The venerable M16 has been standard issue in the U.S. Army since the Vietnam War. During the ensuing half century, the design has been updated and a shorter version, called the M4, entered Army service
Both rifles are effective weapons - as long as they're kept clean. But although it's a newer model, the M4 has not escaped much of the same criticism aimed at its predecessor. Indeed, the rifle is designed in such a way that gas blows into the receiver of the weapon. The resulting buildup of carbon residue has been linked to excessive wear and tear.
What's more, critics have long complained about the two rifles being too sensitive to dust or sand and prone to malfunctioning when used in rugged conditions. More recently, in 2001, the U.S. Special Operations Command found that the M4's design was fundamentally flawed. And in 2006, the military carried out a survey of soldiers returning from combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some 19% complained about their M4s jamming during firefights - and nearly 20% of that group being "unable to engage the target with that weapon during a significant portion of or the entire firefight after performing immediate or remedial action to clear the stoppage."
Retired Army vice chief of staff Gen. Jack Keane not long ago was quoted not long ago voicing frustration at how long it's taking to find a next-generation replacement for the M16/M4.
"We are not saying the [M4 and M16 are] bad," he told Gannett's Army Times. "The issue for me is do our soldiers have the best rifle in their hands."
Although both the M16 and the M4 have undergone upgrades, they are still considered less reliable and less able to withstand wear and tear than the Kalashnikov assault rifle. Indeed, Keane offered the blunt assessment that that the U.S. military simply has failed to keep up with changes in rifle technology. "We have been sitting on this thing for far too long," he cautioned.
The message seems to have registered. The army has announced an "Industry Day" will be held on March 30. Col. Doug Tamilio, the army's project manager for soldier weapons, says the military wants to challenge "industry to develop the next-generation carbine and we're looking forward to the results."
That may be so but the pressure is building on the military to get off the stick and make a decision that many believe it should have made years ago.