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, Conn., 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," says 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 like 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," says 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," says 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 totally new weapon.
"We haven't made up our mind yet," Radcliffe says.
William Keys, Colt's chief executive officer, says 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," says 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 non-profit research group surveyed 2,600 soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and found 89 percent were satisfied with the M4. While Colt and the Army have trumpeted that finding, detractors say the survey also revealed that 19 percent of these soldiers had their weapon jam during a firefight.
And the relationship between the Army and Colt has been frosty at times. Concerned over the steadily rising cost of the M4, the Army forced Colt to lower its prices two years ago by threatening to buy rifles from another supplier. Prior to the warning, Colt "had not demonstrated any incentive to consider a price reduction," then-Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, an Army acquisition official, wrote in a November 2006 report.
Coburn is the M4's harshest and most vocal critic. But his concern is shared by others, who point to the "SCAR," made by Belgian armorer FN Herstal, and the HK416, produced by Germany's Heckler & Koch, as possible contenders. Both weapons cost about the same as the M4, their manufacturers say.
The SCAR is being purchased by U.S. special operations forces, who have their own acquisition budget and the latitude to buy gear the other military branches can't.
"All I know is, we're not having the competition, and the technology that is out there is not in the hands of our troops," says Jack Keane, a former Army general who pushed unsuccessfully for an M4 replacement before retiring four years ago.
Development of the carbine was driven by a need for a weapon that could be used in tight spaces but still had plenty of punch. Colt's answer was the 7 1/2-pound M4.
In 1994, Colt was awarded a no-bid contract to make the weapons. Since then, it has sold more than 400,000 to the U.S. military.
Along the way, Colt's hold has been threatened but not broken.
In 1996, a Navy office improperly released Colt's M4 blueprints, giving nearly two dozen contractors a look at the carbine's inner workings. Colt was ready to sue the U.S. government for the breach. The company wanted between $50 million and $70 million in damages.
Cooler heads prevailed. The Defense Department didn't want to lose its only source for the M4, and Colt didn't want to stop selling to its best customer.
The result was an agreement that made Colt the sole player in the U.S. military carbine market. FNMI, an FN Herstal subsidiary in South Carolina, challenged the deal in federal court but lost.
And since the Sept. 11 attacks, sales have skyrocketed.
The Army, the carbine's heaviest user, is outfitting all its front-line combat units with M4s. The Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and special operations forces also carry M4s. So do U.S. law enforcement agencies and militaries in many NATO countries.
More than $300 million has been spent on 221,000 of the carbines over the past two years alone. And the Defense Department is asking Congress to provide another $230 million for 136,000 more.
A few years ago, the Army considered buying a brand-new carbine called the XM8. Designed by Heckler & Koch, the XM8 was touted as less expensive and more reliable than the M4. The project became bogged down by bureaucracy, however, and was canceled in 2005.
Keane, the retired Army general, blames a bloated and risk-averse bureaucracy for the XM8's demise.
"This is all about people not wanting to move out and do something different," Keane says. "Why are they afraid of the competition?"
Within military circles there are M4 defectors. U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., was one of the carbine's first customers. But the elite commando units using the M4 soured on it; the rifle had to be cleaned too often and couldn't hold up under the heavy use by Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs.
"Jamming can and will occur for a variety of reasons," concluded an internal report written seven years ago by special operations officials but never published. "Several types of jams, however, are 'catastrophic' jams; because one of our operators could die in a firefight while trying to clear them."
Pointing to the report's unpublished status, Colt has disputed its findings. The M4 has been continually improved over the years, says Keys, the company's chief executive.
Special Operations Command is replacing the M4s and several other rifles in its arsenal with FN Herstal's SCAR, which comes in two models: one shoots the same 5.56 mm round as the M4; the other a larger 7.62 mm bullet and costs several hundred dollars more. Both SCARs can accommodate different-size barrels allowing the weapons to be fired at multiple ranges.
The SCARs are more accurate, more reliable and expected to last far longer than their predecessors, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Marc Boyd, a command spokesman.
"SOCOM likes to be different," says Keys of Colt, using the acronym for the command. "They wanted something unique."
With the SCAR not yet in full-scale production, Heckler & Koch's HK416 is being used by elite units like Delta Force, the secretive anti-terrorism unit. The command would not comment on the HK416 other than to say there are "a small number" of the carbines in its inventory.
A key difference between the Colt carbine and the competitors is the way the rounds are fed through the rifle at lightning speed.
The SCAR and HK416 use a gas piston system to cycle the bullets automatically. The M4 uses "gas impingement," a method that pushes hot carbon-fouled gas through critical parts of the gun, according to detractors. Without frequent and careful maintenance, they say, the M4 is prone to jamming and will wear out more quickly than its gas-piston competitors.
"A gas piston system runs a little bit smoother and a lot cleaner," says Dale Bohner, a retired Air Force commando who now works for Heckler & Koch. "If the U.S. military opened up a competition for all manufacturers, I see the 416 being a major player in that."
Outside of Special Operations Command, there seems to be no rush to replace the M4.
Brig. Gen. Mark Brown, head of the Army office that buys M4s and other combat gear, traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan last summer to get feedback from soldiers on Colt's carbine.
"I didn't hear one single negative comment," Brown says. "Now, I know I'm a general, and when I go up and talk to a private, they're going to say everything's OK, everything's fine. I said, 'No, no, son. I flew 14,000 miles out here to see you on the border of Afghanistan. The reason I did that was to find out what's happening."'
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., says the troops may not be aware of the alternatives. He wants the Pentagon to study the options and make a decision before Congress does.
"Sen. Coburn has raised a good question: 'Do we have the best personal weapon?' And I don't know that we do," Sessions said. "We're not comfortable now. Let's give this a rigorous examination."