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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Army Is Aiming for the Next Generation Rifle

Posted by Mary Walsh
The United States Army is looking for a better rifle. It is asking manufacturers to come up with a new weapon to replace the M4 carbine, an upgraded version of the famous M16 - the rifle carried by American soldiers for the last 50 years.

"We're challenging industry to develop the next generation carbine," program manager Col. Doug Tamilio said in a statement. "We're looking forward to the results."

In a written statement, the Army said it hopes to come up with a weapon with "greater degrees of accuracy, reliability, durability and maintainability."

Manufacturers will submit designs and go through competitive testing before the final selection is made. New rifles won't go out to soldiers on the front lines for at least three years.

For retired Major General Bob Scales, an Army historian, it is a competition that is about 40 years overdue. The M16 and the newer M4, he says, have been plagued with problems. They're known to jam and overheat in the gritty conditions of the frontlines.

According to Scales, after action reports from the 2008 battle of Wanat - where nine Americans were killed when their remote Afghan combat outpost was nearly overrun by enemy - U.S. soldiers were found dead, slumped over jammed rifles.

"We would never accept the second best jet fighter or aircraft carrier," Scales says. The Pentagon's acquisition system "is all focused on buying big ticket items" while hundreds of thousands of soldiers shoulder rifles with few if any upgrades.

"Slightly more than 40 years ago my unit was butchered by elements from the North Vietnamese 29th Regiment," Scales wrote in a recent article for the Armed Forces Journal. He contrasted his Vietnam experience with the fighting in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan -- combat which was brought to the big screen in the film "Restrepo."

"Same lousy rifle (M16/M4)," Scales wrote, "Same helicopter (CH-47), same machine gun (M2), same young men trying to deal with the fear of violent death."

"Seared in my brain," he continued, "is the image of a young soldier at Fire Base Restrepo hacking away at hard clay and granite trying frantically to dig a fighting position. The U.S. is spending more than $300 billion on a new fighter plane . . . Why after nine years of war can't we give a close-combat soldier a better way to dig a hole."

While there's no indication the Army has any plans for a new shovel, efforts to come up with a new M16 are sure to be closely watched. The rifle may not be a big ticket item, but soldiers have a visceral tie to their weapon. It keeps them alive in close combat.

Mary Walsh is a CBS News Pentagon producer based in Washington.

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