Today, Fox News published this article about the M4 Carbine. It contains numerous inaccuracies which seem to be in three areas – accuracy, reliability, and terminal effectiveness. I will address each of these in turn. However, I must clarify a few things first.
The first line of the article states that the AK-47, as employed by the Taliban, is more effective for use in Afghanistan than the M4. This is so false as to be laughable. The weapons and ammunition used by the Taliban are a far worse choice for the task than the M4 and its 5.56mm ammunition. Scoring a hit on a man with a worn out AK at 600 yards is an exercise in luck, not skill. As for other issues relating to Taliban marksmanship, read this article.
Next, the “study” cited by Fox is actually the master’s thesis of Major Thomas Ehrhart, who is currently a student at the Command & General Staff College – a person with an opinion to be respected, no doubt, but this is not the same as a US Army study. The paper was titled “Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer”. For those that don’t know, a “half kilometer” is 500 meters.
It is unfair to Major Ehrhart for Fox News to take sections of his paper out of context and attempt to draw conclusions from said out of context quotes. Sadly, news organizations do this all the time. Now, that said, I do not agree with all of Major Ehrhart’s conclusions, and will explain myself accordingly.
Had the folks at Fox actually read the paper, they would have noticed where it stated that “the most immediate and cost effective improvements come from training and education. Soldiers and leaders need to understand the capabilities and limitations of their organic weapons. They need to understand what is required to maintain their weapons and keep them operational in all environments”.
In other words, current training does not teach the Soldiers how to wring out the most capability from their weapons – both in a reliability sense, and in an accuracy sense. While the US Marine Corps trains to shoot at targets that are 500 yards away, the US Army only trains to 300, and qualification standards are not high enough. It is important to note that, while the Army uses far more M4s, a significant number of Marine units have been equipped with the M4 (including the platoon I deployed with), and they do not complain about the limited range of the M4 to nearly the same extent.
There seems to be a belief that the shorter barrel of the M4 makes it less accurate than the longer barrel of the M16A4. This is simply not true. Both the M4 and the M16A4, and the ammunition they fire, are held to the same accuracy standards. Variances in manufacturing from rifle to rifle and cartridge to cartridge aside, a Soldier with an M4 is no more or less capable of hitting a target at 500 meters than is a Soldier with the M16A4. I have personally fired M4 carbines at 600 yards, using military ammunition and optics (or iron sights), with accuracy comparable to that of an M16A4 using the same ammunition and optics. The weapon will be capable of delivering accurate fire to the range at which the projectile starts to go from supersonic to subsonic.
Furthermore, the optic utilized on the M4 by a lot of Army units – the M68 CCO, manufactured by Aimpoint – is a fantastic sight for close quarters combat, but of very limited use past 300 meters. There is no way to accommodate for the drop of the 5.56mm round with a single red dot, as used by the M68. Also, this sight does not aid in target identification. In case you couldn’t figure it out (Fox News apparently couldn’t), people shooting at you from 600 yards away aren’t going to make themselves easy to see. The phenomenal Trijicon ACOG, used by the USMC and some Army units, aids in target identification at range, but is not really a substitute for a dedicated rifle scope for long range shooting. It is, however, far better for the task than the Aimpoint.
What I am getting at is that Soldiers, and frankly a number of Marines as well, do not have confidence in their weapons. They are not trained or even told that their weapons are accurate at such distances, so they have no reason to believe that they can accurately hit a Taliban fighter shooting at them from 600 yards away. Because they don’t think they can hit the bad guy with their rifle, they either do not engage the target at all, or they do not use the principles of marksmanship that they were trained with to do anything but lay down suppressive fire, while they wait for the guy with the radio to call in an airstrike.
The article, and to a lesser extent, Major Ehrhart’s study, also discusses reliability. While Major Ehrhart breaks down the factors affecting reliability, the news article does not, and simply lays the blame on the “notoriously unreliable” M4. I will discuss what the thesis states are the four causes of malfunctions in the M4, in order of importance –
1. worn/unserviceable magazines
2. a lack of proper lubrication
3. worn parts, specifically the components of the bolt
4. dirty ammunition
I agree and disagree with some of the above. First and foremost, the magazine issue. The news article seems to demand a replacement for the M4, while failing to note that nearly every proposed M4 replacement uses the same exact magazine as the M4. In other words, all those worn and unserviceable magazines would still be in the supply line, and would still be in the hands of Soldiers and Marines – and they would still be the leading cause of malfunctions, with any rifle. In the case of the XM8, it failed previously for a different, but important reason – the receiver cracked when it got hot.
Second, lubrication. I believe that lubrication is very important, especially when a weapon has been fired several thousand times without cleaning. I believe that a weapon that is dirty (that is, with actual dirt, from the earth, not carbon from spent cases) can also benefit from lubrication. However, as shown by Mike Pannone, the M4 carbine can be fired without lubrication over 2400 times before it experiences any malfunctions.
Third, worn parts. As with magazines, many of the proposed M4 replacements – such as the HK416 – use the same springs as the M4 (or would use similar springs that would also wear out with use), such as extractor spring and action spring. A spotlessly clean, well lubricated rifle with quality ammunition in a quality magazine will – without exception – malfunction if the action spring and extractor spring are unserviceable. Gas rings are also important after 5,000-10,000 rounds. Unfortunately, the tracking of rounds expended is almost never performed by the average line unit that bears the brunt of combat operations, even in training, where the majority of rounds should be expended.
I was discussing this issue with Mike Pannone (the author of the above article regarding fouling), who told me about a Marine who had replaced the action and extractor springs of all the malfunctioning rifles in his unit, and was very nearly punished for it. That the weapons went from malfunctioning to not malfunctioning at all had almost no bearing on their desire to punish the Marine – he’d gone outside proper channels, and that was wrong.
Finally, “dirty ammunition” – this was more of an issue with the original propellants used by the 5.56mm cartridge in the Vietnam era. I believe that fouling (that is, without proper lubrication) is no longer an issue, that is, as long as the shooter does not expend more than five or ten times the average “combat load” – 6 or 7 magazines, or 180/210 rounds. I am unaware of any case in which a serviceman had to fire 1000-2000 rounds from his M4 and did not have a few minutes to check over his equipment.
The news article cites the battle at Wanat that, sadly, left nine American Soldiers dead. Incorrectly, however, the article states that the M4 had problems with “locking up”, and lead the reader to believe that the malfunctions led to the deaths of the Soldiers. This is false. I have read the entire rough draft of the report on the battle of Wanat, and could find three references to inoperable M4s – one undescribed malfunction, one weapon damaged beyond repair by an explosion, and one rifle that had been fired continuously for so long that the Soldier shooting it described it as “too hot to load”. Not that the weapon “locked up”, but apparently that the receivers of the weapon were so hot from continuous firing that the Soldier could not touch them. Relating to my above comment about fouling, this particular weapon was fired 360 times – twice the standard combat load – in 30 minutes, and did not malfunction during that time.
So we have one genuine malfunction – which was, by the way, reacted to by the Soldier discarding the weapon, rather than clearing it as he was trained to do – one weapon that was destroyed in an explosion along with an M14 (as would have been any other small arm) – and one case of a rifle that was used as a machine gun, and became incredibly hot as a result. Of the thousands of rounds fired during the battle, American forces only reported one actual malfunction. These issues relate more to training, discipline, and doctrine than they do to equipment.
To sum all of that up, as Major Ehrhart pretty much states in his thesis, Soldiers aren’t trained to maintain their rifles at the individual level, and if they were, reliability problems would be reduced dramatically. If company armorers were more concerned with replacing worn out parts than making sure every rifle in their armory was clean enough to eat off of, the guys using the rifles would be much better off.
Finally, terminal effectiveness. This is where Major Ehrhart and I disagree on a few points. First, the news article states that the M4 won’t kill anyone past 1000 feet. This is, simply, false, and it fails to separate the rifle from one particular cartridge fired by that rifle. The thesis does discriminate on that basis, and states that “the M855 cartridge is most effective to a distance of 200 meters after which its effectiveness is limited unless hitting a vital area of the target.” This is true and false. First, the terminal effectiveness of any cartridge fired by an infantry rifle is limited unless hitting a vital area of the target. The thesis relates an anecdotal account of a Soldier who was shot with a 5.56mm round in an extremity after another Soldier had a negligent discharge with an M249 SAW – the victim had no serious injuries.
I feel that I should also relate an anecdotal account of a lack of serious injuries resulting from a negligent discharge of a machine gun by US personnel. Like the above account, this resulted in an extremity hit on an American serviceman. In this case, though, the personnel involved were Marines, and the weapon was an M240B, firing the 7.62X51mm cartridge. A Marine sergeant, walking along a road on Camp Fallujah, was struck in the left bicep by said projectile, and the wound was surprisingly small: there were entrance and exit wounds, but no damage to bone and no long-term damage to muscle. The Marine remained in Iraq and returned to duty after a few weeks. I was part of the team that treated that Marine.
The wound was, essentially, much like those described in the thesis, but it couldn’t be attributed to the much-maligned M855 cartridge. While I am not enamored with M855 and do not believe that it is the correct ammunition for our current engagements, I also do not believe that current 7.62x51mm ammunition is the quantum leap in performance that it is made out to be.
While, as Major Ehrhart states, terminal performance would be increased by a change to a 6.5mm or 6.8mm caliber, it would also be increased by utilizing the existing 77gr Mk262 cartridge, designed for long range shooting and greater terminal effectiveness, or the 62gr SOST “barrier blind” round that is not as dependent on velocity for terminal effectiveness. Simply switching to 7.62x51mm and using the current ball ammunition, as the news article seems to suggest, would not offer the improvement that they desire.
It’s important to note that millions of dollars were spent over a period of at least 10 years on “lead free” ammunition. That’s right, environmentally friendly bullets. That project was finally declared a failure. These bullets were not supposed to kill the bad guys any “deader” than M855 – because that would be in violation of international agreements.
The US currently follows the guidelines of the Hague Convention of 1899, which places restrictions on ammunition usage. It’s ridiculous to assert that the US Military cannot use expanding 5.56mm ammunition because it causes “increased wounding”, and yet allow 2000lb bombs to be dropped on Taliban fighters. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that the bomb will cause a little more “wounding” than the comparatively tiny bullet.
The steps that the US military could take to rectify the above issues are:
1. Train everyone who carries a rifle or carbine to effectively shoot that weapon to its maximum range. That is, the range at which the projectile is no longer stable.
2. Stamp out the “white glove clean” standard. Train Soldiers and Marines to properly maintain their weapons. Document rounds fired through weapons in the training environment. Replace parts accordingly.
3. Ensure the widespread adoption and use of effective 5.56mm ammunition.
4. Use optics suited for the task. Soldiers and Marines can’t shoot what they can’t see.
Replacing the M4 with a different rifle does nothing to correct the serious deficiencies in training and doctrine that plague the US armed forces. Problems would continue. If the above “fixes” were implemented, complaints about the M4 would be hard to find. I could suggest a few fixes for journalists covering military topics, too, but I’ve already broken 2,000 words.