3 years, 9 months ago
I weighed in over three years ago on the merits (or lack thereof) of the M-16 (although not comprehensively). Since then, a certain Marine I know had to put a nine round burst (from a SAW) into an insurgent in Fallujah in 2007, only to see him keep advancing (they suspect that he was high on morphine and epinephrine like so many others at that time). There are advantages (lighter ammunition leading to more ammunition carried on patrols) and disadvantages, e.g., lack of killing power at long range, to the Stoner system of weapons. C. J. Chivers also has two very good articles on the same subject, and much more comprehensive than I have time for (Part 1 and Part 2).
But there is an interesting graduate paper from Leavenworth by Major Thomas P. Ehrhart entitled Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer (PDF here). It is causing a stir, and is more applicable to Afghanistan than Iraq due to the protracted distances of fire fights (as opposed to the MOUT in Iraq). We have covered some of this in our ongoing analysis of the Battle of Wanat (where the limitations of the M-4 figured prominently) and Kamdesh (where terrain loomed large, so to speak, similar to the situation at Wanat).
I observed of the Cubbison study that training is paramount for clearing jams and ensuring proper functioning of this system of weapons.
Mr. Cubbison also goes into some detail considering other tactical and weapons failures (specifically at OP Top Side). Due to rate of fire issues, there were numerous weapons systems failures (e.g., jamming) of SAWs, M4s and M16A2s. I know one Marine who has trained his “boots” hard in the art of rate of fire and other measures to keep their SAWs from jamming and the barrels from melting. Clearing jams within mere seconds is necessary for proper functioning of the Soldier and Marine and his .223 closed bolt system of arms, and Soldiers and Marines must be extensively trained to accomplish this under duress.
However, there is also truth to the notion that this training is necessitated by the weaknesses in the system of weapons. Another way to say it is that when fire fights have to depend heavily on the art of weapon jam-clearing, something is fundamentally wrong.
I agree with the recommendations of Major Ehrhart to tool the fire team and squad with greater latitude and more available weapons depending upon the situation and their own choice. But aside from this, two other observations are appropriate. First, leaving aside the issue of lethal range for a moment, there is no reason whatsoever that the Army and Marines can’t replace the current M-4 / M-16A2 system of arms with an open bolt or gas piston system like the H&K 416. This may not affect range, but it would go directly to the issue of reliability which was paramount at Wanat.
Second, it occurs to me that the Army (with their much more vehicle-borne approach) could take a page from the Marines (who are more foot-bound). The Marines qualify (iron sights) at 500 yards, or around 457 meters. The Army could as well, and it has to do with a strategic choice, not capabilities. This might go a long way towards a remedy for the infantry half-kilometer.