We usually try to stay out of politics here, but sometimes politics is like Trotsky’s apocryphal statement about the revolution: you may not be interested in it, but it is interested in you.
An Oklahoma senator lost his cool for the C-SPAN cameras on the subject of the issued infantry rifle on Wednesday. The Hill has the story, of which we are posting an excerpt so that we can apply a bit of corrective:
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla) demanded that the Army hold a competition now to replace the M-4 riffles used by soldiers rather than waiting until 2014.
“It’s shameful,” Coburn shouted. “Nobody does for our country what the soldier on the front line does. This is a moral question, Mr. Secretary of the Army … get the riffle competition going now.”
Coburn said he requested that the Army hold a competition to replace the M-4 riffle back in 2007 when he first started hearing complaints from soldiers. The Army has said it is working to find a different gun for soldiers but the competition isn’t likely to end until 2014. Coburn said it should be done now.
The story uncritically accepts Coburn’s claim that the M4 is not a “decent” gun.
Coburn said lives are being lost because the government has refused to provide more adequate weapons to those fighting overseas.
Okay, we’ll challenge the Senator this: name one soldier whose life was lost because he carried an M4. One. We read the casualty reports, and the AARs, and the Lessons Learned, and when the M4 has failed it has, by and large, been operated far outside its design envelope. No shoulder-fired closed bolt weapon is going to fire a thousand rounds at or near cyclic rate and keep on rockin’.
“Members of Congress do not let this continue to happen,” Coburn said. “We should be ashamed … what we’re doing is send [soldiers] in with less than the best.”
The US has spent billions (with a B) an a suite of small arms and on enhancements for them, like new magazines for the M4 (the tan-follower ones) and optics (which have put hit percentages in combat off the charts based on the expectations of prior wars).
Coburn said he’s received complaints that the riffles jam. He pointed out that Special Forces are supplied with much better weapons.
Any weapon can jam. Every soldier is trained to clear jams. Jams in a well-maintained M4 in combat are exceedingly rare.
“It’s not that we can’t give it to them,” Coburn said, while pointing out that the Army buys better weapons for Special Forces. “It’s that we won’t give it to them — it’s shameful.”
We don’t know where this knucklehead is getting his information, but after cancellation of the SCAR-L program, the main 5.56mm rifle carried by Special Forces and other SOF is … drum roll please… the 5.56mm M4A1. The magical bits that make it the A1 and different from the grunts’ M4, the talk-to-a-crowd setting in the place of 3-round-burst and a thicker barrel more resistant to cook-offs when abused beyond design limits, are being retrofitted to the grunts’ M4s. The difference between the SOF M4A1 and the infantryman’s version is just about nil. It’s an excellent weapon.
A lot of people think they can improve it, and sell parts and accessories for the gun. But the Army (and the Navy, which develops SOF small arms under a joint agreement) so far has found nothing that really, in material tests, beats the M4 by a large enough margin to justify the change.
It does have some limitations imposed by the 5.56mm cartridge (which isn’t without benefits, like the ability to carry a basic truckload of ammo). But the grunts also have 7.62mm machine guns and sniper rifles (M24 and M110), more powerful weapons in the company’s Weapons Platoon, and a smattering of 7.62mm EBR rifles.
Coburn said the cost of providing a better gun would be $1,500 per soldier, much less than the $8,000 spend per soldier on radios.
So why did SF step back from its own contest-winner, the decent FNMI SCAR-L (left, top)? Because, while you could make a case it’s better than the M4, it’s not very much better than the M4. In tactical, practical combat effect, it’s about a wash.
The M16 series weapons replaced the previous M14 and a few special purpose weapons (like M3A1 submachine guns) because they conferred a tactical advantage: very high firepower, delivered accurately, coupled with lighter, handier weapons and enormously lighter ammunition.
To replace them with a weapon that doesn’t offer a similar step forward would be an anomaly in American weapons history. Look at the history of US military weapons since the revolutionary war:
- Brown Bess and Charleville Muskets (imported weapons and copies)
- US 1816 musket (home-grown weapon with a lot of Charleville DNA)
- US 1842 Musket (Percussion lock replaces the fiddly flintlock)
- US 1858 Musket (Minié ball weapon)
- US 1873 Springfield rifle (“trapdoor,” a black-powder cartridge weapon)
- US 1894/6/8 Krag rifle (small-caliber repeating rifle)
- US 1903 Springfield rifle (small-caliber high velocity smokeless powder weapon).
- US M1 Rifle (semi-auto rifle)
- US M14 Rife (semi or select-fire, box-magazine rifle)
- US M16 Rifle (small-caliber high-velocity concept)
- US M4 Carbine (modular weapons system concept)
As you see, each major weapons change, except for the first few flintlock weapons, has provided some significant technological advance over the previous one).
We don’t know how Senator Coburn got the idea that the troops have a crummy weapon (or how the troops get the idea, unless they are reading ARFCOM without their bullshit filters energized). But he’s got the wrong idea, and needs to tighten up his shot group.