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Monday, March 14, 2011

Marine Corps watching Army carbine search

By Dan Lamothe - Staff writer
As the Army prepares for a two-year, $30 million competition to identify a possible new carbine, the Marine Corps is watching closely and evaluating what its own future weapons should look like.

Marine officials still plan the service’s infantry weapons around the 5.56mm M16A4 service rifle, but “that doesn’t mean we can’t be getting smart” about other options, said Lt. Col. Mark Brinkman, head of the infantry weapons program at Quantico, Va.-based Marine Corps Systems Command.

“The thought process for us is very similar to what’s going on in the Army,” he said Feb. 1 at the Soldier Technology U.S. conference in Arlington, Va.

The Army released a draft request for proposals for its carbine competition Jan. 31. The desired weapon must “support future system enhancements for accuracy, lethality, reliability, signature suppression, ammunition improvements, maintenance and other weapon/accessory technologies,” the RFP said. No caliber restrictions were set in the document.

The Army intends to issue up to three indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts in a three-phase competition, said Army Col. Douglas Tamilio, project manager for soldier weapons. The Army will assess whether submissions can be mass-produced in the U.S. in the first phase. The second phase calls for the firing of at least 700,000 rounds, with the Army whittling competitors down to three rifles or fewer for a final third phase.

Soldiers will fire 850,000 rounds in phase three, compiling reams of data for the Army. The weapons will be tested to their destruction point to determine whether they maintain accuracy through their entire life cycle — something the military has not tested before.

To win a mass-production contract, the winning company also must exceed the ability of the M4A1 currently fielded in Afghanistan. Army officials have launched an aggressive campaign to enhance the M4A1, with a heavier, more durable barrel; strengthened sight rails; a piston-charged operating system and the ability to fire in full-automatic mode.

“We’re going to say, ‘Here’s weapon X that won the competition,’” Tamilio said, speaking at the same conference. “Is it worth buying it instead of using the M4A1?”

The competition leaves Marine officials playing the waiting game. With its massive size and budget, the Army can afford to test options the Corps cannot. If they like what they see, Marine officials could adopt the solution the Army identifies, at least to replace the Corps’ existing arsenal of M4s.

Nearly all infantry soldiers use M4s, but in the Corps, they are fielded primarily to vehicle operators and other Marines whose jobs render the M16A4 too cumbersome. The trade-off is accuracy and stopping power, of which the M16A4’s longer 20-inch barrel offers more. The M4 has a 14.5-inch barrel, making it difficult for service members to take down targets beyond 200 yards.

Brinkman said the Corps eventually has tough choices to face about its rifles, like whether fielding a new weapon, or a family of new weapons, makes more sense.

Advancements in the weapons industry also may allow the Corps to explore debates it had put aside, like whether it should replace its arsenal of rifles with more powerful 7.62mm rifles. Fielding weapons chambered for larger ammunition has been debated for years, but the Corps hasn’t swapped because the weapon’s larger recoil affects accuracy, Brinkman said. Industry may eventually develop a convincing way to mitigate the recoil and get the Corps’ attention, he said.

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