U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees some of America’s most elite forces, is exploring the possibility of having American companies manufacture Russian-designed weapons, such as the AK-47, that are ubiquitous in war zones.
First reported by the Tampa Bay Times, Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, posted a “sources sought” solicitation for non-standard weapons on a federal contracting site early last month. In April, the command posted a similar notice for non-standard weapon ammunition. The term “non standard” is used for weapons not frequently employed by the United States or its NATO allies.
“For this solicitation, we are exploring capabilities and capacity within [the United States’] industrial base to build the types of weapons many of our foreign partners use,” Navy Cmdr. Matt Allen, a SOCOM spokesman, said in an email.
SOCOM’s solicitation includes weapons such as the iconic “AK-47” rifle, a catchall designator for Kalashnikov-variant rifles designed to fire a certain type of ammunition and often identified by their distinctive curved magazines. Other weapons include the SVD, a unique looking sniper rifle that has likely killed thousands of U.S. troops since it was first introduced in the years leading up to the Vietnam War. Additionally, Russian medium and heavy machine guns as well as 14.5mm aircraft guns are included in the notice.
While the United States has sent American-made weapons to the Afghan military and Iraqi security forces, the presence of U.S. equipment in foreign hands can be problematic. Recently, U.S.-backed groups in Syria have been spotted with American equipment, including heavy machine guns and sniper rifles. Although likely more accurate than their Soviet-style counterparts, U.S. weapons can make the fighters carrying them targets for other factions.
Aside from standing out, U.S. weapons can also be difficult to maintain, prompting Special Operations Command and the CIA to procure and supply weapons that their allies are used to fighting with, such as Kalashnikovs. To do this, the U.S. government often contracts with smaller companies to buy and ship the weapons.
In 2015, Buzzfeed chronicled a $28 million contract given to a company called Purple Shovel to send weapons to U.S.-backed Syrian rebels. The contract ran into a myriad of problems after a Bulgarian company shipped faulty rocket-propelled grenades through Purple Shovel to SOCOM, Buzzfeed reported.
According to Allen, an American source for the weapons would be a “good use of taxpayer funds, while also delivering the weapons our partners not only need to fight extremists, but also the ones they know how to use, know how to fix and have the supplies to maintain.”
Producing the weapons in the United States would also allow the government to enforce greater control over their manufacture and distribution.
“Building them here would normalize transfers, make oversight easier, and prevent ad-hoc type arrangements like we’ve seen in the past” said Matt Schroeder, a senior researcher with Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research group that tracks weapons.
However, it still might be cheaper to buy them elsewhere. Weapons based on Mikhail Kalashnikov’s iconic design have been built and exported by dozens of countries during and after the Cold War. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rifle’s design was distributed to Eastern-bloc countries for manufacture, and only in recent years has Russia’s main arms exporter attempted to clamp down on copyright infringements.