The Army announced last week it was suspending its search for a new rifle to outfit all soldiers after program officials concluded none of the competitors trying to replace the current weapon offered a more reliable rifle for combat.
Now the $1.8 billion program sits in limbo, with the competitors weighing protest options and lawmakers steaming over what they see as the Army dragging its feet over finding a more modern alternative to the Vietnam-era M4 carbine.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., sent a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh earlier this week, criticizing the cancelation of what he says is an essential upgrade. He also pointed to inconsistencies in an Army that uses a decades-old rifle design, yet has changed its battle uniform three times since 2006.
"The Army continues to prioritize modernization of other non-essential equipment over its small arms," he wrote on Monday.
"If the rifle squad is the foundational element of the Army, and small arms are the rifleman's primary weapon," he wrote, "[why] would we not take steps today to ensure that we are equipping our force with the most effective small arms and ammunition available?"
The standard issue rifle for the Army during the Vietnam era was the M-16, which gave way through the 1990s to the M-4 carbine that troops now carry, made by Hartford, Conn.-based Colt Defense LLC. That company offered a design to compete for the Army's so-called "improved carbine," along with other contractors Adcor Defense Inc., FNH-USA, Heckler & Koch and Remington Defense.
Testing for a replacement began in 2012, during which the Army began rating each candidate's weapon for accuracy, reliability and durability. It did not move onto the next phase of testing, which would include environmental and operational tests, instead saying none of the rifles passed muster.
Baltimore-based Adcor declined to comment on the conclusion of the Army's tests. The other contractors did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Coburn highlights a key criticism of the Army's most basic weapons, echoed by military specialists. The Army still uses 5.56mm ammunition for its M4 Carbine, which reports like this one published by the Army's Combined Arms Center claim does not stand up against the rounds chambered in enemy rifles.
"The [Improved Carbine] Competition was a predictable failure," Coburn wrote. "By factoring as it did into the evaluation process the cost required to change ammunition calibers, the Army either inadvertently or purposefully discouraged the participants from submitting commercially available alternatives to the 5.56 caliber round that would have resulted in the greater range and lethality needed to effectively match the capabilities of our adversaries' weapons."
Ammunition was also the central argument the Army used to dismiss the improved carbine competition. All of the weapons it tested were designed to use M855 ammunition, but in the tests itself the Army used M855A1 Enhanced Performance Rounds designed to be more environmentally friendly.
None of the rifles the Army tested demonstrated an improvement over the M4, according to a June 13 release from Program Executive Office Soldier – the Army's main office for testing, purchasing and deploying weapons and equipment.
Breaking Defense reports each of the competing companies were given 10,800 rounds of the new ammunition to address any flaws in their respective designs. However, part of the Army testing requires firing 3,592 rounds on average before jamming, giving each company fewer than three full test rounds.
For this reason, the contractors may have legal recourse.
"If it's as bad as it was being reported, the companies could file a complaint with the GAO, and the GAO would likely go to bat for them," says Russell Rumbaugh, a defense budget expert at the Stimson Center and former Army infantry officer.
The Government Accountability Office is Congress' chief auditing and investigative service, designed to root out mismanagement or corruption regarding public funds.
A spokesman for the GAO says none of the contractors has yet filed a formal complaint.
"There's always an interesting question," says Rumbaugh. "Are you going to burn your bridge [by] protesting?"