Blaming The Gun For The Battle Losses

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 3 months ago

Robert H. Scales wrote a piece for The Atlantic entitled Gun Trouble, with the catchy subtitle as follows: The rifle that today’s infantry uses is little changed since the 1960s—and it is badly flawed. Military lives depend on these cheap composites of metal and plastic. So why can’t the richest country in the world give its soldiers better ones?

Scales then proceeds to rehearse the history of flaws after the initial rollout of the M-16 in Vietnam, well known flaws (and failed to mention others, such as the fact that the chamber and barrel weren’t chrome-lined in the initial stages of production).  He pans the 5.56 mm NATO round, and ends up recommending two (what he considers to be) improvements.  First, he wants a larger caliber round, and second, he wants a gas recirculation system rather than the current DI system in use in the Eugene Stoner design (He fails to mention that the gas recirculation system weighs the front end of the rifle down and makes it more difficult to maneuver in CQB such as room clearing.  This is a point made to me by my son, who didn’t even like my quad-rail on the front end of my RRA rifle due to its weight).  Scales points to Wanat as proof positive that American lives are being wasted by a bad design.

The M4, the standard carbine in use by the infantry today, is a lighter version of the M16 rifle that killed so many of the soldiers who carried it in Vietnam. (The M16 is still also in wide use today.) In the early morning of July 13, 2008, nine infantrymen died fighting off a Taliban attack at a combat outpost near the village of Wanat in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. Some of the soldiers present later reported that in the midst of battle their rifles overheated and jammed. The Wanat story is reminiscent of experiences in Vietnam: in fact, other than a few cosmetic changes, the rifles from both wars are virtually the same. And the M4’s shorter barrel makes it less effective at long ranges than the older M16—an especially serious disadvantage in modern combat, which is increasingly taking place over long ranges.

In spite of the high number of kills in the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Scales calls the 5.56 mm a “varmint round.”  We’ve seen all of this before, much of it coming from experience many decades ago.  But we’ve seen testing that simply shows much of the bad press for the Stoner design (and good press for the Kalashnikov design) to be false.  Recall the testing done on the Knights Armament rifle, and reader Pat Hines sends two more examples here and here.  The point is granted that Rock River Arms, Knights Armament, LaRue Tactical and Daniel Defense isn’t the Colt produced under milspec for the Army and Marine Corps (these are all superior to the Colt M-16 and M-4).  Furthermore, recall that we’ve discussed what it means to be milspec and what it doesn’tNot milspec isn’t always worse, and milspec isn’t always better.

Still, my own son Daniel tells me that he never had any problems with either his SAW or an M-4 when he used that in training and in Fallujah, Iraq (while still claiming that my RRA rifle was better than the Colt he used).  The biggest problem with Scales’ argument isn’t that it doesn’t rely on hard evidence regarding quality battle rifles today (and it doesn’t, and some AR-15s are better designed and manufactured than the M-4 it must be admitted).  The biggest problem with his argument is that it blames the wrong culprit.

My coverage of the Battle of Wanat goes back to before the Cubbison report, from 2008 until recently.

Analysis Of The Battle Of Wanat

Investigating The Battle Of Wanat

The Contribution Of The Afghan National Army In The Battle Of Wanat

The Battle Of Wanat, Massing Of Troops And Attacks In Nuristan

Second Guessing The Battles Of Wanat And Kamdesh

And many other articles.  I am proud to have contributed in some small way to the Wanat report still on file at Fort Leavenworth (on page 255 three of my articles are cited).  Specifically, it was published by the Combat Studies Institute Press, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center.

The kill ratio was indeed lower at Wanat than has been noted at other engagements, but the fact that Soldiers had to put 400 rounds through their weapons in such a short time frame is indicative of a different problem than the gun.  First of all, with all due respect to the Soldiers who were there, fire control and long distance optics would have been a valuable commodity.  When training his “boots,” my son worked first, middle and last on rate of fire and fire control.  And use of a larger bore weapon wouldn’t have helped barrel temperature (have you ever shot a large caliber weapon?), and would certainly have hurt the ability to regain sight picture after firing due to significant recoil.

Use of DMs with M-14s or bolt action sniper rifles would have helped (the Marines make use of such tactics), as would have training in shooting uphill (to which very few units train – I know this from conversations with Army trainers).  But the biggest problems with Wanat were associated with command choices that could have been done differently.  Vehicle Patrol Base Wanat (it was a VPB rather than a FOB), took entirely too long to set up, allowing enemy massing of forces, something I’ve noted on a number of occasions in Afghanistan (it’s a favorite tactic when the Taliban think they can greatly outnumber their opponent).

Furthermore, terrain was critical in that the U.S. troops didn’t control the high country surrounding the VPB which was in a valley.  One Marine Captain commented to me as follows:

The platoon in Wanat sacrificed control of the key terrain in the area in order to locate closer to the population. This was a significant risk, and I don’t see any indication that they attempted to sufficiently mitigate that risk. I can empathize a little bit – I was the first Marine on deck at Camp Blessing back when it was still Firebase Catamount, in late 2003. I took responsibility for the camp’s security from a platoon from the 10th Mountain Div, and established a perimeter defense around it. Looking back, I don’t think I adequately controlled the key terrain around the camp. The platoon that replaced me took some steps to correct that, and I think it played a significant role when they were attacked on March 22nd of 2004. COIN theorists love to say that the population is the key terrain, but I think Wanat shows that ignoring the existing natural terrain in favor of the population is a risky proposition, especially in Afghanistan.

The force was simply too small (platoon size versus virtual battalion size Taliban force), and they were simply outgunned.  It’s remarkable that they didn’t have even more casualties.  Blaming the gun we deployed with the Soldiers is the easy thing to do.  It’s also the wrong thing to do, and it’s disingenuous.  Blaming the men who made the decision to deploy the way they did would be the hard thing to do because it gets personal.  But at least it would be honest.

See also:

Battle Of Wanat Category

War is Boring, The M-4 Carbine Is Here To Stay

Dan Morgan on Wanat

WeaponsMan Part 1 and Part 2

The Firearm Blog

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Comments

  1. On January 7, 2015 at 1:53 am, Jack said:

    Scales’ bias is foreshadowed in his opening paragraph, commenting on “these cheap composites of metal and plastic”. It’s as if 40 years of CAD/CAM and materials science never happened. Or the military’s own testing.

    Here’s the M16 full auto test resulting in handguard fire (referenced in your other post) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kzfm4pYhIyY

    A cook-off (literally) between the M16 and the Galil, as demonstrated by IWI in 1994. The M16 runs 8 mags in about 1 min, and then is hot enough to cook off 3 rounds, but was otherwise firing normally. (The Galil didn’t cook any rounds, but rate of fire was noticeably slower on the 8th mag). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvccUuJ0i-4

    The full 1968 report on M16 failures in Vietnam can be found at http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a953116.pdf

    The 1996 Rock Island Arsenal “Fire to Destruction Test of 5.56mm M4A1 Carbine and M16A2 Rifle Barrels” measured realtime barrel temps with thermocouples, The M16 ran 491 rounds in 2:49, and the M4 ran 596 rounds in 3:32. The report can be found at http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA317929&Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf

    Related, in 2013, Lucky Gunner performed an ammo test to showcase the difference between Federal, Brown Bear and Wolf brass cased ammo versus Tula steel cased ammo. Each weapon fired 10,000 rounds at high rate of fire with no weapon related failures, in Arizona dust and rain storms. http://www.luckygunner.com/labs/brass-vs-steel-cased-ammo/

    Hope this helps

  2. On January 7, 2015 at 8:49 pm, Ned Weatherby said:

    Jack, that link to the full auto cook-off, replete with melting handguard us one I use to illustrate how “bad” a weapon are AR platform rifles. Looks like a good test to me.

    Interesting that a person would have to fire basically full-auto around 19- 20 mags to have a barrel rupture in an M16 or M4.

    Who would ever do that? In sum, people tend to argue that, because the AK is such a sloppy piece, essentially made for conscripts who won’t maintain their equipment, it’s somehow better.

    Now we have an “expert” selecting bullshit from different sources telling us how bad the AR platform is.

    TFB did an analysis of this hit-piece: http://www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2014/12/31/dissection-yet-another-m4-hit-piece/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=Email&utm_content=2015-01-06&utm_campaign=Weekly+Newsletter

  3. On January 7, 2015 at 10:56 am, Schadenfreudian said:

    As a general rule, it’s safe to abandon reading when “The Atlantic” appears.

  4. On January 7, 2015 at 7:22 pm, Paul Kisling said:

    The only way the military will replace the AR platform is with a weapons that is approximately 200 percent more effective in all areas. From cost, to simplicity, to weight, to ammunition effectiveness, to recoil. The idea behind such an obviously impossible is to dissuade fads for the newest and shiniest. Of course it does remind me of the US military back in the Smoothbore days and how long it took for them to accept rifled breechloaders. Nearly 100 years.
    I suspect much the same from the AR platform. I figure on 25 to 30 more years before the AR platform is Militarily obsolete and of course the military will probably have to enjoy a major conflict for that to happen.

  5. On January 7, 2015 at 10:05 pm, Jack said:

    It’s politics over function at the Pentagon and Congress these days. Just look at the Air Force, trying to mothball the A-10 in favor of the F-35, which has a gun that won’t fire a round until the year 2019 – because software!

  6. On January 15, 2015 at 1:11 am, wrench2tc said:

    Right on. The thing that gets me is the stupid caliber argument. There’s this urban legend that the 5.56 was designed to wound not kill. We have killed a LOT more of our enemies with the 5.56 than they have killed of us with their 7.62×39. I know there are other contributing factors there but still. I also carried an m4 in iraq and I trust it and like it enough I own an ar15 and have no intentions of getting rid of it.

  7. On September 24, 2015 at 12:00 pm, John McGrath said:

    Weapons quality and deployment decisions (to be “honest” blaming higher commanders who had a tough job with a limited number of troops is hardly, IMO, honest) were not to blame for Wanat, if blame is even the right word. Any time a platoon is placed by itself (BTW it was more than a platoon. It included an AT squad, a mortar platoon and an ANA platoon and five vehicles with crew served weapons mounted on them) there is some risk involved. And to be cliche, the “enemy gets a vote.” Worse case scenarios are based on the enemy acting uncharacteristically. Deployments are based on most likely scenarios. Worst case is covered by the creation of responsive systems such as nearby artillery, on call aviation and quick reaction forces. The defense of Wanat was conducted well but the zero defect casualty mentality fogs this up. And from an analysis of the situation it appears that a single insurgent with an AK killed four of the dead at the OP when he suprised them at close range before being He also had fired at one of the survivors who managed to crawl behind osme sanbdbags. Then the shooter was himself killed himself by the first American to reach the OP after that firefight. If the four had lived, the action at Wanat would be viewed a bit differently. In the neighboring Watapor Valley in 2011 three Americans were killed in an operation (Hammer Down) that has gotten a lot less attention than Wanat.
    The reason the insurgents use the AK (aside from its availability—thanks China) and the RPG is that they are easy to use by unytrained troops. But the insurgents are notoriously bad shots and this was clearly the case at Wanat where troops moved around at will at the main positions despite heavy fire. The fire was too high for the most part and two of the KIAs were killed by shrapnel when rounds hit foliage rather than direct hits. The best hits were the initial ones which could be aimed carefully. this included two dead at the OP and the hit on the TOW HMMWV. But even in the case of the TOW no one in the squad was killed.
    At Wanat M4s were used in a role reserved for SAWs and machine guns. At the OP one of the machine guns was out of action after its operator was killed. Several other CSWs jammed during the fight but American firepower still prevented the insurgents from assaulting the main position (which they tried to do on the west side), unlike what happend at Kamdesh in 2009..

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You are currently reading "Blaming The Gun For The Battle Losses", entry #13222 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) AR-15s,Battle of Wanat,Featured,Firearms,Guns,Kamdesh and was published January 6th, 2015 by Herschel Smith.

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