Before I even dive into this I’ve got to say that I’d really like to see the US military adopt a new pistol. However, having watched the process to replace the M9 stutter step for almost a decade, I’m a bit skeptical. First it was USSOCOM, then the Air Force took a shot at the issue, and now the Army is trying to find a new sidearm. I’ve read through the Request For Proposals but I’m not going to pick it apart. There are quite a few great concepts in there and I love the fact that they are doing full size as well as compact models out of the gate in addition to suppressors. There’s even consideration for UTM rounds and some creative thinking regarding the use of ‘Special Purpose’ aka hollow point ammunition. All awesome. But for me, the most troubling issue is this open caliber business. In my mind, it calls the entire enterprise into question.
The Army is so thorough in describing the attributes for this new pistol that this open caliber provision makes me wonder if they really want a new pistol at all. Lately, we’ve seen some solicitations, such as Individual Carbine, that have resulted in a big expenditure in dollars by industry with no adoption of new capability by the military. Interestingly, in the case of IC, the Army also included a provision for industry to introduce new ammunition (caliber as well as load) into the mix, and we know how that ended up.
At the heart of issue are the XM1152 and XM1153 cartridges discussed in the RFP. They are placeholders for industry to propose ammunition. No matter that the industrial base that produces our military’s ammo is set up for 9mm Ball ammo or that we belong to a club called NATO that considers 9mm Ball its standard sidearm round.
The current 9mm Ammunition stockpile will most assuredly be an issue as the bean counters consider the transition to a new round. Take for example the USMC’s Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon II program. Since they already had so many rounds of ammunition on hand, they were unable to consider a new weapon such as the M84 Carl Gustav, in use with the US Army and USSOCOM. Ironically, the SMAW II is incapable of firing from an enclosure so the Marines are at work to develop a such a round. To add insult to injury, the ‘Goose” has ammunition that can be fired from inside a building but they couldn’t consider it because they had too many SMAW rounds.
Do They Even Know What They Want?
We can’t even have a discussion about the technical merits of the Army’s decision for a new caliber, because they haven’t made one. Instead, they’ve made it a variable in the search for a new handgun. When the Army changed to the M855A1 round for the M16, it cost around $100 Million to retool the ammo plant and they weren’t changing calibers, so even a swap to a new 9mm round is cost prohibitive. Plus, I doubt we’ll get NATO on board with a switch to a new handgun caliber.
I can’t even imagine what’s going through industry’s minds. It’s a bit of a mystery what the Army actually wants considering the mixed messages they are sending. Publicly, there’s been this running theme that 9mm isn’t powerful enough, in spite of the FBI’s move back to the caliber after several years with .40. And then there’s this requirement in the RFP specifying a barrel for the M1041 9mm UTM round, but they never reference caliber for the Ball and Special Purpose ammo in the requirement. Are they telling industry to stick with 9mm? Or do they want something new, but the pistol to be agile enough to accept a special barrel and magazine (not in the solicitation) only for the marker rounds?
Big Guns Need Big Hands
There’s an ergonomics question as well. The associated real estate needed for double stack pistols in larger caliber pistols is also an issue as the military opens combat jobs to women, who tend to have smaller hands.
Let’s not forget how USSOCOM’s Offensive Handgun Weapon System (OHWS) turned out. The .45 H&K MK 23 ended up being a great gun, but one that nobody wanted to carry.
First The Caliber, Then The Gun
This should have been a two step process. What should have happened is that DoD should have asked industry to determine the best ammunition based on its requirements and then asked industry to develop handguns optimized for that round(s). Now, the Army will have to figure out whether the handgun is what is great about a proposal, or the ammunition. These variables make the task of choosing a pistol infinitely more difficult. NATO standardization and current military ammunition industrial base aside, what if the Army selects a handgun/ammo combination that is just dynamite but then realizes it cannot afford to actually manufacture the ammo? Don’t think that could happen? Let me tell you a little story.
Those Who Fail To Learn From History…
After playing around with it for a few years, the US Army adopted the M16 in 1965. In doing so, they made a few upgrades to the rifle but they also, as a cost saving measure, decided to unilaterally change the powder used in the M16 from the original IMR 4475 powder, to the less difficult to produce Olin powder. While cheaper for the tax payer, this option ignited poorly, leaving the weapon dirty and requiring additional field maintenance. Combine this issue with weapons arriving in Viet Nam’s tropical environment with insufficient cleaning equipment and Soldiers found themselves with jammed weapons in the middle of firefights. This frightful situation resulted in dead American service members and a general sense among Soldiers that the M16 was unreliable.
I believe that, based on this insistence on open caliber selection, the Army will be unable to adequately determine which, if any, of the candidate handguns best fit their requirements. Or, they will choose a solution and then fix it until it breaks, as in the case of the original M16. In either event, how unfortunate for the American service member.