Weapons Failure in Afghanistan?
The recent uproar concerning the performance of the U.S. Army's M-4 rifle in Afghanistan recalls -- as perhaps it was intended to -- the controversy surrounding the introduction of its parent weapon, the Colt M-16, during the Vietnam War.
Operations research following WW II demonstrated that most infantry encounters occurred at ranges of 500 yards or less. By this measure, it was a waste of both resources and training time to equip troops with weapons designed to engage at twice that range or more, as was true of most infantry riles (including the M-1 Garand) of the period. From this insight evolved the concept of the "assault rifle", a weapon accurate at short range that could fill the air with large amounts of small-caliber rounds. (The anti-gun definition, as we all know, is quite different. The most telling version I've heard is "an assault rifle is a rifle used to assault people.") This was the reasoning behind adapting the M-16 as the standard U.S. Army rifle during the 1960s. (Claims that the rifle was adapted because it was "easier for Asian troops to fire" are urban legend. Allied third-world military forces were in fact provided with surplus M-1s.)
Military ordnance departments tend to be technically conservative. The Army Ordnance section preferred the M-14, essentially an M-1 modified to operate as an automatic rifle. Along with violating the hard-won doctrine concerning infantry engagements, the M-14 was simply too heavy and fired a .30 caliber round, which meant that far less ammunition could be carried than the M-16's .223 long-rifle.
After bureaucratic maneuvers too convoluted to go into, the M-16 was selected as the new rifle. Unknown elements in the Ordnance section responded in time-honored bureaucratic fashion: they sabotaged the new weapon by issuing a requirement for a different and incompatible type of ammunition. This new round interfered with the gun's cyclic rate and also dirtied up the weapon, which had been advertised as requiring no cleaning.
Introduction of the M-16 in Vietnam was a near disaster. Along with the teething problems encountered by all new weapons and acclimatization to near-tropical conditions, the rifle continually jammed up. Ordnance refused to order cleaning kits, stubbornly insisting that the M-16 live up to its reputation as a "clean" weapon. Grotesque stories drifted back to the U.S. In one case, the single platoon member who possessed a cleaning rod spent an entire firefight racing back and forth to assist his platoon mates in unjamming their weapons. The media jumped in with scare headlines and reports. A Midwestern gun-cleaning equipment company offered to send a free kit to any soldier in Vietnam if sent the address. Thousands of these kits were sent to Southeast Asia.
Congressional inquiries put enough pressure on the troglodyte Ordnance section to enable official cleaning kits to be issued. (Although the names of those responsible for the original sabotage remain unknown to this day.) The ammunition was returned to original specifications, and further work on the rifle resulted in the M-16A2, a much-improved model that became one of the most popular infantry weapons in the world and which fathered an entire family of related weapons, including the M-4. (The full story is told in Richard Gabriel's Military Incompetence: Why the American Military Doesn't Win Wars)
So what is the story in Afghanistan?
At first hearing, it seems all too similar to the M-16 saga: in a firefight against Taliban units at Wanat in which an unknown number of M-4s failed during combat. Nine American troops died in the engagement. An Army report on the incident is said to have been scrubbed of any reference to problems with the rifles, much the same as occurred in Vietnam.
Previous complaints had been made about the M-4 in 2002-3, mostly on the grounds that it was difficult to keep clean in a near-desert environment.
So is history repeating itself?
In truth, this does not seem to be the case. The flaws with the M-16 were immediately evident - many of the guns jammed after firing only a few rounds. But at Wanat the engagement continued for hours, with the troops putting possibly hundreds of rounds through each rifle. Any weapon ever made will to start acting up if subjected to such treatment. Civilians, used to the hose-'em-down, neverending-magazine aesthetic of Hollywood films, are often unaware that the barrels of automatic weapons must be changed after they've been fired for a relatively short period. It's quite likely this a factor at Wanat.
The M-4 is nearly as old as the M-16. An early version was used in Vietnam as well, often issued to officers. (Who soon learned not to carry it on operations -- Viet Cong and PAVN snipers knew who was carrying the short rifles.) It was adapted on the large scale simply because, as the short-barreled carbine version of the M-16, it's easier to handle inside APCs and assault helicopters. The same improvements made on the M-16 have also been made on the M-4. If there was anything drastically wrong with it, we'd have heard about it at some point over the past fifty years, as we heard in short order about the early M-16s in Vietnam.
The Army's decision to delete mention of the rifles from the report was a mistake, even if the officers responsible thought it was irrelevant. It reeks of "coverup", which in this day and age is a sin in itself.
Eventually, the facts will find their way into daylight. But at this point, it seems that the critics are simply accusing the M-4 of not being supergun.
The problem here lies in the fact that by diverting attention to irrelevancies such as this, critics will unwittingly provide cover for the failed strategy in Afghanistan, in which the collapse of the Coalition position and the triumph of the Taliban is officially greeted with a shrug and a turn toward the golf links. There is a lot more wrong in Afghanistan than poor choice of weapons.