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FN Gets New Army M4A1 Contract

At the end of last month the U.S. Army awarded FN Manufacturing, the U.S. owned company of FN Herstal, of Belgium a contract to upgrade M4 rifles to the new M4A1 standard. . FN Manfuacturing will do the work at their plant in South Carolina. The contract has a value of about $77 million if all options are executed.

UP to this contract all M4 production and other work had been done by Colt Defense. Over the last several years the Army has gone back and forth with this company on contracts and costs. The Army has also tried several times to purchase a weapon to replace the M16 and M4, which is basically a shortened version of that venerable rifle.

FN has already has had contracts with the U.S. military to make the M16 and recently M240 machine guns. They were also the initial producer of the M249 SAW.

The problem for Colt is that it may see one of its largest product lines move to other producers as time continues. This contract will just upgrade existing M4 rifles. The next contract may be for production moving to FN or another supplier. It may be a whole different system from Colt, FN or some other small arms company.

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Colt May Face World Without M4 Carbine Production

Since the mid-1960’s the United States and many of its allies have been using the M16 and variants as their standard rifle and small arm. Since the start of the Global War on Terror in 2001 the focus has switched to the M4 carbine version of the ubiquitous rifle. This is shorter then the standard M16 and was found more useful in the close encounters that U.S. Soldiers and Marines found themselves facing in Afghanistan and Iraq. The majority of those weapons have been made by Colt but now that may be changing.

Twice in the last twenty years the Army has tried to develop new rifles and both times were not able to proceed into production. The last attempt actually developed a weapon called the XM8 rifle which was made in limited quantities by Heckler & Koch and while the standard infantry weapon was not chosen to replace the M16/M4 the 25mm version has seen limited use in Afghanistan and the Army recently ordered more due to its success.

The M4 has received some criticism for its performance over the last ten years especially in Afghanistan. There have been claims that it jammed easily and did not provide the necessary combat performance. The Special Forces due to some issues went ahead and developed and purchased their own assault weapon, the SCAR. This is a product of FN Herstel and was the winner of a competition for a new rifle firing the standard 5.56mm round as well as a “H” version shooting a 7.62mm one as well.

Now it is being reported that the Army may try a two track approach to fixing some of these issues. First they are exploring having a new competition to develop a different small arm. This would be an open competition against a new set of requirements. It is expected that most of the weapons bid would be existing ones such as the SCAR.

The second track is transferring production of the M4 from Colt to a new company. The Army now owns the data rights to the design and is able to award any company a production contract. This used to be more common in the past but recently in order to save money the Defense Department has not always bought the design or rights to a system. A recent example of such a transfer is the move of the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) production from BAE Systems (BAE:LSE) to Oshkosh (OSK).

Colt is now facing a similar problem that now confronts BAE: the loss of one of their major products and revenue generators. Colt has reacted to the announced Army plans by ramping up their lobbying efforts to help Congress decide to keep the program with them.

It is an issue faced by many different programs as they reach the end of their lives. Is it cheaper and more effective to keep the existing system in production or better for the Defense Department to develop a new one and transition to a new supplier. One would think that with something as basic as a rifle there would be no need to change. While that is true there have been some incremental improvements in technology that lead to better performance including reliability, damage and rate of fire. The Army may want to look at these.

Certainly there is also a chance, as with the FMTV, where a new supplier might offer the same product at a better price and the Government must explore this option. What does seem sure is that Colt and the other small arms manufacturers across the world are ready for the U.S. to buy a new weapon if they really want one.

Photo from brian.ch’s Flickr photo stream.

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ATK to Make Special Rounds for Special Forces

The bullet being fired from a gun has dominated the battlefield since before the Civil War. The basic concept remains the same but there have been significant upgrades to accuracy, rate of fire and damage for the infantry small arm. Even though general weapons technology has remained the same since the end of World War II with the introduction of the modern assault rifle with its high rate of fire and smaller caliber then the standard single shot infantry rifle that does not mean there cannot continue to be incremental improvements to such technology.

Recently the U.S. Army went forward with its “green” bullet. This is a round that contains no lead and has less of an environmental footprint then older ammunition. It also offers performance improvements over the traditional rifle bullet used by the Americans and many of their allies.

Now the Navy has contracted with Alliant Techsystems (ATK), the company that manufactures much of the U.S. military ammunition and pyrotechnics, to produce a new bullet for Special Operations and Forces. The almost $50 million contract will see the manufacture of both 5.56mm and 7.62mm rounds for use in the Special Operations Combat Assault Rifle System (SCAR).

Reportedly the new bullet will have better accuracy, penetration and generate less of a muzzle flash. The last ten years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen the need for some changes to U.S. weapons due to the threat and conditions which have included close combat as well as high altitudes requiring different weapons, tactics and procedures. The benefits of less flash especially when fighting at night is obvious. If you are engaging dug in enemies or those in houses more penetration will also be a help.

The whole development of the SCAR made by FNUSA was to meet a requirement by the Special Operations Command (US SOCOM) due to their belief they needed something better then the standard M4 and M16 assault rifles used by the U.S. military. The SCAR is customizable in length and other attachments and comes in multiple barrel sizes.

If the fighting continues in Afghanistan and other parts of the world further improvements such as this ammo will continue until there occurs a whole paradigm shift in small arms to perhaps energy based weapons although that is not expected anytime soon.

Photo from The U.S. Army’s flickr photostream.

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Army Will Try to Replace the M4 Again?

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.

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