The Big Lie About Wanat (COP Kahler), Part 1 of 2 (long)

The Big Lie principle, as elaborated by Hitler and Goebbels, is that if you tell a small lie, you’ll be caught on it, but if you tell a really big, even outrageous whopper, people will tend to believe it. It’s an insight into human psychology which helps explain how those two second-stringers wound up seizing the levers of the most advanced nation in 20th Century Europe and running it into the ground, to the detriment of scores of millions worldwide. But right now, it’s making the rounds in our little world, as hired shills for foreign manufacturers lie about one battle to pad their own paychecks. This lie is so bold and blatant that many have come to accept it as true, even though official documents tell another story.

The lie is that, “9 American Infantrymen died on 13 July 08 at COP Kahler at Wanat, Afghanistan, in the Waygul Valley of Nuristan province, because their M4 Carbines jammed”. This lie clearly doesn’t hold up if you read the historical papers, professional analyses, and interviews with survivors. What does hold up is a story of incredible devotion, dedication and heroism on the part of the Americans there, and of intelligent, bold and fearless attacks on the part of their enemies. But there are some facts the foreign-firm lobbyists don’t tell you.

  • to start with, that they’re paid lobbyists.
  • Then, that most of the killed were not using M4s at the time they were killed.
  • Then, that those that were did not have jammed rifles.
  • Then, that the survivors who did have jammed rifles, used the rifles far beyond their duty cycle, because (1) they hadn’t been trained on the limits of the weapon and its duty cycle, but mostly, (2) they hadn’t any other option: their crew-served weapons went down due to failure, ammunition exhaustion, or destruction by accurate enemy MG and RPG fire, leaving them with ugly choices: go cyclic for long periods with rifles, or get defeated. Getting defeated was not a survivable option.
Indefensible: COP Kahler viewed from an aircraft, looking south. It is the tan area at center. COL Ostlund photo.

Indefensible: COP Kahler viewed from an aircraft, looking south. It is the tan area at center. COL Ostlund photo.

This was the plan to which COP Kahler was built. It was opened just days before the attack.

This was the plan to which COP Kahler was built. It was opened just days before the attack.

Why, then, does this story persist? It persists because it fits a narrative much beloved of the anti-military writers of the Acela Corridor, many of whom are unsophisticated and trivially spun by lobbyists. The Atlantic magazine is a fine illustration of this. In a recent article by a defense-industry lobbyist and retired general, whose conflicts of interest they have never disclosed, they printed:

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.

OK, perhaps in a future post we’ll break that out, bullshit by bullshit. For example:

  • The M4 is a lighter version of the M16 Rifle, yes, and the 2015 Corvette is a modified version of a car introduced in 1953. There are very few parts in an M4 that are the same as the ones this guy’s artillery battery struggled with at FSB Bertchesgaden almost 50 years ago. Most of those parts are in the trigger group, and there’s always the charging handle. Apart from those, from muzzle to buttstock, from sights to magazine, it’s a new gun.

But we’re not going to do that today. Instead we’re going to address this insidious and false claim:

  • [N]ine infantrymen died fighting off a Taliban attack at a combat outpost near the village of Wanat. So far, so good. (At least he notes that they did fight off the attack; a lot of careless reporters say they were overrun).
  • Some of the soldiers present later reported that in the midst of battle their rifles overheated and jammed. Yes. You see what the author is doing there? He’s making the inferences, without saying in so many words, that their guns killed them. This is one of those things that is “true, but….” Those grunts were not killed by their guns. They were killed by the enemy, and as we’ll see, the malfunction of weapons systems was real, but not decisive. You could argue that bad training, worse officer leadership in the planning phases (the officers provided magnificent leadership under fire), and incredibly-bad site selection were responsible, instead.  (The location selected for COP Kahler was the bottom of a bowl, with mountains about 7,000 feet higher surrounding the outpost 360º. It’s hard to imagine a less defensible position, yet these guys defended it). But in the end, they were infantrymen in a hard fight with a determined enemy, and guys get hurt doing that.

So let’s explore the action at Wanat for a minute. Click “More” to continue. This is a long one.

Thanks for hanging with us. Let’s explore the area a bit.

The position in its environment, although overheads like this minimize the effect of the physical relief on the position.

The position in its environment, although overheads like this minimize the effect of the physical relief on the position.

The commanders had a logical set of reasons for putting  the position here — they were too starved of airlift to support a peak position with helicopters, unlike the better-resourced soldiers of Vietnam. They needed to be on a road, both to interact with the locals (in accordance with COIN doctrine), and to bring up their supplies.

wanat_cop_kahler_layout

COP/VCP/VPB Kahler with OP Topside as of 13 Jul 08. The enemy attacked from the high ground, and occupied all the buildings you see here. Note very short ranges! When they finally arrived, Apaches were firing 30m from the perimeter of both the COP and OP Topside.

 

Welcome to what American forces called a Vehicle Control Post, Vehicle Patrol Base, or Combat Outpost (COP). They all name it Kahler, after a respected platoon sergeant who was murdered in a green-on-blue attack. It was manned by a platoon of paratroopers, reinforced with a weapons squad with two M240 general purpose MGs, a 120-mm mortar and a TOW truck with the Improved Target Acquisition System (ITAS), and supplied with a Long Range Advanced Scout Surveillance Systems (LRAS3) system that the platoon’s artillery FO trained the riflemen to operate. It was well-equipped with crew-served weapons, but possibly on the least defensible ground imaginable — it makes Dien Bien Phu look positively defensible.

A wireframe shows just how bad the terrain was.

A wireframe shows just how bad the terrain was.

Here are some quotes from reports and papers on Wanat. Initially, they seem to support what the grizzled old lobbyist is saying. From a draft historical report that is available at the Washington Post:

SSG Phillips poured out fire, as recalled by another Engineer SPC loading for him, “…[SSG Phillips] went through three rifles using them until they jammed.”103. SSG Phillips recalled: “My M4 quit firing and would no longer charge when I tried to correct the malfunction. I grabbed the Engineers SAW [M249 5.56mm Squad Automatic Weapon] and tried to fire. It would not fire, so I lifted the feed tray tried clearing it out and tried to fire again. It would not.” SSG Phillips did not realize that SGT Queck had earlier attempted to fire this SAW, and it had failed at its first shot when a bullet jammed in the barrel. Queck had quickly discarded the SAW, swearing profanely in frustration that it was “fucked up!” (pp. 112-113).

Phillips was in the main COP. The next-named soldier, SPC Bogar, was in the hardest-hit defensive position, the Observation Post established on high ground (but not on the full crest) to the east of the main position.

SPC Bogar fired approximately six hundred rounds at a cyclic rate of fire from his SAW when that weapon became overheated, and eventually jammed the bolt forward. SPC Stafford noted, “Bogar was still in our hole firing quite a bit. Then Bogar’s SAW jammed. Basically it just got way overheated, because he opened the feed tray cover and I remember him trying to get it open and it just looked like the bolt had welded itself inside the chamber. His barrel was just white hot.” (p. 126)

Additionally, their SAF was so devastating that one of the grenade launchers was struck with a bullet through the feed tray, permanently disabling it. The other Mk-19 grenade launcher jammed, which they are prone to do. Thus, the American defenders at the main COP had only a single .50 caliber machine gun, the Marine M240 machine gun, and their own small arms to repel the assault. It is to the credit of the Chosen soldiers that they maintained at least fire parity from the COP. (p. 117).

[T]he 2d Platoon soldiers were firing their weapons “cyclic,” on full automatic at the highest possible rates of fire. As a result, numerous soldiers experienced weapons malfunctions, just as SSG Phillips had faced at the mortar pit. One young SPC fighting at the COP Kahler later complained, “…I ran through my ammo till my SAW would not work anymore despite the ‘Febreze’ bottle of CLP I dumped into it.” (pp. 117-118)

By condemning the M4 (but for some reason not any other weapons, which also failed) for failing under these conditions, the lobbyist is serving whoever his corporate masters are this week (H&K? FNH?) by criticizing a weapon because it cannot do the impossible. The hardest thing to manage in the design of automatic weapons is waste heat. Cyclic rate is something that can be used for a short period, at a cost to the durability of the weapon. The men at the COPs around Wanat were left hanging for very long periods, with no meaningful air or indirect fire support, and had been given so little training in automatic fire that they didn’t know they were hazarding their weapons. There is no weapon on Earth that will hold up to firing thousands of rounds on cyclic rate without a barrel change or water cooling. But we’ll go into that in Part 2. For now, let’s just see who it was that a failed M4 “killed.”

But when we explore the AARs and historical reports, asking, “Who exactly was killed by his weapon at Wanat?” we have a hard time putting a name to this blood libel.

OP Topside was the nexus of the hardest fighting -- and the greatest tragedy.

OP Topside was the nexus of the hardest fighting — and the greatest tragedy.

There were, in fact, nine men killed at Wanat. Only one was killed at the main VCP, COP Kahler — the other eight died at Observation Post Topside. Let’s add them up.

  • Two of them, SP4 Gunnar Zwilling (M240 assistant gunner) and SP4 Matthew Phillips (designated marksman) were slain in the initial RPG volleys, so their weapons didn’t get a chance to let them down. Phillips’s rifle, an ancient M21, was destroyed by the RPG fire anyway. All the other soldiers in the OP were wounded in that initial attack. (2KIA)
The enemy approached in the surveillance "dead space" created by the terrain. This is what it was like before the initial volley.

The enemy approached in the surveillance “dead space” created by the terrain. This is what it was like before the initial volley.

  • CPL Jonathan R. Ayers exhausted his M240 ammunition and then began engaging the enemy with his M4. He was then killed by enemy small arms fire while engaging the enemy; his weapon had not jammed while he was alive, but was destroyed by an AK hit in the volley that killed him. Sp4 Christopher McKaig had been fighting alongside Ayers, and continued to do so until his M4 jammed. He had fired about 360 rounds when his gun failed. He tried to use Ayers’s, but saw it has been destroyed. Neither man had known that 7.62mm ammo was available from Zwilling’s abandoned M240, that could have gotten Ayers’s running again. (McKaig would survive the battle. 3 KIA)
When the LRAS3 went down in the first volley, the Americans were even more terrain-blind. The insurgents took out American ground ISR and crew-served weapons skilfully -- and immediately.

When the LRAS3 went down in the first volley, the Americans were even more terrain-blind. The insurgents took out American ground ISR and crew-served weapons skillfully — and immediately. Images from RAND analysis.

  • The next three men to be killed were two reinforcements who had climbed to the OP from the main Combat Outpost, Lt. Jonathan Brostrom and Sp4 Jason Hovater, and the survivor of Ayers’s MG crew, Sp4 Pruitt Rainey. No one was with these soldiers when they were overrun, but as near as anyone can tell, Brostrom was positioning Hovater and Rainey with the M240 when insurgents who penetrated the OP perimeter killed them at close range. Rainey was heard to shout, “He’s right behind the fuckin’ sandbag!” before a wild burst of enemy and friendly fire tapered off into enemy fire only. The reliability of their M4s does not appear to have been a factor in their deaths. (6 KIA)
The enemy could get right on top of our men by moving through the "dead"  areas -- and did.

The enemy could get right on top of our men by moving through the “dead”
areas — and did.

  • The seventh man killed was SP4 Jason Bogar, the guy who had fired so many rounds from a SAW that it welded the bolt in place. As the fight went on, he got back into action, presumably with an M4, and then ran out to close with the enemy. He was killed at some distance from the OP. None of the documents or interviews suggest his M4 failed him. (7 KIA).
  • At this point, there were four living soldiers in OP Topside, all wounded, and only one, McKaig, able to fight. The men had schlepped up what they thought of as an “assload” of ammunition, but McKaig was down to his last two magazines. At this time the survivors thought that FO SGT Ryan Pitts, who had been wounded multiple times, had died of his wounds. He was unresponsive, so the three survivors: McKaig, seriously wounded SGT Matthew Gobble, and SP4 Tyler Stafford, withdrew down the hill to the main COP. Gobble was shot and wounded again on the way down. But Pitts was not dead, just unconscious. In time he came around, and realized he was all alone, and could hear enemy talking nearby. Not good. He called for help on the radio, and a reaction squad was hastily organized at the COP and patrolled out to the OP. Shortly after arriving and reorganizing, a volley of RPGs announced a new enemy attack, and one of the RPGs scored a direct hit on SGT Israel Garcia, mortally wounding him. His M4 was not a factor in his death. (8 KIA).

That’s eight of the nine killed at the battle, all of those killed at the outpost (which produced most of the killed and wounded also), and, while nobody was thrilled with weapons jams (which happened with M4, M249, M240, and Mk 19 systems), nobody died from them, either. (Ironically the one weapon that is not recorded as having jammed is the least important, the M9 pistol). Even Claymores didn’t function 100% (although they did take a toll of insurgents, some had their wires cut by the RPG barrage).

What about the ninth man? The ninth man killed was the only one killed at the main outpost. He was mortar gunner PFC Sergio Abad. Abad, a young paratrooper whose leaders remembered him as “cocky,” was mortally wounded in the initial assault by fire, which was target on the crew-served weapons and their positions. That didn’t prevent him from taking his place handing 120mm mortar rounds to the men that replaced him, even as his wounds sapped his strength. His crewmates succeeded in getting him to cover, but some of them were hit again crossing open ground. The only medic was down with wounds; although another infantryman tried to decompress Abad’s chest, he died of his wounds. His M4 was not a factor in his death.

The mortar pit at Wanat "the day after." This is where Abad was mortally wounded.

The mortar pit at Wanat “the day after.” This is where Abad was mortally wounded. The enemy were in the building and in the trees. Some of the HESCOs were not fully filled, because the destroyed Bobcat you see here — the only engineering vehicle they had — couldn’t reach, and men and shovels ran our of time.

In addition to the 9 Americans KIA, 27 Americans were wounded, of whom 16 were evacuated by air and 11 were treated and remained at COP Kahler. 4 Afghan National Army soldiers, who held a sector in the main COP with their Marine advisors were wounded badly enough to be evacuated, one of them extremely seriously.

Intelligence sources supported a claim of 20-50 enemy killed and a greater number wounded, but only two enemy bodies, and only one AK, were recovered by US forces.

And on weapons failures? Let’s let the CSI report (final) address that:

A detailed analysis of these assertions shows that weapons did not fail and that problems with logistical support, while possibly hindering the creation of an impregnable defense, did not hinder the creation of an adequate defense.

We wouldn’t go that far. Weapons did fail, albeit when pressed outside of the design requirements, and even the physical possibility, of their performance. Maybe what we need is a new kind of weapon, conceived for defending a vehicle or fixed position at cyclic rate for a longer period. Like a minigun — or a Browning M1917. But the state of the art of 2008 (or 2015) requires a trade-off of weight & portability vs. sustained fire. To coin a new Hognose’s Law (how many does this make?):

You can carry it all day, or you can shoot it all day, but not both.

Anyone who says you can by changing to the SCAR, or the HK416, or the phased particle array in the 40 kilowatt range, is either misled himself, or trying to mislead you. 

Sources

Combined Joint Task Force-101, “Army Regulation 15-6 Investigation into Battle of Wanat (Redacted, Unclassified Version)” (Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan: 21 October 2008.

Cubbison, Douglas R. Occasional Paper: the Wanat Operation (first draft). US Army Combat Studies Institute, 2009. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/world/battle-of-wanat/correspondence/documents/2-Army-Historians-Report.pdf

Ross, Kirk. What Really Happened at Wanat. Proceedings Magazine, July 2010. Vol. 136/7/1.289. Retrieved from: http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2010-07/what-really-happened-wanat

Staff of the US Army Combat Studies Institute. Wanat: Combat Action in Afghanistan, 2008. Leavenworth, KS: US Army Combat Studies Institute, 2010. Retrieved from: http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/Wanat.pdf found at: http://usacac.army.mil/organizations/lde/csi/pubs.

Steeb et. al. Perspectives on the Battle of Wanat: Challenges Facing small Unit Operations in Afghanistan. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/occasional_papers/2011/RAND_OP329z1.pdf

 

 

56 thoughts on “The Big Lie About Wanat (COP Kahler), Part 1 of 2 (long)

  1. Tom Stone

    This really pisses me off. A neighbor who was 3 years older than I died on Hill 100 in Vietnam, his M16 Jammed.
    Guess what? No chromed chamber, no cleaning kids, soldiers told it was a “No Maintenance Rifle” and the DoD accepting ammunition for issue loaded with an inappropriate powder.
    Totally fucked up…but that was many decades ago and the current M4 is a vastly improved firearm that has demonstrated its reliability and suitability well enough to have had the longest service life of any rifle ever issued to US troops.
    I hope these assholes catch the clap from the family dog.

    1. Tom Kratman

      This reminded me of something my son in law told me. He’s Third Group and described for me his unit’s mini-base – not really a COP. It backed onto a village. No real space between the two. They either couldn’t or wouldn’t put up wire. No doubleplusungood AP mines, not even toe poppers. No claymores, because those would have been problematic for the civilians in the village. They had HESCOs up, but the friendly side of those was in pretty easy grenade range form the ville. I couldn’t understand the lack of wire at all, but, sure, okay, “hearts and minds” and all that wrt the mines and claymores.

      I ended up writing the project manager for MOPMS, which allegedly works, suggesting a redesign would be in order to dump the AT mines and fire a great many more AP mines, in a great bloody hurry. Never heard back. MOPMS is this: http://www.pica.army.mil/pmccs/areadenial/legacymines/MOPMS.html

      If anybody has some pull in that field, which I plainly lack, you might suggest it.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Yeah, you can tell him they collected the toe poppers from us in 2002, and gave us a set of restrictions on claymores that totally changed how we did ’em. It was — I am not making this up, Tom — “Princess Di’s Legacy.” The guys generally had a comment that involved the late Princess, unnatural intercourse, and a caprine.

        Our position in Madr was dominated by high terrain (a Genghis-era fortress actually) but it had never been demined and was lousy with at least three types of Soviet mines, so the locals gave it a wide berth.

        A small, remote SF base in the war zone has no real consensus terminology. It’s been called a team house (thought too casual by the conventional task force staffs), a fire base (which is illiterate about the term, an arty term from VN), a safe house (which pisses people who’ve worked the clandestine side off), a patrol base (but a PB is supposed to be ephemeral), and a Station (which pisses off another government agency). If an ODB is there it can be an Advanced Operations Base (AOB) because operating as an AOB is part of the ODB’s ARTEP, and some teams have used variations on AFO (like Advanced Force Base) but AFO is technically not an SF (albeit an SOF) mission. The lines do blur a lot, and anybody who gives a shit what the base is called is probably working a regular day shift making powerpoints. The guys at the place couldn’t be bothered!

        1. Tom Kratman

          You might enjoy this:

          The corporal shivered. “Sir, I really love mines, especially the neat little plastic ones – the toe poppers. It bothered me, you know. I mean, sir, what’s a sapper without mines?
          “So one day I was playing with some of those magnets they use around the orderly room to hold papers to metal desks. And it hit me. Go ahead and make mines detectable from magnetism. But if we issue every mine with a couple of hundred of these little motherfuckers and scatter them about, whoever is looking for the mines will still have to stop and probe and dig for millions of these little suckers before he can be sure there are no mines in the area. After all, a magnetically detectable mine in a magnetized field is still invisible.
          “Of course, we’ll have to either push these into the ground with some kind of probe or scatter them early enough to sink into the earth on their own. I figured we could call them ‘Dianas’, in tribute to the Old Earth princess who they say started the movement back there, but that might give the game away.”
          Carrera reached out and gently plucked up one of the little magnets from Ruiz’s hand. “Won’t work,” he said. “They’ve got new mine detectors, ground penetrating radar based, that will see the difference between a magnet and a mine.”
          “Yes, sir,” Ruiz agreed. “I know about those.” The corporal then reached into a trouser pocket and pulled out half a dozen flat, metallic can tops. These he spread with his fingers like playing cards. “The new mine detectors won’t know the difference between these and a mine, sir.
          “And sir? I really doubt it would be too expensive, and it sure wouldn’t take up much space in a crate of mines, if we manufactured thin metal discs like these, but with a magnet in the middle.”
          Carrera looked at the young man with a touch of wonder. “All really good ideas are simple,” he said, warmly. He took note of the sapper’s name, intending to have an aide enquire into the boy’s status for Cazador School and accelerate his course date. Squeezing the Sapper’s shoulder, he said “This is a really good idea, son. We’re going to do it. But we’re not going to call them ‘Dianas.’ No, they’ll be called Ruiz’s.”
          “Sir, it would be so much funnier if you call them ‘Dianas.’ Really.”

          And

          As Carrera told Parilla, “And why not, Raul? Isn’t it wonderfully ironic, a really perfect memorial. Think of it. A woman dies. She was fairly vapid and, though merely somewhat attractive, she convinced the world she was beautiful. She led a fairly meaningless life as a mere clothes-horsey ornament to a purely symbolic royal family. She went through an artificial marriage in which both she and her husband cheated nearly from the outset. So we, and the rest of the deluded world, are memorializing her with a vapid, only apparently lovely, meaningless, ornamental, symbolic, and artificial treaty which, when put to the test, will have both sides cheating shamelessly. What a wonderfully fitting piece of international lawmaking cum eulogizing.
          “Certainly, we’re going to cheat, mercilessly. And that’s hilarious, too.”
          “She meant well, you know,” said Parilla, uncomfortable with maligning the dead.
          “She meant to make herself feel good and get applause from all the right people, never mind those who might die for lack of a minefield defense,” Carrera answered. “To Hell with that.”

          1. Hognose Post author

            That’s absolutely brilliant, Tom. Reward yourself with a libation! I feel like I owe you one for the privilege of reading that. It’s really a short story in a few hundred words.

            You guys are going to get me writing fiction if you keep this up.

            Is that an excerpt from one of your books? I have several queued in my kindle app.

          2. Tom Kratman

            It is, but I hate pimping my books so didn’t mention which one.

            Brilliant? Well…the idea is kind of cutesy, anyway.

            True fact, for decades in the Army, starting as a Spec-4, I would reread the punitive articles of the UCMJ to mentally prepare my defense, if caught. Never mind if caught for what; that varied. (Though having girls in my room was a biggie in Panama.) After commissioning, I started reading the safety regs for loopholes, too. Surprising number of them there, if you look at them just right. ALL regs are guides to getting around regs, as all treaties are guides to getting around treaties. I used to amuse myself, when practicing law, by calling the Ottawa Treaty-supporting dipshits and asking – with all apparent seriousness – when they were going to forbid explosives, sensitive chemical combinations, waterproof containers, metal cans, can openers, nine volt batteries, plastic spoons, clothespins, hand grenades, and thin wire or strong string, since those make effective mines, too. “It’s for the children, goddammit! Get to work banning those things!” Clueless bastards.

          3. William O. B'Livion

            There’s a comedian, british by accent (IIRC) that has a comedy routine bout Princess Diana that ends something like:

            “And when people tell you that Princess Diana would be with us today if she’d have just worn her seatbelt, remind them that it is *IMPOSSIBLE* to do coke in the back of a limo while wearing a seatbelt.”

            Just thought I’d share.

  2. Jim

    As I look at the photos and map setting, all that comes to mind is “dear God, that terrain!”

    In all of my overseas experience, I’ve never had to go cyclic on any weapon longer than a few seconds’ bursts; I wonder if this isn’t due to the weapons, but more to the sense of panic that would have to be present in the minds of brave young men defending a nearasdammit indefensible position. it is honestly a wonder that the attack was pushed back, and that the unit held at all – kudos to those fellas for that. truly, that was a heroic effort.

    as to the leadership responsible for that, one has to wonder if there was any grey matter present in the decision where to site a COP; if there is not enough air support to make a hilltop post a realism, why would setting a unit in a bowl be any better? as noted in “inglorious basterds,” you don’t hafta be Stonewall Jackson to see the error there. what the hell’s the point of emplacing a COP if you’re not willing to properly support it in the first place? and emplacements of this sort, by their very nature, would need a strong defense.

    blaming the deaths on the weapons is in poor taste, but it also has the smack of avoiding the leadership’s responsibility to its’ element of soldiers by passing the buck. as noted, the M4 of today is very different from those of 50 years ago, but the weapons are only tools. I am curious as to what exactly the proposal is, since we’re blaming the M4s here, while leaving other weapons out. is there a proposed replacement, or are they only attempting to lay blame on the only weapon without a barrel change?

    1. Hognose Post author

      I think that CPT Meyers, COL Preysler and the battalion CO (LTS Ostlund) all got career-ending documents of some kind, under the officer corps’ zero-defect promotion schema. I’m not sure they deserved it, entirely. They were asked to do something impossible with the resources they had. They relied on their experience of what the enemy did with previous COPs (built pressure for a while, THEN hit). In this case, the enemy hit very quick (on the 4th day from initial occupation of the COP). I think that was as soon as they could. If they hit on Day 1 (9 Jul 08) there wasn’t even any HESCOs around the mortar pit (there’s a photo of that in the RAND report).

      Basically, they took a calculated risk. And the enemy broke it off and shoved it up you-know-what.

      If you go cyclic on an M4A1 with the heavy barrel you’ll start getting cookoffs at around 200 rounds. Less with the pre-SOPMOD I “government profile” barrel. Most of our guys have way too little experience with or knowledge of auto firing, which our training TTPs tend to discourage.

      You can find fights from Korea where the same thing happened with M1s, they had to run them harder than the gun was intended to take, and then they get jams and cook-offs. It’s not because the M1 sucked, it’s because that fight sucked!

      Edited to: correct names of the officers. Also, I have confirmed that they all received negative paper, Preysler being called “derelict” in his duty by an IG report, which I should have cited as a source, too.

      1. Jim

        all valid points. I’m just incensed that the calculated risk didn’t seem to take the terrain factor into it; it seems like infantry tactics 101. fixed emplacements should be defensible! of course, admittedly, I’m saying this out of ignorance of both Afghanistan and of officer training. all of my combat experience has been in Iraq, and there is precious little that I saw over there resembling photos like this. just looking at those surrounding hills gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’m not a fan of zero-defect anything, and I agree with you about that. but surely to God, there must’ve been a better way to do this. God rest those troopers’ souls.

        thank you for the response – i look forward to Part 2, and further breakdowns of the claims made against the weapons. Happy New Year.

        1. Hognose Post author

          The terrain in much of Afghanistan is like this. It’s extremely creepy to know that everywhere you go is a textbook ambush site.

          There’s some Taliban/ HiG etc. video from the fight kicking around, too. It reinforces the feeling that the terrain was very favorable to the attackers. They came “this close” to taking the OP, if Pitts hadn’t been left for dead there, they might have done.

          Pitts, by the way, was recommended for the DSC. When it got to DA for consideration, they decided, no, that’s not a DSC. He was awarded the Medal of Honor. I probably should have mentioned that! Also, the unit was C “Chosen” Company, 2/503rd Inf., 173rd Airborne Brigade.

    2. KP

      Indeed.

      From the main article: “ (The location selected for COP Kahler was the bottom of a bowl, with mountains about 7,000 feet higher surrounding the outpost 360º. It’s hard to imagine a less defensible position, yet these guys defended it).

      The author later mentioned some of why they chose that position anyway, but neglected to talk about further options (including “let’s not put a base in this location after all”.)

      Of course my first reaction was “So had none of the decision-makers ever read Churchill’s The Malakand Field Force??? Turns out the Brits near the turn of the century didn’t have helicopters either…

  3. Brad

    The Firearm Blog is also responding to that anti-M4 article in The Atlantic.

    Also appearing in The Atlantic is a new sophomoric article by James Fallows about the current military. Ironic considering Fallows own journalistic malpractice covering the M16 controversy which first appeared in 1981. I remember reading his article back then and getting snookered by it. What can I say, I was young and stupid. It took much learning for me to eventually realize Fallows had unfairly slanted his story to favor one side of the controversy.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Actually, I read the Fallows piece first, and it referred to the Scales piece, and so I started a two-parter on how ate up the Atlantic was, only to realize I really needed to break Wanat out and give you guys links to some of the sources. I have more for Part II which will go into some of the gun tech. I dunno if I’ll pull out Balleisen or Carlucci and actually show the equations, but it might take that to dent the overweening self-assurance of the English majors at The Atlantic.

      Yeah, I too was impressed with Fallows when I was 20 and didn’t know how advocacy journalism works.

  4. Kerry

    That bit about the M-16’s and “just like vietnam” pisses me off too. Couldn’t have been the wrong powder then, no, had to be the weapons. And the guys. Bastard!

  5. Think Defence (@thinkdefence)

    Not read a great deal on this but it seems that the soldiers acted in the best traditions of their service and nation and displayed great bravery and tenacity in the face of a determined and numerically superior enemy.

    Humans make human errors I guess and I absolutely agree with you that trying to push one bit of ‘shiny new thing’ on the backs of dead soldiers has more than a bad taste about.

  6. RobRoySimmons

    Knew a guy who was mainly a .50 operator in Korea, and what he told me is that during the wave attacks by the Chinese his barrel would glow and you could see when a bullet was passing thru the barrel because it temporarily cooled the metal enough, or so he thought. He also mentioned that he kept firing because to stop firing would cause jams or cook offs, damned if you do damned if you don’t.

    Now to go way beyond my expertise, having watched a load of those shows about Af/Pak on Natgeo and other channels I noticed a pattern. If the fight is more than a potshot exchange it seems the soldiers would try to win fire superiority but at the expense of actually not identifying any targets. One GoPROed exchange was in some village where the insurgents well timed an ambush to separate two squads and the squad getting the most fire basically went thru its load by firing over the wall in full auto and never identifying any firing positions or even attempting.

    Could part of the problem be training related? I have done a bit of net searching for Marine infantry training and honestly their live fire doesn’t look high speed at all, but what I have noticed is that they seem to spend a lot of it on firing rate and control. Second the only thing I can think of that the officers did wrong is that while this place was under construction it was under protected, I think it might have benefitted from much more support initially before being handed over to a platoon. But that is probably the story for the whole theatre. One of the hunting and fishing channels ran a lengthy series about a Canadian outfit thru its rotation and they sent those chaps out to a platoon strength COP which was basically Hescos surrounded by dead ground.

  7. Bear does kata

    The courage displayed by our soldiers in this battle is exemplary. The stupidity of setting up a cop in that terrain seems exceptionally stupid to me no matter the circumstances. Quite frankly, it pisses me off.

    Slight modification on the Hognose rule above. Weight – cost – reliability, pick two. Applies to nearly everything but quite readily to a couple of things I dabble in, namely guns and bicycles.

    I appreciate this blog as I always learn something here. I look forward to part ii.

    1. Hognose Post author

      If you read the whole reports, their logic is understandable, but they took risks and got bitten for it. They actually pulled back to Wanat from a more exposed post that was called COP Bella after (as is the custom) another fallen trooper. They figured the closer-in position would be more defensible. What may have been a factor is that many of the insurgents were from the Waygal Valley and they had families (and weapons caches) close to the COP. The enemy pulled all the civs out before setting up in their homes and farms to engage COP Kahler. They also did something very clever — started an irrigation stream running to provide background noise to cover their approach movements.

      It worked and they achieved full tactical surprise when they hit the COP.

  8. fcp503

    “Sp4 Christopher McKaig had been fighting alongside Ayers, and continued to do so until his M4 jammed. He had fired about 360 rounds when his gun failed.”

    That’s 12 mags!! I don’t think any infantry rifle ever made would fair well if you put 12 mags through it on auto. An AK’s handguards catch on fire after about 8 mags!

    It is not mentioned, but it would be interesting to know that ranges that shots were taken at. It all looks VERY close.

    1. Hognose Post author

      The overhead slides are not to “real engineer” scale but they do have scales on them. A lot of rounds were exchanged at ranges from contact (where LT Brostrom and his two men were killed by insurgents who penetrated OP Topside’s thready perimeter) to 100 yards, with support weapons (PKM, RPK, RPGs) firing from 100 to 900M. Some of the reports cite the enemy as having RPDs, but my own experience was that Afghans of both sides didn’t care for the RPD and wanted PKs instead.

  9. looserounds.com

    ah see this old tired chestnut is back.

    i have been making many of the same points as your article since it all started. Though not as well said your post. The HK / lobbyist and their bought of politicians have been pushing this one hard.

    as slightly off topic I like to always mention that FN, the maker of the supposed “better” SCAR, not only still makes M16/M4,s but also makes civilian versions of such to sell to the public in competition of their own “better” SCAR platform. I find this hilarious

    This is a great post and I look forward to part 2/.

    I was wondering if I could have permission to repost this ( with full credit , links etc) over on our website ( looserounds.com) This is something we all need to stomp out every time it comes up. If you are not comfy with me reposting, could I at least quote sections of your post and link to it with a few comments of our own? either way, great work. very great work

    1. Hognose Post author

      Be my guest, Shawn. As you see, Nathaniel Fitch is on it over at TFB. We were all thinking the same thing at the same time. Many thanks for the link to CJ Chivers’s post on the Colt M4 testing with the two videos.

      They could probably do some things like they do on the M60 barrel to allow some longer performance at cyclic. It would take an airgap and a stellite liner like the 60 barrel has. But in the end, heat always wins. I have a post on what they learned about ANM2 and M3 aerial guns in bomber defensive installations, where they’d be immersed in a -50ºF stratospheric slipstream, and still, long bursts would kill the barrels. Scary thing is that the barrels would still gage just fine on an erosion gage or even if taken to the lab and air-gaged. But their accuracy was gone, probably because the high temps annealed the heat treatment right out of the steel!

      1. DonM

        Too bad there is not a water cooled barrel for the M-240 or SAW, for fixed outposts.

        The quick change barrel was, IIRC, a work around for the Versailles Treaty that forbade Germany from having proper heavy machine guns with water cooled barrels.

      2. KP

        Stratospheric? Sure, it may be -50F, but there are precious few molecules to actually pass the heat onto.

  10. looserounds.com

    oh yeah, I forgot to add.

    after this originally came out. Colt did some tests and recorded video of them firing a M4 and a M4A1 to failure. full auto. just did mag after mag, the M4 barrel melted and the M4A1 fired something like 12 mags non stop without fail until the gas tube burst into flames and melted. there was no failures. the video footage can be found, I have the link some where and I am trying to locate it to send to you if you want to use it, on a later part I am thinking it may have even been the NYT that originally posted it all up

    1. Hognose Post author

      One more thing. Colt asked for the M4s from Wanat to test them. The Army didn’t reply. Why didn’t the Army reply? Because nobody preserved the guns as evidence. They did a quick function check and reissued ’em to the next grunt! (A number of weapons were visibly damaged and were turned in on Form 2407, and now nobody knows where they are).

      1. looserounds.com

        I have friends at colt. I think i will cal him up monday and ask about this and see if he can dig anything up internally they may have done and ask him if we can make it public. If I turn something up, I will send it over to you. You have dont better on this than I could

  11. James

    Thank you for the deep dive re the Atlantic article. I agree fully with your assessment, but would add that the 5.56 round has no business in Afghanistan (although in this case with the short ranges involved the 5.56’s lack of terminal ballistic wasn’t a factor). Something in 6.5 to 7.62 would be far more applicable in Afghanistan, sadly the Pentagon isn’t nimble enough to adapt to theater-specific needs.

  12. Nathaniel

    Honestly, I hadn’t read up on Scales’ background when I wrote my response. It didn’t seem relevant at the time; just more nonsense by someone who is either a shepherd or sheep of untruth.

    Him being a lobbyist is interesting. I see he was a founding member of Colgen LLC, a “consulting” firm (weird that they consult both DoD and Fox News).

    1. Hognose Post author

      Colgen is reportedly defunct at this time, but Scales’s conflicts of interest have never been explored. He has done very well in retirement.

  13. Joshua

    Another interesting contrast to the events at Wanat, were those during the Battle of Kamdesh.

    Same situation, different outcome.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Thanks, Josh. Lots of angles here, really needs a book length ms to cover it. Part II which is the gun-tech stuff about why guns fail after a lot of auto fire is now live.

      1. Joshua

        It really is an interesting subject when you compare the two instances. The Battle of Kamdesh(COP Keating) happened on October 3, 2009 just shortly before they were supposed to leave the COP.

        The situations were identical, a COP in a fish bowl of mountain. What makes it so interesting is that there was no reports of any weapons failures at all. Numerous AAR’s and interviews had soldiers admitting to expending 40+ magazines through their M4’s and not one single person experienced a stoppage.

        They also managed to kill 150 insurgents(estimates) and only lost 8, there was also 2 Latvian soldiers there training the ANA.

        1. Hognose Post author

          I’m not sure I mentioned it but the ANA element at COP Kahler had Marines as ETT. They were on the north side of the COP and that was less hit than most of the others (especially compared to the west side, where the mortar pit was, or OP Topside off to the East. They maintained the Afghans’ fire discipline, engaged targets, gave as good as they got (the ANA had 4 WIA who required medevac, one of them seriously burned). One of the Marines got on a 240 and kept it talking. The Marine ETTs were very happy with the ANA’s performance, as were the paratroopers’ officers on the base. The ANA have been problematical in places and times, but these guys, in this place and time, fought.

  14. Pericles

    Although a tangent to this discussion on the M4, is what I consider the real lesson from Wanat. From the first RPG volley that tool out the TOW launcher and sat link, to the time the Apaches arrived on station 54 minutes later, The Most Advanced Military in the World (trademark) was unable to bring any of its force multipliers to bear. The men fought at Wanat with essentially the same assets their fathers had in Vietnam, and allowing the Garand and BAR to stand in for the M16 family of weapons, World War II. The men fought with organic platoon TO&E equipment and one M2 HMG, which will still be in service 100 years after type classification.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Yep. Guts and company level rifles and MGs. But mostly guts. Anybody who gets misty-eyed about Easy Company and The Greatest Generation® needs to know that the young lifetakers and widowmakers of today’s Airborne are the equal of any generation for pluck and persistence. Nobody who ran into those Talibs later had to ask them if they’d been in a fight — it had to have been written all over them.

      Incidentally, the few airborne ISR assets these guys had are unbelievable luxury to soldiers of a decade earlier. In 2002, there were two Predator missions a day over the whole theater, whether we needed ’em or not, of which you might get a piece if your mission was high priority and the fates smiled on you. But we were still in bad shape for air support. The one thing that we did have which seems to have been out of the game by Wanat was strat bombers — one on orbit somewhere 24/7 — with PGMs (mostly JDAMs). The platoon in Wanat may not have had a JTAC and they didn’t have an Air Force ETAC/TACP/CCT which SF customarily brings along these days. So it’s possible the jets wouldn’t have dropped for them anyway. They really hated to drop for our JTACs, they were more comfortable with USAF controllers.

  15. W. Fleetwood

    Thought I’d offer my two cents worth. To preface my remarks, I entered the US Army just as it was leaving Vietnam and was trained by Vietnam veterans. Did a year in Korea with !/17th Inf (Mech) and then two an a half years with the 2/75 (Ranger). But my wars were in Africa (Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and Namibia/Angola) and Central America (Nicaragua and El Salvador). These were throwback wars, you (both sides) fought it out with what you brought on your back, no air or artillery. This is not the American Way of War but it did give one an alternative perspective. — Like, I suspect, everybody who has gone out hunting and being hunted by armed men I looked at those photos and felt physically ill. Sweet Suffering Jesus in the Morning. I would have had firm words with a platoon commander who stopped a patrol in that location, let alone stayed there. — I recognize, “political considerations” and so on, but if you’re going to hold a village you send a CAP or equivalent unit INTO the village, organize it, arm it and fortify it. That way YOUR Youth Wing spots the enemy on approach (Cf. op Red Wing), YOUR Peoples Militia grab their AKs and form up, and YOUR Peoples Army Support Group (everybody not in the first two units) start rounding up the infants and laying out the spare ammo and bandages. This is Insurgency/Counterinsurgency 101, the first page after the Title and Chapter Headings. It has advantages and disadvantages. Putting a unit in a remote location has advantages and disadvantages. Putting a conventional unit next to but on in the village has all the downsides of both bot no upside. The only rationale for it is if you are baiting the enemy, in which case you send a killer unit not a support unit. A unit who know they’re bait and will appear to be fat dumb and lazy but aren’t. Been there, done that. It is risky but doable. I see no evidence that that was the case here. — As to the weapons and their use, straight up I am one of those who believes that full auto fire from individual weapons (rifles/carbines) has been field tested around the world and shown itself to be a very seductive Bad Idea. I am not talking about crew served weapons, especially if they are in fact served by a crew. The damned Germans were right, a properly operated GPMG will dominate the battle area and the role of everybody else is to protect and advance the GPMG teams. Burping out magazines on full auto with an M4 (or AK, or M2 carbine, or Sten gun) is not the same, it just isn’t. McThag put it well (I paraphrase) a guy with seven 30 rd magazines firing them on “cyclic” is like a guy with a single shot shotgun and seven rounds of 12 gauge 3inch Magnum Super Express buckshot. If he hits somebody they’re very very dead but he only gets seven tries. Going to 360 rounds “cyclic” means you’ve got five more buckshot rounds, and then your handguard bursts into flames. Bad Idea. — Anyway the Dinosaur Brigade has now been heard from.

    1. PDH

      Wise words…… unfortunately, spoken into a vacuum.
      I suspect that you may have bumped into the FAL-SLR is your travels.

  16. Rob

    Minor point: SP4 was deprecated and replaced with SPC effective 1985 (concurrent with the elimination of SP6 and SP5). While it was still used “in the field” until almost the turn of the century, it was replaced in regulations as they were revised. My copy of AR 25-50 dated 2001 has SPC; I suspect my copy dated 1988 (in a box somewhere) might have SP4. I have not seen it on an official document since SIDPERS III was replaced by PERSCOM/HRC in the early ’00s.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Tnanks for the correction. It was SP4 back when I was one, so the old abbreviation was embedded in me dinosaur brain.

      1. Rob

        My promotion orders in ’99 said SPC…but my SIDPERS-3 personnel report said SP4 (at least until the following month when I got hard stripes).

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  18. Steve

    I was in Nuristan Province in 2011 and 2012 as an Infantryman. Unfortunately, I can tell you that we still put COPs in bowls next to villages, and had to face attacks from the high ground and neighboring buildings. The terrain in that province is definitely creepy, with lots of little valleys along the Alingar River leading into the Hindu Kush. The Taliban there are also extremely mobile, know the ground, and have some decent leaders. Fortunately, I never had an issue with my M4, or my squad’s other weapons. However, IEDs along the supply routes were larger threats at that time. Thanks for this article and for putting a light on the guts those Sky Soldiers fought with.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Steve, glad you’re back, and mind your topknot.

      Hope you and the guys get something about the limits of the M4 (and any rifle, really) in cyclic firing. It doesn’t take long to get the temp to that magic 1300+ ºF it takes to blow the thing up. And before that, it’s ruined metallurgically.

      What those guys did is amazing. The enemy were in places well within 100m, and their deepest support positions only 900m or so out. It seems like they never hit the main position with an assault because they were going to take OP Topside first, and then when it held out despite everybody being shot to shit, their whole plan went down the tubes. And those guys held despite their losses, and despite the battle, which will be a case study in What Not To Do, Site Selection Department for the next 100 years.

      Maybe in a few years we can talk to the TB or HIG guy and see what his plan really was, otherwise we’re working off COMINT and speculation.

      I spent most of my time in the Khamard and Madr valleys way north of Bamian. Similar physical terrain, much less hostile human terrain (well, ten years ago, but it was Tajiks, Hazaras and some small minorities, with only a few scattered Pushtun villages, and them friendly). Of course 10 years ago the guys in my outfit rolled in soft skin Toyotas and a few unarmored HMMWVs. I walked places you’d want air support to go see today.

      I’ve watched the Taliban evolve from guys that were brave but meatheaded, and such bad shots you could just stand there and let them blaze at you, to the threat they are today.

  19. Rollory

    I didn’t read past the second sentence.

    The Big Lie was a Nazi _accusation_, not a Nazi tactic. They were claiming that the Jews were telling lies so big nobody would dare disbelieve them. At no time did Hitler, Goebbels, or anybody else in the Nazi regime advocate using such tactics on their own behalf. Goebbels himself made a point of talking about how propaganda had to be based on verifiable facts because that made it much stronger, easier to believe, and would prevent propaganda claims from being effectively argued, creating a pattern where people would just take it for granted that the propaganda was fully truthful, making it that much more effective.

    If you are going to start with such a blatant untruth, I simply don’t trust anything else you have to say.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Sorry to ping on your pals, but in Hitler’s “big lie” paragraphs in Vol. I. of Mein Kampf, which predate his chancellorship by nearly ten years, he clearly admires the technique, even though he accuses the Jews of using it. His entire political career was based on a number of Big Lies, the greatest perhaps being that the Jews were responsible for all the sufferings in the world.

      Here is Goebbels on propaganda. He makes no mention of truth or lie, only of effect.
      http://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/wille.htm
      There’s actually quite a lot on that site, the author has published extensively on Nazi (and East German) propaganda.

      If you don’t want to read the site, that’s OK. The last Nazi got banned, so you’re just saving time by banning yourself.

  20. Mike

    A very minor point to add re LTC Ostlund; he may in fact have gotten some bad paper but it didn’t substantially hurt his career. I saw him last year in Zabul province, where as a COL he was the BDE CDR for 3rd BDE, 1ID. After they redeployed 3-1ID got disbanded.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Reading all the investigations, the near-suicidal position of COP Kahler seems to be more an accepted risk that went the wrong way, but was almost dictated by the orders they were given on how and where to set up COPs to do COIN. Having the 15-6 and IG come down on Preysler and Ostlund kept anyone from looking at the higher-level origin of those orders, and whether the strategy had much hope.

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    1. Hognose Post author

      Jesus. Words fail.

      You can buy helmet cams at Walmart.

      And sparkly unicorns will poop the bandwidth you need to communicate with them, amirite?

      But what if the one of the lead element carried a sensor that detected movement or the metabolic presence of humans nearby? Such devices are easy to develop and the technology has been in use by civilian security companies for years.

      Because fighting a war among the population, you can just engage movement or the waft of human pheromones with your eyes closed. Scales is showing his “once they’re dead, they’re all VC” heritage here. But he’s showing a remarkable ignorance of the technical history of the People Sniffer, Project Igloo White, and all those Macnamara Line developments. You know how we actually got actionable intel off the Ho Chi Minh trail? We put human eyes on it, and yes, the guys in that project got shot to $#!+ a lot and wound up with more than their “fair share” of MOHs.

      In 2003, the Army developed the M25 “smart grenade launcher” that uses a laser beam to program a grenade to explode over the heads of the enemy hiding behind protective cover. Such a weapon in the hands of Swenson’s team would have taken out the Taliban with ease.

      Can you say SPIW? It was the Weapon of the Future® in 1960, and it still is….

      What if Swanson had had access to a really good “carry along” heavy mortar?

      You mean like the 60 (which actually comes with a sling and can be carried with a round in place and fired with a trigger), and the 81s that some grunt units carried on patrols? or a 120mm where the ammo is too heavy to carry more rounds than you need to set the baseplate?

      Some of these things amount to, “Gee whiz, maybe if you grease my clients they can repeal Newton’s Laws of Motion.”

      I could fisk the whole thing, but that’s overkill for a comment reply.

      tl;dr: “The Academy doesn’t like it when you…” do what Scales does here.

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