more reliable.
U.S. Special Operations Command decided to move away from the M4 in November 2004 when the command awarded a developmental contract to FN Herstal to develop its SCAR to replace its M4s and older M16s.
In November, gun makers from across the country attended an Army small-arms industry day in November designed to give weapons officials a look at what is available on the commercial market. There, Army Secretary Pete Geren announced that he had directed the Army’s Infantry Center at Fort Benning, Ga., to update the carbine requirement in preparation for a search for a replacement for the M4.
“If there are no significant issues, I think [the updated requirement] can move through” the Army validation process and receive the blessing of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, Tamilio said.
If that happens, the Army plans to release a draft request for proposal to the small-arms industry in October and a formal RFP early next year, weapons officials maintain.
The first round of testing will likely begin late next summer and last though summer 2011.
Once a weapon is selected in late fiscal 2011, weapons officials hope to have operational testing and a full rate-production decision by late summer in 2012, Tamilio said.
One of the most critical parts of this process will be the three to five months between the draft RFP and the release of the formal RFP, when the industry has the chance to digest and understand what the Army wants in a new carbine, he said.
“Those discussions we have with industry will be vital to getting the real RFP on the street and that should really make for a solid competition,” he said.