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By Scott R. Gourley

As these words are being written, dozens of contractor teams are positioning and preparing in anticipation of the upcoming U.S. Army “carbine competition” program. Envisioned as a potential replacement for the service’s M4 / M4A1 carbine, early indications are that the competition may feature up to 40 systems in upcoming tests.

The M4 and its possible replacement also provide representative examples of U.S. Army small arms systems that are being modified and enhanced to reflect the lessons learned on current battlefields.

An example of these lessons learned can be found in the recent fielding of the Army’s new M855A1, 5.56 x 45mm, round. As an enhanced version of the M855 5.56mm cartridge, used by U.S. troops since the early 1980s, the new round offers a higher velocity for more energy on target, improved hard-target capability, and greater accuracy and consistency for effectiveness at long range.

In late October 2010, ATK announced its receipt of orders from the U.S. Army’s Program Manager for Maneuver Ammunition Systems for nearly 300 million M855A1 rounds. ATK produced the initial 20 million rounds of M855A1, which were delivered to the troops in Afghanistan during 2010.

“This is a significant breakthrough in ammunition performance for America’s warfighters,” said Mark Hissong, ATK Small Caliber Systems Vice President and General Manager. “To ensure optimal performance, ATK and the Army put the EPR through the most rigorous and thorough test regime of any round we have ever produced. The result is the successful fielding of a high-performance round that is in theater today, and capable of providing superior firepower in any combat condition.”

Broad application of the new 5.56mm round also has implications for the upcoming solicitation for a possible M4 replacement. This was clearly reflected in the 24 November 2010 announcement by the U.S. Army Contracting Command (ACC) Joint Munitions & Lethality Contracting Center, Picatinny Arsenal, NJ, on behalf of the Program Manager for Soldier Weapons, for an “M855A1 Familiarization Shoot and Army under-barrel lethality attachments Compatibility Check for all potential Individual Carbine (IC) Competition weapon candidates.”

“The purpose of this Familiarization Shoot and Compatibility Check is to allow all vendors an opportunity to better prepare their proposals for the future IC competition,” it read.

The government is prepared to provide a total of 10,080 rounds (six cases) of M855A1 EPR for the upcoming Familiarization Shoot, which will be held at H.P. White Laboratory in Maryland.

In addition to the voluntary Familiarization Shoot, a “non-firing” Compatibility Check will also be available for potential IC candidates with current Army under-barrel lethality attachments, the M320 Grenade Launcher and the M26 Modular Accessory Shotgun System.

According to the announcement, the first slot for the M855A1 Familiarization Shoot will be for three potentially consecutive days in a week during January thru March 2011. A second time slot will be given for one follow-up day during March thru May to allow for vendors to confirm any possible changes they have made to their weapons.

But the upcoming IC competition is just one of the pathways being pursued for the ubiquitous M4 / M4A1, with other recent and pending activities including a final production order of M4A1 models – bringing the Army to its full Authorized Acquisition Objective (AAO) of approximately 500,000 weapons, modification kit contracts to convert earlier M4s to M4A1 designs, and potential upgrades to bolts / bolt carriers as well as possible future changes to the operating system.

Just as the fielding of the M855A1 EPR, with its specific tactical performance enhancements, reflects recent combat lessons learned, so does the procurement of new manufacture M4A1 as well as upgrade of existing M4s to M4A1 configuration. Among the differ

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