Much-anticipated weapon undergoing extensive testing
BY TONY ADAMS
A headline on A1 in Friday's paper was misleading. Heckler & Koch's bid to build assault rifles for the U.S. Army is ongoing. H&K is waiting for final approval from the Army for production of the XM8.
The U.S. Army's pursuit of a weapon to replace the aging M-16 rifle is still on track despite a failed congressional attempt to pump nearly $26 million into the federal budget for manufacturing the weapon in 2005.
Military and legislative officials said Friday that development and testing of the new XM8 assault rifle will resume later this month and run through December. It will be the second round of tests for the highly anticipated rifle, with evaluations taking place in the hot, gritty desert near Yuma, Ariz., the tropical jungles of Panama and the arctic climate in Alaska, said Col. Mike Smith, who oversees the XM8 testing program at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey.
"After this round of testing, we will present our findings and our ability to meet the requirements, which are developed at Fort Benning, to the Army leadership, which should be in the late February time frame," Smith said. "Then they'll make a decision on how to go forward on the program, and how fast to go forward on the program."
German gunmaker Heckler & Koch, which has a U.S. headquarters in Sterling, Va., is working with the military to come up with a prototype rifle. It would be mass produced by H&K at a 150,000-square-foot plant the company plans to build in Muscogee Technology Park on the east side of Columbus.
H&K spokeswoman Jimmi Clifton said initial work could mean about 200 jobs, although more could be added as production ramps up. The company has said a contract with the government could be very lucrative, perhaps worth up to $1 billion over 10 years.
Clifton said the company remains in a testing mode and is hoping to begin plant construction soon and have at least part of the facility up and running by early 2005. But it's unlikely the entire factory will be built until H&K receives some signal that federal funding for mass production of the XM8 is forthcoming, she said.
"There's no way I can put a time on that," Clifton said of a production contract. "It could be tomorrow. It could be a year away."
It appeared funding was on the way Thursday night when U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey's office released information saying $25.9 million had been tucked into a $417.5 billion House appropriations bill for the XM8. The Georgia Republican, whose district includes a portion of Columbus, backed off that assertion after learning the money had been squeezed out of the budget to make room for additional funding for the war on terrorism.
The next chance for the XM8 program to receive money for manufacturing and procurement of the rifle will be when Congress reconvenes Sept. 7, said Brian Robinson, communications director for Gingrey.
"We're going to do everything we can to get this into the next supplemental budget," Robinson said. "We understand what happened and we want to fix it as soon as we can."
Should funding come through this year, Smith, the XM8 project manager at Picatinny Arsenal, said the XM8 could be in soldiers' hands as soon as summer 2005. If not, the weapon would definitely be in the 2006 budget and make its way into the ranks by that spring.
The $26 million in funding that was shot down by Congress this week would have outfitted about two combat brigades, or about 8,000 soldiers, Smith said.
Although Army leadership could decide in February to put the final approved version of the XM8 assault rifle out for competitive bidding, Smith said it's highly unlikely.
"I can't make promises for senior Army leadership," he said. "But assuming H&K is successful testing against the requirements, it would be unusual" to take the production contract away from the company.
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