Sometimes, news items that either seem very small or narrowly technical can tell you more about the state of an institution than big, marquee events. One such bit of news came recently: the announcement that the US Army’s Next Generation Squad Weapon program, intended to find a permanent replacement for the nearly 40-year-old M4 carbine rifle, has chosen arms manufacturer Sig Sauer’s MCX Spear assault rifle. At first blush, this seems like an issue only a few gun nuts would care about, but in reality, it’s indicative of a much wider institutional sickness in the US military.
There is no need to go into all of the technical details of the MCX Spear, nor is it necessary to know all about its problems. But briefly, the MCX Spear is noticeably heavier than the M4 it will replace (ironic, given that the Army is trying to get more women into combat arms). It will also use a new kind of ammunition that only Sig Sauer has the right to manufacture. In 2022, everyone ought to be familiar with the fragility of our global supply chains. Whenever you have only one vendor for your product, and no real way of substituting that vendor quickly, supply bottlenecks are much more likely to happen. Not only that, but monopolies aren’t really conducive to competitive pricing.
Put another way: The US Army is in the process of replacing a good, inexpensive, and very reliable weapon with one that is worse, more expensive, and unreliable. Unfortunately, this kind of thing has become routine in the US armed forces—things that work are replaced with things that don’t work, often after massive program delays and at ruinous cost to the American taxpayer. The Navy’s DD(X) program, which created the almost comically ineffectual Zumwalt-class of destroyers, or the huge problems plaguing its Littoral Combat Ship program are but two examples of this broader trend.