With today being the US Army’s 238th birthday, it seemed especially appropo to have been invited to phone in for the PEO Soldier Media De-Brief on the, now concluded, Improved Carbine Competition.
I’m not going to go into the full back-ground to the Improved Carbine Competition (ICC) – as its been covered extensively elsewhere – but I will start by clarifying / highlighting a few of pertinent points:
- the M4A1 was not included in this test regime – not even as a baseline comparator
- competitors were free to enter rifles in any caliber they wanted to, but all submitted test rifles were chambered for standard 5.56 x 45mm ammunition (competitors would have had to supply their own ammunition for the testing if they submitted a rifle in a different caliber)
- the baseline requirement of 3,592 Mean Rounds Between Stoppages (MRBS) was taken from the M4A1′s tested performance using M855 ball ammunition
- initially, the ICC requirement stipulated performance criteria using M855 ammunition – this was later changed to the M855A1 round
- in the Army’s tests leading up to the issuing of the M855A1 ammunition, the M4A1 has achieved an MRBS result of 1,691 (thanks to SSD for verifying this figure) using this ammunition – much less than the MRBS result of 3,592 required of the ICC participants
- finally, the performance of the M4A1 continues to be measured against the original requirements published in 1990 – bear this in mind when you hear the Army state that the M4A1 “meets requirements” – and by the way, the MRBS figure in those req’s is 600
So, what was the Army looking for with the ICC? Apart from some rather out there sounding objectives, like “hyper burst”, the Army basically wanted to see if there was an industry solution that would provide a marked improvement over the current M4A1 in the following categories:
- increased range
- increased lethality
- increased accuracy
- increased reliability
And you’d be right to question how they could achieve the range and lethality objectives without a caliber change, or the accuracy objectives without either an ammunition or sighting system change. So, it basically came down to a question of reliability – as measured by Mean Rounds Between Stoppages – and this is where none of the competitors managed to meet the baseline requirement of 3, 592.
When I asked the question of why none of the submitted rifles were in a different caliber – such as 6.5mm Grendel, 6.8mm SPC, .300 Blackout, or even 7.62mm NATO – I got the reply that I’d have to ask the vendors that question. But whilst that would certainly be the best sources for a full response, industry insiders that I’ve spoken with have said that it was clear from the start that the Army wasn’t interested in any other calibers at this point because it would introduce too many variables into the equation. Fair enough, but I seriously doubt that the “caliber question” is going to go away anytime soon. The Army’s ammunition decision-makers may be satisfied with the M855A1 round at the present time – but how many other times through-out the AR platform’s life-cycle have they been “satisfied” with the current ammo – only to improve it again later?
The other point that generated a lot of questions and discussion during the media briefing was the following statement in yesterday’s press release:“Based upon Army analysis, test results may have been affected by interaction between the ammunition, the magazine and the weapon. The Army’s existing carbine requirement assumed use of the M855 ammunition; the weapons tested in the IC competition all fired the next generation M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round (EPR) currently in fielding. The use of the M855A1 round likely resulted in lower than expected reliability performance. These effects are unique to testing conditions and are not known to affect the reliability of any weapon in the operational environment.” (emphasis added – Strike-Hold!)
Army officials reinforced repeatedly today their position that the M855A1 is a proven and “soldier-accepted” round, and that in other tests there have not been any unacceptable issues in the M4A1′s performance with this ammo. Remember though that the M4A1′s MRBS result with the M855A1 is 1,691 – nowhere near the 3,592 MRBS result demanded of the ICC participants.
Army officials also stated repeatedly, and emphatically, that further in-depth forensic analysis of the data needs to be conducted on each of participants’ rifles in order to determine the exact nature and cause of the stoppage issues that caused them all to fail. They also stated that those findings would be proprietary and only shared with the companies that participated in the competition.
So, where does this leave things now? The definite concrete outcomes are that the Individual Carbine Competition has been concluded, not cancelled, because none of the competitors achieved the baseline performance required in order to progress to the next phase of the program. What’s also certain is that the Army will continue to proceed with the other arm of their “Dual-Path Strategy” – that is the upgrading of more than 400,000 M4 Carbine’s in the Army’s inventory to M4A1 standard with a heavier barrel and a full-auto (rather than 3-round burst) selector switch.
What is less clear is what the Army’s future path for a new rifle / carbine looks like – particularly in these times of budgetary pressures and the winding down of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Officials today repeated that they are only really interested in “leap ahead technology” – but didn’t elaborate all on what that might mean. Unfortunately, the US Army doesn’t exactly have a great track-record when it comes to “leap ahead” programs: remember the Future Rifle, SPIW, ACR and OICW programs? To say nothing of the political and technical quagmire that the XM-8 became… And what about LSAT?
So, in the end – the only certainty appears to be that the M4A1 will remain the US Army’s standard-issued, primary, individual weapon for quite some time to come. In the meantime, I’d suggest that the Army uses the funding that’s been freed up from the conclusion of the ICC program towards fielding an improved camouflage pattern uniform for the troops.