The tender for new small arms for the army and police force suffered a setback last Thursday. The public procurement dispute committee invalidated the victory of a U.S. arms manufacturer as the state failed to challenge two claims by a company that made a competing bid, according to which Estonians turned a blind eye to mishaps during a test firing of the weapons in the United States.
This means that the tender that was already in its finishing stages will not mature into a contract in the near future but will instead take two steps back to where it was late last summer. It is very likely that some verification tests on semi-automatic rifles offered by the Lewis Machine & Tool Company (LMT) will have to be repeated and the company declared the winner for the second time. This calls into question initially planned delivery of the new weapons in 2021.
Fatal drop test
The story of how things got here is intriguing. In mid-December, arms manufacturer Sig Sauer, after losing the tender to LMT, sent to the committee 26 claims concerning possible violations in how its competitor’s bid won.
The boring legal dispute is made exceptional by the fact several claims can be traced back to a letter written recently by a Defense Forces weapons expert to Commander of the Defense Forces Maj. Gen. Martin Herem. The officer was part of the nine-member team from Estonia who attend test firing of the LMT rifles in Illinois last August.
The aim of the tests was to make sure the weapon would still work in extreme heat, after being exposed to dust or suffering a drop. The expert later wrote that some problems exhibited by the weapons during testing were not reported, which fact changes things. For example, the final report does not reflect the fact that the weapon’s stock and optical sight broke when it was dropped from a height of 1.5 meters. There were other problems.
The National Defense Investments Center (RKIK) described the incident as a misunderstanding during a dispute committee sitting. Not all members of the team sent to the States were experts in the field of public procurements. All tests NATO rules prescribe for a successful verification were recorded. While some tests were carried out to satisfy the buyer’s curiosity or as a bonus so to speak, they were not to be taken account in the assessment.
RKIK concludes that neither the stock nor the optical sight is a structural part of the weapon and that a piece breaking off from the former did not reduce the weapon’s usability. The incident has been discussed with the soldier who reported it, and they have no further complaints.
The committee cleared the state on most points last Thursday, except two.
It concluded that, based on its own rules, the center should have taken the broken stock and sight into account and that RKIK was wrong to conclude the stock is not part of the weapon. Because details of the incident were not recorded, it is impossible to decide whether LMT passed the test or not. Another problem was found with the weapon’s strap.
Head of the procurements department at RKIK Priit Soosaar said that bidders were treated equally and that Sig Sauer’s accusation of LMT having been preferred is baseless. The latter’s victory was invalidated because the committee could not verify the process in hindsight regarding two items.
The plan now is to completement the records, repeat some of the tests and make a new decision regarding the winner. “Whether that will be LMT is up to the committee to decide based on facts,” Soosaar said.
He said that a piece broke off the stock of the 7.62 mm rifle during the final drop test, meaning that the weapon had taken several hits already.
“The rules prohibit weapons being thrown. The same stock is used by armed forces in the U.S. and meets standards. While we could, of course, demand the best possible quality, that kind of top-shelf equipment costs an arm and a leg,” Soosaar said when asked whether a weapon that breaks so easily is a good fit for the Estonian army and police force.
The dispute has now reached boiling point. The Riigikogu National Defense Committee will discuss the procurement for the second time today. Competitor Sig Sauer claims RKIK simply forgot to write up requirements for stock and sight, which caused LMT to simply offer the cheapest components available and will force Estonia to make an extra effort to replace them.
Senior Superintendent with the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) Rauno Roosimägi said that their expert also found that components of LMT rifles exhibited quality problems during the verification testing in Illinois. “The PPA found the fact the stock and sight broke to be significant,” Roosimägi admitted. “We want to procure separate stocks and sights,” he added. It is not clear how the agencies will address the problem.
Deputy Secretary General of the Ministry of Defense Meelis Oidsalu said that lobby efforts by competitors were to be expected as it is one of only a few times Estonia has procured arms from the open market.
Oidsalu said that tricks that are used to that end are depressing. “I’m very concerned to see in-house information reach a competing bidder who, in their complaint to the dispute committee, directly points to detailed information discussed at a closed sitting of the Riigikogu National Defense Committee,” the deputy secretary general said.