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Iconic Russian AK-47 might some day be 'Made in U.S.A.' for military (w/video)

Mikhail Kalashnikov was the Russian lieutenant general who designed the AK-47 assault rifle. In war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where the United States has an interest, the iconic gun with its curved ammo magazine is seen as a favorite of insurgents and allies alike because it is inexpensive to own and operate. Its accuracy, though, is considered an issue.
Mikhail Kalashnikov was the Russian lieutenant general who designed the AK-47 assault rifle. In war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where the United States has an interest, the iconic gun with its curved ammo magazine is seen as a favorite of insurgents and allies alike because it is inexpensive to own and operate. Its accuracy, though, is considered an issue.
Published Jun. 12, 2016

U.S. Special Operations Command wants to see if it can slap a "Made in the U.S.A." label on the world's most popular weapon — the Russian-designed AK-47 assault rifle.

In war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where the United States has an interest, the iconic AK-47 with its curved ammo magazine is a favorite of insurgents and allies alike because it is inexpensive to own and operate. Compared to U.S. weapons like the M-4 assault rifle, it's also more durable and uses ammunition that's easier to find.

Now, U.S. Special Operations Command is scouting for companies that might have the interest and ability to manufacture the ubiquitous gun and other Soviet-bloc-era weapons here in the United States.

Last month, the command, based at MacDill Air Force Base, sent out a market research request regarding what it calls "non-standard weapons."

This includes Russian-designed guns like the AK-47 and other similar assault rifles, as well as sniper rifles like the Dragunov, light machine guns like the PKM, and heavy machine guns like the DShK and the KPV.

In soliciting U.S. manufacturers, SOCom has taxpayers in mind as well as its overseas allies, said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Allen, a spokesman for the command.

Allen said "a U.S.-based source would be a good use of taxpayer funds, while also delivering the weapons our partners not only need to fight extremists, but also the ones they know how to use, know how to fix and have the supplies in their regions to maintain."

Local gunmakers contacted by the Tampa Bay Times questioned how U.S. manufacturers could compete with foreign companies, which already make the weapons cheaply. Allen said SOCom won't know for certain about things like availability, quality and price until it asks. The command gets some of the weapons from contractors buying them through approved sources around the world.

SOCom, tasked with training and equipping commandos and synchronizing the war on terror, provides weapons to allies at the behest of headquarters commands like U.S. Central Command. CentCom, also based at MacDill, has overall control of U.S. military operations in the Middle East.

Exactly which groups of allies might get AK-47s from the United States is a question for CentCom, Allen said. A CentCom spokesman, citing operational security concerns, declined to comment.

But Scott Neil, a retired Green Beret master sergeant, said the foreign-made versions have been going to U.S. allies like Iraqi and Afghan security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and Syrian Kurdish and Arab partners.

"They are much more familiar with these weapons," said Neil, who lives in Tampa and helped train indigenous forces on how to use firearms like those listed in SOCom's solicitation.

The AK-47, Dragunov sniper rifles and PKM light machine guns are simple to operate and maintain, Neil said. The 7.62mm ammo is more readily available and cheaper than the American ammo, which is typically the smaller 5.56mm so-called NATO round, he said.

The AK-47, designed by Russian Lt. Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov and first produced in 1947, is renowned for its utility, but has drawbacks as well, said Neil, who came under fire from Russian-made weapons a number of times.

Accuracy is the biggest problem, Neil said.

"We would joke around and say if you just stand still, they won't hit you. If you look at an AK-47, the first selector is fully automatic. A lot of times it is 'spray and pray and inshallah,' " Neil said, using the Arabic word for "God willing."

The AK-47 was designed to be produced quickly and cheaply. Between 70 million to 150 million of the weapons are in use around the world, said Aaron Karp, a senior lecturer at Old Dominion University in Virginia and senior consultant with the Small Arms Survey, a nonprofit organization that monitors the international arms business.

Estimates of the global count of other weapons in the SOCom solicitation are virtually impossible to make, Karp said.

The economics might make it hard for SOCom to find U.S. manufacturers who are interested in producing the weapons, Karp said. In a major small arms purchase during President George W. Bush's administration, for example, foreign-made weapons like AK-47s were going for just $100 apiece.

Greg Frazee, CEO of the Tampa-based Trident Arms, agreed there would be a number of hurdles for U.S. manufacturers in trying to provide the weapons as cheaply as they're available from manufacturers in Russia, China, Bulgaria and elsewhere.

"It is cheaper to lay hands on a couple containers of foreign AK-47s from overseas than manufacturing them and then exporting them," Frazee said.

Still, a government contract would increase the appeal for manufacturers because it would guarantee sales. Frazee said he may respond to SOCom's solicitation, which he learned about from the Tampa Bay Times.

"At the end of the day, is the juice worth the squeeze?" he asked. "They are looking for capabilities more so than nailing down a number, so we will probably end up responding."

Mark Serbu, founder and president of Tampa-based Serbu Arms, said he is surprised SOCom is considering looking for manufacturers that would make Russian-designed weapons here.

"The factories around the world set up to do that are doing it with dirt-cheap labor," said Serbu, who once owned a fully automatic AK-47 used in Red Dawn, the popular movie about a Soviet invasion of the United States. "I don't know how to compete here. I am surprised they are trying to do that. It doesn't make sense."

One company in Florida that makes a civilian version of the AK-47 is too busy at the moment to consider the SOCom solicitation.

Kalashnikov USA, which recently opened a plant in Pompano Beach, is "totally focused on ramping up the new facility" to fulfill existing orders, said spokeswoman Laura Burgess.

The company used to import weapons from Kalashnikov Concern, the original AK-47 manufacturer in Moscow. Then in 2014, President Barack Obama imposed sanctions against Russia following its annexation of Crimea. CNN Money reported that Kalashnikov USA severed all ties with the Russian company.

Kalashnikov USA is no longer under any sanctions, Burgess said.

Allen, the SOCom spokesman, described the solicitation as a starting point and not a formal bidding process. The deadline to respond is Friday.

"This will help us explore what capacity and capability there is within the U.S. industrial base," he said. "After that, we will better understand what could be provided, which missions they may be appropriate to support and to which approved partners they could be beneficial."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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