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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, August 23, 2004

Army zeroing in on new rifle

By Tony Adams
Knight Ridder News Service

COLUMBUS, Ga. — The U.S. Army's pursuit of a weapon to replace the aging M-16 rifle is still on track despite a failed congressional attempt to pump nearly $26 million into the federal budget to manufacture the weapon in 2005.

Riflemen with the I Marine Expeditionary Force shoot M-16 rifles during live-fire exercises in the Kuwaiti desert. The Army is testing a new prototype rifle, below, to replace the M-16, but the cost of manufacturing the XM8 assault rifle is not yet in the budget.

Advertiser library photo

Military and legislative officials said development and testing of the new XM8 assault rifle will run through December. It is the second round of tests for the highly anticipated rifle, with evaluations taking place in the hot, gritty desert near Yuma, Ariz., the tropical jungles of Panama, and the arctic climate of Alaska, said Col. Mike Smith, who oversees the XM8 testing program at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey.

"After this round of testing, we will present our findings and our ability to meet the requirements, which are developed at Fort Benning, to the Army leadership, which should be in the late February time frame," Smith said.

"Then they'll make a decision on how to go forward on the program, and how fast to go forward on the program."

German gunmaker Heckler & Koch, which has a U.S. site in Sterling, Va., is working with the military on the prototype rifle. It would be mass-produced by H&K at a 150,000-square-foot plant the company plans to build in Columbus, Ga.

H&K spokeswoman Jimmi Clifton said initial work could mean about 200 jobs, although more could be added as production ramps up. The company has said a contract with the government could be very lucrative, perhaps worth up to $1 billion over 10 years.

Clifton said the company remains in a testing mode and is hoping to begin plant construction soon and have at least part of the facility up and running by early 2005. But it's unlikely the entire factory will be built until H&K receives some signal that federal funding for mass production of the XM8 is forthcoming, she said.

"There's no way I can put a time on that," Clifton said of a production contract. "It could be tomorrow. It could be a year away."

It appeared funding was on the way in July when U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey's office said $25.9 million had been tucked into a $417.5 billion House appropriations bill for the XM8.

The Georgia Republican, whose district includes a portion of Columbus, backed off that assertion after learning the money had been squeezed out of the budget to make room for additional funding for the war on terrorism.

The next chance for the XM8 program to receive money for manufacturing and procurement will be when Congress reconvenes Sept. 7, said Brian Robinson, communications director for Gingrey.

U.S. Army photo
"We're going to do everything we can to get this into the next supplemental budget," Robinson said.

"We understand what happened and we want to fix it as soon as we can."

Should funding come through this year, Smith said the XM8 could be in soldiers' hands as soon as summer 2005. If not, the weapon would be in the 2006 budget and make its way into the ranks by that spring.

The $26 million in funding that was shot down by Congress would have outfitted about two combat brigades, or about 8,000 soldiers, Smith said.

Although Army leadership could decide in February to put a final approved version of the XM8 assault rifle out for competitive bidding, Smith said that's unlikely.

"I can't make promises for senior Army leadership," he said. "But assuming H&K is successful testing against the requirements, it would be unusual" to take the production contract away from the company.

The weapon is getting high marks from troops during evaluations, said Smith.

Observations include:

• It's more versatile than the old M-16 rifle it will replace and should fire thousands of rounds before jamming, rather than the few hundred shots before the M-16 typically jams.

• It's much easier to clean and maintain.

• Training time is reduced since it's a single weapon that can be modified to fire short distances, long distances, launch grenades, etc.

• It should last longer, with barrels able to fire 15,000 rounds before being replaced rather than the 6,000 to 9,000 rounds it takes to wear out an M-16 barrel. Developers are trying to push the XM8 barrels to 20,000 rounds before replacement.

The XM8 will cost more to make initially, but should settle into a full-rate production cost of $600 to $700 a copy. That compares to $500 for the M-16 and $950 for the M4 carbine.