Reliability, Cost of U.S. Forces' Standard Rifle Under Scrutiny

Outfitted with thermal imaging and a video camera, this M4 is hardly primitive. But some say the Colt rifle is an overpriced underperformer.
Outfitted with thermal imaging and a video camera, this M4 is hardly primitive. But some say the Colt rifle is an overpriced underperformer. (By Kirtsy Wigglesworth -- Associated Press)
By Richard Lardner
Associated Press
Sunday, April 27, 2008

HARTFORD, Conn. -- No weapon is more important to tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than the carbine rifle. And for well over a decade, the military has relied on one company, Colt Defense of Hartford, to make the M4s they trust with their lives.

Now, as Congress considers spending millions more on the guns, this exclusive arrangement is being criticized as a bad deal for American forces as well as taxpayers, according to interviews and research conducted by the Associated Press.

"What we have is a fat contractor in Colt who's gotten very rich off our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

The M4, which can shoot hundreds of bullets a minute, is a shorter and lighter version of the company's M16 rifle, first used 40 years ago during the Vietnam War. At about $1,500 apiece, the M4 is overpriced, according to Coburn. It jams too often in sandy environments such as Iraq, he adds, and requires far more maintenance than more durable carbines.

"And if you tend to have the problem at the wrong time, you're putting your life on the line," said Coburn, who began examining the M4's performance last year after receiving complaints from soldiers. "The fact is, the American GI today doesn't have the best weapon. And they ought to."

U.S. military officials don't agree. They call the M4 an excellent carbine. When the time comes to replace the M4, they want a combat rifle that is leaps and bounds beyond what's currently available.

"There's not a weapon out there that's significantly better than the M4," said Col. Robert Radcliffe, director of combat developments at the Army Infantry Center in Fort Benning, Ga. "To replace it with something that has essentially the same capabilities as we have today doesn't make good sense."

Colt's exclusive production agreement ends in June 2009. At that point, the Army, in its role as the military's principal buyer of firearms, may have other gunmakers compete along with Colt for continued M4 production. Or it might begin looking for a new weapon.

"We haven't made up our mind yet," Radcliffe said.

William Keys, Colt's chief executive officer, said the M4 gets impressive reviews from the battlefield. And he worries that bashing the carbine will undermine the confidence the troops have in it.

"The guy killing the enemy with this gun loves it," said Keys, a former Marine Corps general who was awarded the Navy Cross for battlefield valor in Vietnam. "I'm not going to stand here and disparage the senator, but I think he's wrong."

In 2006, a nonprofit research group surveyed 2,600 soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and found 89 percent were satisfied with the M4. Colt and the Army have trumpeted that finding, but detractors point out that the survey also revealed that 19 percent of these soldiers had their weapon jam during a firefight.

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