The Future of the M4 Carbine

24Jun08

I’m going to take a brief break from all the History stuff to talk about guns: the M4 carbine, in particular, which is now the de facto weapon of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The final chapter in American Rifle — if you’d like to know more about the book, navigate over to my website at www.alexrose.com — focuses on the intense debate of the last several years as to what rifle should replace the venerable, Vietnam-era M16 (the story of which, of course, is also covered in the book).

Steve Johnson over at The Firearm Blog (“Firearms not Politics”) notices the following report in Aviation Week:

In a briefing at Eurosatory show in Paris last week, the head of the U.S. Army’s Program Executive Office Soldier, Brig. Gen. Mark Brown, wasn’t exactly bubbling with enthusiasm when discussing the Army’s Colt-manufactured M4 carbine, though he tempered his skepticism of the gun with enough praise to soften the edges.  

“Right now the M4 carbine is a world class weapon,” he said, before adding, “my personal opinion is that we have to step up to a new carbine with a more lethal round.” It was an interesting admission on Brown’s part, since some have criticized the M4’s 5.56 round as not having enough stopping power, and its habit of jamming if not constantly cleaned. This comes in the context of a wider debate over the future of the M4 as the Army’s carbine of choice, especially since many people, including the Delta Force and SEAL’s, have been singing the praises of the Heckler & Koch 416 carbine. BG Brown surely knows this, which is probably why he followed up with this:

“I don’t think we need an unhealthy, discordant debate over the current carbine because I don’t think the current carbine is a long-lived solution anyway. However, the M4 carbine has been continuously improved. It has 68 substantial engineering design changes and about 380 total engineering design changes, so it’s become a modular system. It’s very accurate, it’s the most accurate of the carbines, it’s the lightest of the carbines, and it’s the shortest of the carbines. We’re very pleased with it, and we expect it to be the Army’s carbine of record, for a little while.”

BG Brown said that next summer the Army expects to do “a full and open competition of at least the technical data package,” of the M4, “but maybe improvements beyond that. But I think that will be an interim step toward a new, more powerful carbine at a time to be determined.”

This is most interesting, and it would seem to indicate that the army will soon ditch the M4 in favor of either the HK416 or the SCAR (made for the U.S. Special Operations Command). I’m not so convinced, however. As I discuss at much greater length in the relevant chapter, there are several good reasons why I think the M4 won’t be going away anytime soon. 

The first is that the practical difficulties of switching over to a new rifle in the middle of a war are immense. Though the M4 has had some jamming difficulties, many of which seem to be able to be quite easily fixed, it is built on a proven platform and soldiers appear to like it a lot. As it is, hundreds of thousands of M4s worth hundreds of millions of dollars have already streamed, or are streaming, into the Middle East; this entire process would have to be reversed, at no little expense, if the M4 were to be replaced in the short-term. That’s not to say that Colt will always be the exclusive supplier of the weapon, and a competitor (when the contract comes up for renewing, in mid-2009, if I recall correctly) could well make some much-needed changes. Colt itself has begun refashioning its product a bit for precisely this reason, as well as in response to a series of tests that exposed several mechanical issues. But the point is, the gun will remain essentially the same, just upgraded and modified.

A second reason is that the SCAR and HK416 were both developed for use by small-scale Special Operations units, not by Big Green. “They can buy 50; we have to buy 50,000,” one army official has said. The extra production capacity needed to manufacture the required exponential increase will take years to come online. Moreover, a specialist firearm that is suitable for SOCOM or Delta Force is not necessarily the best one for general army use. 

There’s also the political factor to consider. At the moment, Iraqi security forces are carrying M16s and M4s; before that, they were armed with the usual AK-47s and were jealous of the better-equipped Americans. These are the very troops and police that Washington is hoping will keep the peace once the withdrawal happens. Should U.S. troops now start walking around with SCARs and HK416s, Iraqis will inevitably come to believe that their M4s and M16s are shoddy hand-me-downs and feel that a con was played on them. Morale could suffer, having an adverse impact on local military operations. 

What I think Brigadier General Brown was hinting at was not that there’s a short-term plan to swap out the M4 for some other rifle. This was not, I think, a bolt from out of the blue. He was, in fact, adhering to a long-standing army reliance on a quantum technological breakthrough to kickstart the next generation of weaponry. Without such a breakthrough, what would be the point of junking the M16 and M4? They work fine as it is, and you’d only end up replacing them with something fractionally better. 

Let’s face it, we are reaching the beginning of the end of the road in terms of current rifle development. The qualitative, statistical, and operational differences between the various top-of-the-line military rifles are nowadays minute. We can tweak performance only by so much. The M4 is intended to tide things over until the revolution happens. What the breakthrough might consist of is an open question, but it’s probably something to do with light, strong new materials, the addition of serious computing power to the firearm itself, and perhaps a new type of ammunition.

Now, Colonel Robert Radcliffe, the director of the Infantry Center’s Directorate of Combat Developments, recently said that he thought “we should have enough insight into future technologies” around 2010 to “take us in a direction we want to go for the next generation of small arms.” We should be careful, however, not to bet the mortgage on 2010 as the date of the Great Leap Forward. Buried round the back of the Pentagon is a mass grave filled with failed futuristic projects (anyone remember the doomed Advanced Combat Rifle of the 1980s, or the more recent OICW — Objective Individual Combat Weapon — program?), and it’s perfectly possible that this one will share their fate. I hope not, but it might. 

We’ll just have to see, though my money is on the M4 — or more specifically, a revised version of the M4 — sticking around for some time to come.

 

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com



2 Responses to “The Future of the M4 Carbine”


  1. 1 Toying With Guns « The History Man
  2. 2 New Reviews, Part 2 — Kirkus Reviews « The History Man

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