After Army Boondoggles, Could the Marines Take the Lead on Small Arms Development?

    With the termination of the Interim Combat Service Rifle, the CSASS program on hold, and the XM25 CDTE dead and buried, many are wondering: When will the Army get its act together on small arms? Given the long history of Army program failures, though, maybe a better question would be: If the Army can’t take the lead on small arms development, who can?

    ICSR’s cancellation was a foregone conclusion, practically: The recent history of US Army small arms has been so ridden with program cancellations and competition terminations that, if small arms procurement were a game of craps, the dice would be loaded. ICSR is only the latest – dare I use the word? – boondoggle to come out of the Army in the past 15 years. In fact, out of tens if not hundreds of major small arms programs since 2002, only the M110 SASS, the Enhanced Performance Round, the M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle, and the M240L machine gun have born any significant fruit. The service’s history of failure extends further back and far afield than that, though. At the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Posture of the Department of the Army in May, Senator John McCain took the Army to task for its history of failed programs and wasted dollars:

    Can I just, uh, again, go back to this? Acquisition: Future Combat Systems $20 billion, Comanche $5.9 billion, Crusader $2.2 billion, [Armed Reconnaissance] Helicopter $500 million, Ground Combat Vehicle $1 billion, Distributed Common Ground System Army $3 billion, Joint Tactical Radio System $11 billion, and of course now we’re looking at this WIN-T debacle…

    …It’s hard for use to continue to fight for more money when we see six billion dollars wasted on one program!

    It is apparent that the Army cannot deliver logical small arms solutions to the warfighter. However, it may not have to. I believe I see an opportunity for the Marine Corps to take the lead on small arms development. Let’s consider that for a minute.

    Since the beginning of the Global War on Terror, the United States Marine Corps has demonstrated a willingness and ability to expediently tackle small arms problems. In concert with the Special Forces community, they developed and fielded the Mk. 318 SOST round ahead of the US Army’s M855A1 EPR round. They adopted the extremely reliable off the shelf Gen M3 PMag, while the US Army wasted time and money on the Enhanced Performance Magazine, which now appears to be a failure. They developed a framework for an entirely new weapon system, the IAR, conducted a competition, and selected a winner in a timely manner. One of the centerpieces of most grassroots small arms reform plans is an emphasis on training reform, and, while this has received little attention from the US Army, it has been the centerpiece of the USMC’s small arms program for over seven decades. The Marine Corps has not only maintained a superior 500 yard marksmanship qualification (compared to just 327 yards for the Army) in that time, but has continued to improve and augment it with no less than 6 tables of employment-centric evaluations and further doctrinal refinement, as well.

    The Marine Corps appears to have demonstrated a great willingness to cooperate, as well. While the Army has worn thin their relationship with the industry by ending program after program without any contracts, the Marine Corps has cultivated their relationships with manufacturers and technology developers through technology demonstrations and RFIs. Just this month, the Corps held a Marksmanship Technology Demonstration (MTD) in concert with Modern Day Marine 2017, bringing the industry’s latest offerings front and center before the Commandant of the Marine Corps and other high ranking officials and VIPs. With regard to their cooperation with the other services, the Marine Corps has compromised with the Army in favor of the (admittedly excellent) M855A1 EPR round, and has engaged with both US SOCOM and the US Air Force on small arms weapon solutions, including semiautomatic sniper rifles, machine guns, pistols, and carbines. With regard to this last, the USMC seems set to pick up where the Army left off with the stillborn M4A1+ upgrade program, if a recent RFI is indicative of their direction. This effort resembles the Upper Receiver Group program coming from US Army Special Operations Command, and coordination of the two efforts would make operational and logistical sense.

    Can the Marine Corps take the initiative and become the leader in small arms development and procurement among the US armed services? It seems as though not only could they, but their path to doing so would be very straightforward: It would take continued development and refinement of small arms techniques and technologies, coupled with strengthened synchronization with the US SOCOM, the other services, the industry, and Congress. This, coupled with characteristic Marine Corps leadership from generals Walsh, Neller, and Mattis, could allow the Corps to take the front seat in small arms modernization across all services. And with a Marine in the SecDef spot for the first time in history, the time has never been riper.

    Nathaniel F

    Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at [email protected]