Center for Strategic Communication

With the war in Afghanistan “winding down,” the U.S. military is assessing its current stock of equipment and weaponry to determine its needs for the future.

Over more than a decade of war, there is little doubt that America’s military equipment has been used and abused. Some of that equipment, like the HMMWV (Humvee), proved inadequate to the tasks at hand. The wars of the 21st century, as with any war, have subsequently seen a variety of military innovations to address the shortcomings of tactics and weapons. These innovations have largely been the result of facing new battlefield threats, like improvised explosive devices (IED).

But what hasn’t seen much innovation is the technology around pistols. Despite this, the Army and Air Force, have marked their standard issue side-arm, the Beretta M9, for replacement.

As the defense budget shrinks, the Army especially needs to think clearly about what its requirements are for a future warfighting scenario. This means considering both the lifespan, utility, and expected usage of any new weapons. Replacing an entire weapons system when it may not be absolutely necessary is something that could be delayed for a period of budgetary increases when the Army can afford to do so.

The cost of replacing the Army’s 230,000+ M9 pistols will inevitably cost hundreds of millions of dollars in a time of shrinking budgets. Disregarding the costs for the pistol itself, there could be additional costs in ammunition, training, holsters, and other support for the system. Additionally, cost overruns that are typical of military contracts must also be factored into the total tab.

Furthermore, pistols are simply not a war winning weapon. They are backup weapons. While our troops should have the best, most reliable equipment possible, in a world of finite resources, the Army would be better off investing in the tools of warfare most likely to have an impact in protecting the lives of our soldiers and allowing them to accomplish their missions. A new standard-issue pistol system will not change the way America fights its wars, tactically or strategically.

In the world of small arms technology, there is nothing so revolutionary as to justify the expense of replacing the current arsenal without data to support it.

Over the past century, there have been no advances in pistol weaponry as significant as the revolution seen in rifles. Moving from a bolt action, to a semi-automatic, to the intermediate cartridge assault rifle patterns of the Kalashnikov and M-16/M-4, pistols simply have not experienced the same types of improvements. The ammunition has remained much the same, and the patterns of the weapons have remained much the same. The materials may have changed, but the basic function of the weapons has not.

So why then is the Army so intent on replacing the M9?

Let’s look at two of the major complaints:

  1. 9mm isn’t powerful enough. There is no objective data to support this claim. By their nature, pistol rounds do not carry the same kinetic energy as a rifle round. When it comes to the lethality of pistol ammunition, the most important factor is shot placement. This boils down to proper marksmanship training. The only major lethality-increasing change to military pistol-caliber ammunition is the use of the hollow point rounds, which is explicitly banned in warfare by the Hague Convention of 1899. 9mm is also one of the most commonly used military rounds used worldwide.
  2. Reliability. Objective data is required to verify this. The M9 has far exceeded its testing requirements. If there are issues with field reliability, this needs to be objectively tested. Maintenance records must also be kept in order to track down issues. How much are they used? Which parts have been replaced? Where did those parts come from? If the Army needs to solve reliability issues, these issues will persist with a new weapon if the army is unwilling to track the data on the system. Are non-OEM parts are being used, such as magazines or springs, and what role do they play in reliability? How does the reliability in challenging environmental conditions hold up to other weaponry in the arsenal? Could better maintenance training improve reliability?

Giving the Army the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume the M9s are actually worn out. Does this mean the entire inventory? Does this mean a selection of pistols? Does this mean that specific components are worn out? If it is just specific components, then the Army should replace those components. If it is individual pistols, the Army should replace those individual pistols.

The Army also recently issued a contract for 100,000 new M9 pistols in 2012, replacing a significant portion of the current stock. If half the inventory is being replaced already, why does the army then need to re-replace those brand new pistols?

At this time, there are simply too many unanswered questions surrounding a potential M9 replacement to endorse a competition for a new pistol. If the Army deems it is necessary to replace, it should first demonstrate with data that the current system is a liability to our soldiers, and that proper comprehensive training cannot correct the claimed deficiencies.

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