Congressman goes off half-cocked on Army weapons

We buy these for our Special Forces, Senator. Among other things, true. But every SF ODA has 12 of these in the arms company or battalion arms room, along with other stuff.

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.

via Coburn calls on Army to upgrade soldiers’ guns – The Hill’s Video.

Some units got the top weapon (SCAR-L) before it was canc’d. ODAs also got 4 each of the bottom weapon (7.62mm SCAR-H). It’s OK. Mostly they rely on the M4.

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:

  1. Brown Bess and Charleville Muskets (imported weapons and copies)
  2. US 1816 musket (home-grown weapon with a lot of Charleville DNA)
  3. US 1842 Musket (Percussion lock replaces the fiddly flintlock)
  4. US 1858 Musket (Minié ball weapon)
  5. US 1873 Springfield rifle (“trapdoor,” a black-powder cartridge weapon)
  6. US 1894/6/8 Krag rifle (small-caliber repeating rifle)
  7. US 1903 Springfield rifle (small-caliber high velocity smokeless powder weapon).
  8. US M1 Rifle (semi-auto rifle)
  9. US M14 Rife (semi or select-fire, box-magazine rifle)
  10. US M16 Rifle (small-caliber high-velocity concept)
  11. 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.

8 thoughts on “Congressman goes off half-cocked on Army weapons

  1. Tom

    I’ve talked to a former 1st grouper who told me that the ODAs liked the SCAR and as you stated kept a few of the 7.62 with the teams but from what he told me Ranger bat guys didn’t like the SCAR and the Army wasn’t going to make a weapon specifically for a small group of soldiers. Any truth to this from what you know, Weaponsman?

    1. Hognose Post author

      It’s a good gun. I’m looking forward to reading the Small Arms Review article on the semi version (which is, weirdly, built in Belgium then disassembled and rebuilt in the USA). It was basically a money thing. Standard Army, Navy etc weapons come out of the Army and Navy budget as a whole, just like guns for a Stryker Brigade or a Seabee or Marine unit. Special purpose weapons for SOF come out of a separate budget line, Major Force Program Eleven (MFP-11), that buys all SOF-peculiar gear including radios, HALO rigs, kayaks, you name it. Needless to say there is more demand for “new toys from Q Branch” than there is money to buy them, so the services must prioritize. The SCAR-L wasn’t a big enough improvement over the M4 to justify the millions in SOF money it would take. But there was no Big Green equivalent of the SCAR-H, so it was bought at a rate of about four per SF ODA. I have no visibility on its use by other SOF although I’ve seen AFSOF guys with it. Does that answer your question?

        1. Hognose Post author

          Yeah… but the select-fire is built in the US in the first place. So why not do the semis there too? Excess capacity in Herstal, peut-être?

  2. GBS

    There are few things that elicit more emotional debate than the relative merits or failings of particular firearms. While I usually like what Sen Coburn has to say, Congress-critters easily stray from their wheelhouse of knowledge when speaking of things like this. I recently read that the Marines are buying some 1911s to issue as “Close Quarter Battle Pistols”. Similar arguments are made regarding the 1911 and the M9 regarding stopping power vs larger magazine. One of the more amusing M9 CQB “shortfalls” I read about on another blog was the M9’s takedown lever. Many years ago, a Marine NCO showed me how a 1911 (or most any other automatic) could be stopped from firing by grabbing the slide and pushing the chambered round out of battery just a fraction of an inch. I own examples of both pistols, and that seems more plausible than manipulating the button and turning the takedown lever on an M9. I can certainly understand the argument about stopping power, but the ability to carry a “truckload” of ammo is also compelling. I’ve written here previously about my M1 Garand and what a great rifle it is, but if I had to choose between that very hard-hitting weapon and my M4 clone, the lighter weapon with the truckload of ammo would win every time. Perhaps the next quantum leap in small arms technology is the infantry rifle that CAN fire a thousand rounds at or near cyclic rate and keep on rockin’.

    1. Hognose Post author

      The USMC has long used the 1911 in MARSOC and similar units. A very contentious battle has been raging between Glock and 1911 in the JSOC world.

      The Garand was a great weapon in its day. It gave our boys an overwhelming firepower edge against the Japanese and something like parity against the Germans with their lavish deployment of LMGs. The ARVN were still effective with it as late as 1970.Most people don’t realize this, but it’s shorter and handier than an M14.

      The secret to reliability with high rates of fire is cooling. Getting rid of the waste heat before it can damage the gun or cause cook-offs (potentially damaging the gun AND the user). A cook off test is part of the usual evaluation drill for US (and presumably, foreign) small arms.

      Thanks for the typically insightful comments.

      If you were a Nasal Radiator, you’d have liked meeting the guys I spent a couple days with this week. I missed meeting one of their partners, but his picture on the wall shows him in front of one of his planes: an F4U-7 by the look of it.

  3. Alan Wise

    Anyone who reads the distinguished history of SOG in Southeast Asia and/or talks with SOG vets, will learn how truly effective the XM-177E2 (CAR-15 or Colt Commando) is as a reliable, handy, and deadly weapon. They loved them and other than being stuck for most of the conflict with only 19-round magazines, it was their perfect weapon. They trained hard matching tactics with good trigger control, and kept them clean.

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