If soldiers need a pistol to replace the Beretta M9, the Army should be able to go out and buy one without having to undergo years of testing and bureaucratic oversight to acquire a new version of a technology that has been around for centuries, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
Requirements for the XM-17 Modular Handgun System (MHS) have been floating around for about a decade and are currently laid out in a 367-page document. The latest iteration of the program to find a Modular Handgun Systems (MHS) was launched in August with industry bids due Feb. 12. The service is now at the beginning of a two-year process of testing and winnowing a field of more than half a dozen potential pistols.
“That’s a relatively simple technology,” Milley said Thursday at the Future of War Conference hosted by the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. “It’s been around I guess five centuries or so. We’re not exactly redesigning how to go to the moon, right? This is a pistol and arguably it’s the least lethal and important weapon system in the Department of Defense inventory.”
Milley used the pistol as an example of service-specific acquisition programs that are hamstrung by layers of oversight and legal and testing requirements. Service chiefs should have acquisition authority in such circumstances, Milley argued. That authority was granted in part by a provision of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that gives service chiefs veto power and oversight of service-specific acquisition programs.
“Let me figure out what type pistol we need and let me go buy it without having to go through nine years of incredible scrutiny and testing,” Milley said. “I took a brief the other day. The testing for this pistol is two years. Two years to test technology that we know exists.”
The Army plans to award a single 10-year contract worth up to $580 million. Testing alone is expected to cost $17 million, which Milley said should be put to buying pistols from commercial firearms manufacturers in bulk.
“You put $17 million on the credit card, I’ll call Cabela’s tonight, and outfit every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine with a pistol for $17 million and I’ll get a discount on it for a bulk buy,” he said, referring to a popular sporting goods catalog. “There is a certain degree of common sense to this stuff.”
That amount probably would not cover the bill, as the Army alone plans to purchase around 280,000 full-size handguns and 7,000 compact versions. Orders for another 212,000 pistols are expected from the other services.
The Army adopted the 9mm Beretta M9 in 1985 and the handgun is essentially unchanged since it was originally purchased 30 years ago. Domestic and international firearms manufacturers have vastly improved on component technologies in the interim and have the capacity to provide a handgun that can meet XM-17 requirements immediately. The weapon the Army needs is available now to civilians but will not be fielded to soldiers for at least another two years under the current acquisition plan.
The system is slow and sets acquisition programs up for failure because by the time a requirement is generated and a solution selected and fielded, technology has overrun and surpassed the original requirement, Milley said.
“We’re trying to figure out way to speed up the acquisition system,” Milley said. “Some of these systems take multiple years, some of them decades, to develop. So the original requirement, by the time the thing is developed, the commercial sector or technology companies have overcome the original requirement. So you’ve got some issues with flash-to-bang, how fast you deliver to market or deliver to the customer.”
Milley wants to apply a battlefield-style approach to acquisition where individuals are given authority to achieve a specific goal and then rewarded or disciplined based on their performance. He calls it an “empower and decentralize” strategy of delegating responsibility.
“If you succeed, you are promoted and I give you a medal. If you fail, you’re fired. You hold people accountable,” Milley said. “That applies in acquisition just as well as it applies to the battlefield.