Staff Sgt. Aaron Webb of the 134th Security Forces Squadron fires the Beretta M9 as part of his requalification May 16, 2011, at Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn. (Staff Sgt. Scott Hollis / Air Force)
There is good news for airmen eager to replace the M9 service pistol: Final approval for a replacement program is expected at any time, which means testing and evaluation of a variety of pistols could begin early in 2014.
A three-year test and evaluation of commercial off-the-shelf contenders will determine the best pistol to replace M9s and the concealable M11s. The plan, developed in conjunction with the Army, has received the thumbs-up at the Pentagon, said Daryl Easlick, the modular handgun systems project officer.
The plan not only passed, it came through with no operational capability changes, a rare feat for any acquisition program.
That is not to say the program is without challenges. The House Armed Services Committee, in reports leading up to the June 14 passage of its 2014 defense bill, urged the Army to scrap the competition and simply upgrade the M9.
“The committee notes that the M9 pistol has been a reliable pistol with consistent and reasonable life-cycle costs,” the report said. “The committee understands that the development of a requirement to replace the M9 pistol has been slowed by budget constraints and system capability debates over the need for a replacement.
“The committee is aware that the Marine Corps has upgraded the M9 pistol with a series of product improvements that has extended the life-cycle of the program and improved the weapon’s capabilities,” the report said. “The committee believes that the Air Force secretary and the Army secretary should consider pursuing a similar product improvement program for their respective services’ M9 pistol inventory based on the Marine Corps’ experience and lessons learned. The committee expects that any product improvement program be managed and executed through a full and open competitive process.”
But improvements to the M9 won’t get the job done, Pavlick said. There are four key reasons:
■ A number of pistols can outperform the M9, which is manufactured by Beretta. There have been significant advances in trigger mechanisms in the 26 years since the M9 entered service. The Army’s Small Arms Branch at Fort Benning, Ga., put these to the test and found troops had more hits and tighter groups of hits as a result.
■ There are too many issues to overcome. The M9’s slide-mounted safety is one issue. When troops rack the slide to alleviate a jam or stovepipe, they often inadvertently engage the safety — and won’t realize this until they reacquire and squeeze the trigger. The open-slide design allows contaminants and dirt into the system.
The 9mm round also lacks the stopping power most soldiers need. And an improved M9 would need a modular grip, integrated rail, night-sight capabilities and the ability to suppress fire.
■ The numbers don’t add up. Easlick’s team did the budget drills and found that a new pistol would be less expensive to produce and maintain.
How much cheaper? Simply improving the M9 would be a “waste of time and money,” Easlick said.
For example, many newer pistols use a polymer frame. While that will not be a requirement, that frame is cheaper and more durable.
■ User feedback. Unlike the M4 carbine, which has a strong approval rating among users, the M9 consistently ranks as the weapon in which troops have the least confidence.
“They don’t want new pistols. They need new pistols,” Pavlick said.
Many troops were unhappy when the U.S. gave 22,000 Smith & Wesson Sigma 9mm pistols to Afghanistan’s National Army and National Police. The troops who delivered these weapons preferred the Sigma over the Beretta they carried — and the Sigma is the low performer in its family.
If the Sigma series is good, then Smith & Wesson’s SD series is better. And its M&P is arguably the company’s best contender for the forthcoming pistol competition. The polymer pistol has high-capacity steel magazines, a positive safety and ambidextrous controls.
And the .40-caliber variant nudged the Glock 22 and Glock 27 in a 2010 competition worth $80 million held by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Officials from the Small Arms Branch and program managers from Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., are developing an acquisition strategy of their own. They plan to have a draft request for proposals “very soon into the new year,” Pavlick said.
An industry day will follow, in which manufacturers will be able to ask questions and provide feedback. The request for proposals will likely get some minor tweaks as a result.
A three-year engineering, manufacturing and development phase for the new pistol would follow. Everything imaginable would be tested, from accuracy and dispersion to compatibility and corrosion resistance. Pistols would be tested in extreme weather and extreme combat conditions.
Tens of thousands of rounds would be fired by soldiers and analysts to ensure a service life of at least 25,000 rounds. The M9 is required to fire only 5,000 rounds. Data from Beretta shows the average reliability of all M9s to be 17,500 rounds.
“The end result will be a better pistol at a better price,” Easlick said.