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There are reports that the U.S. Army is about to begin a new competition to develop a standard small arm and rifle for use by their soldiers. If history holds true due to the relative size of the Army the Marines and other services will also adopt whatever weapon is chosen. The current M4 is a derivative of the M16 which has been in service since Vietnam and is manufactured by Colt Defense LLC.
The Army spent most of a decade working on a M16 replacement and actually reached a point where the XM8 was ready for limited production before deciding to cancel that program and start over. The XM8 was made by Heckler & Koch (H&K) and use the same ammunition as the M16. It was intended to be lighter, more reliable and cheaper to manufacture.
One of the plans was to have a 25 mm gun mounted under the main barrel that could fire High Explosive (HE) rounds that were designed to detonate above or behind enemy in cover. The Army was forced to make this a separate weapon due to weight issues and is actually going forward with it as the XM25. It will be issued on a selective basis at an individual soldier level.
There have been complaints about the the M4′s performance and reliability in dusty conditions. This led the Army to conduct special tests comparing the weapon in 2007 to the XM8, the SCAR which was a rifled developed and used by U.S. Special Forces and a standard H&K modern assault rifle. Reports were that the M4 did poorly in the test. Unfortunately the Army had no replacement and continued to use the M4 with emphasis on cleaning and care in the field by soldiers. Interestingly the M16 suffered from the same problem when it was introduced as documented by James Fallows in his book National Defense and went on to have a successful career.
There are no shortage of existing designs that could be used by the U.S. Army that might provide a significant improvement over the M4. The SCAR is manufactured by the European company FN in the U.S. for Special Forces use. It uses the 5.56 mm round and comes in different lengths and colors as most of the stock is plastic.
The Army plans to have a series of competitions utilizing an approach similar to that which was used for the successful MRAP-ATV program. The hope is to choose a new design and have it enter production by 2014. Based on past history that is probably optimistic. The Army has has struggled with replacing the M16 as the XM8 and its predecessor program, the Objective Infantry Combat Weapon (OICW), demonstrate. Certainly there have been incremental increases in technology that the Army should take advantage of when it issues weapons to its troops.
Photo from Mini D’s Flickr Photostream.