March 5, 2007
Out of Reach
Why the U.S. Army’s Best Carbine Won’t Be in Soldiers’ Hands Soon
By MATTHEW COX
March 4, 2002. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) tore into the right engine of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter loaded with a quick-reaction force of U.S. Army Rangers in the Shahikot Mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The Chinook crashed atop Takur Ghar, a 10,000-foot peak infested with al-Qaida fighters.
Enemy fire poured into the fuselage, killing Rangers even before they got off the aircraft. Capt. Nate Self crawled out.
“As soon as I got off the ramp, a burst of rounds fired right over my head,” he recalled.
He joined a handful of his men in the open, exposed to enemy fire. An RPG exploded within a few feet of their position.
“We got up and started firing and moving to some boulders 15 meters away,” he said.
Once behind cover, Self tried to fire again, but his weapon jammed.
Instinctively, he tried to fix it with “immediate action,” a drill he’d practiced countless times.
“I pulled my charging handle back, and there was a round stuck in the chamber,” he said. “There was only one good way to get it out, and that’s to ram it out with a cleaning rod. I started to knock the round out by pushing the rod down the barrel, and it broke off. There was nothing I could do with it after that.”
The Rangers were fighting for their lives. Self, who was awarded a Silver Star for his actions that day, left his covered position and ran under machine-gun fire to search for a working weapon.
“I just got up and moved back to the aircraft because I knew we had casualties there. I threw my rifle down and picked up another one,” he said.
When even highly trained infantrymen like Self have problems with their M4, it is a sign there might be a problem with the weapon, not the soldier.
The problems had become obvious enough that at the time of the Afghanistan battle, members of the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, or Delta Force, had begun working on a solution. Today, Delta Force is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan with a special carbine that’s dramatically more reliable than the M16s and M4s that the rest of the Army depends upon.
Members of the elite unit linked up with German arms-maker Heckler & Koch (H&K), which replaced the M4’s gas system with one that experts say reduces malfunctions while increasing parts life. After exhaustive tests with the help of Delta, the H&K 416 was ready in 2004. Members of the elite commando unit have been carrying it in combat ever since.
The 416 is now considered in many circles to be the best carbine in the world, a weapon that combines the solid handling, accuracy and familiarity of the M4 with the dependability of the rugged AK-47.
For the foreseeable future, however, the Army is sticking with the M4 and M16 for regular forces.
The Army plans to buy about 100,000 M4s in 2008. For this large a purchase, each M4 without accessories costs about $800, said William Keys, chief executive officer of Colt, which supplies M4s and M16s to the Army. As part of the contract, though, each M4 comes with a rail system for mounting optics and flashlights, a backup iron sight, seven magazines and a sling — additions that raise the price for each M4 package to about $1,300, according to Pentagon budget documents.
That’s about the price of each 416, which “will range anywhere from $800 to $1,425 depending on volume and accessories,” H&K Chief Executive John Meyer said.
To Col. Robert Radcliffe, who oversees the Army’s needs for small arms, the M16 family is “pretty damn good.” It’s simply too expensive, he said, to replace it with anything less than a “significant leap in technology.”
Since 2000, that leap centered on development of the XM29 Objective Individual Combat Weapon, a dual system featuring a 5.56mm carbine on the bottom and a 25mm airburst weapon on top, capable of killing enemy behind cover at 1,000 meters.
Seven years and more than $100 million later, the 18-pound prototype — three times the weight of an M4 — is still too heavy.
“We think that somewhere around 2010, we should have enough insight into future technologies to take us in a direction we want to go for the next generation of small arms,” said Radcliffe, director of the Infantry Center’s Directorate of Combat Developments at Fort Benning, Ga.
“We will have M4s and M16s for years and years and years and years,” he said. “We are buying a bunch of M4s this year ... and we are doing it for all the right reasons, by the way. It’s doing the job we need it to do.”
But many soldiers and military experts say this mindset is off target now that soldiers are locked in a harsh desert war.
“We are not saying the [M4 and M16 are] bad,” said Jack Keane, a retired general and former Army vice chief of staff. “The issue for me is: Do our soldiers have the best rifle in their hands?”
Before retiring in late 2003, Keane launched a campaign to modernize individual soldier gear after ground troops fighting in Afghanistan complained they were ill-equipped for the current battlefield. As part of that campaign, Keane backed another effort to give soldiers a better rifle — the XM8, a spinoff of the Objective Individual Combat Weapon — only to see it sink last year in a sea of bureaucratic opposition.
Ever since the Army’s adoption of the M16 in the mid-1960s, a love-hate relationship has existed between combat troops and the weapon known as the “black rifle.”
It’s accurate and easy to shoot. Plus, the M16’s light weight and small caliber helped soldiers carry more ammunition into battle.
The M16, however, has always required constant cleaning to prevent it from jamming. The gas system, while simple in design, blows carbon into the receiver, which can lead to fouling.
The Army has decided to replace most of its M16s with the newer M4 carbine. The Army started buying M4s in the mid-1990s but mainly reserved them for rapid-deployment combat units. Its collapsible stock and shortened barrel make it ideal for soldiers operating in vehicles and tight quarters.
Experts, however, contend that the M4 in many ways is even less reliable than the M16.
Special Operations Command documented these problems in a 2001 report, “M4A1 5.56mm Carbine and Related Systems Deficiencies and Solutions: Operational and Technical Study with Analysis of Alternatives.”
The M4 has an “obsolete operating system,” according to the report, which recommended “redesign/replacement of current gas system.” It describes the weapon’s shortened barrel and gas tube as a “fundamentally flawed” design and blames it for problems such as “failure to extract” and “failure to eject” during firing. “The current system was never designed for the rigors of SOF [Special Operations Forces] use and training regimens — the M4 Carbine is not the gun for all seasons,” the report concluded.
However, Keys, a retired Marine Corps three-star general, said every M4 made at Colt meets the government’s standards.
“It’s quality, quality, everything is quality,” he said. “If you don’t have the quality, you don’t get the gun.”
Before taking the helm at Colt in 1999, Keys spent 35 years in the Marines. He served as a company commander with the 9th Marine Regiment in the Vietnam War and commanded the 2nd Marine Division during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
“I know what a combat gun has to do in combat because I have been in combat,” he said. “I’m not going to put any out there that doesn’t do the job.”
In the 30 years following the Vietnam War, the Army existed mainly as a peacetime force. The 1991 Gulf War was an armor-dominated fight, lasting only 100 hours. Most soldiers put their rifles to little or no use. But after Sept. 11, 2001, soldiers found themselves fighting protracted wars in the harshest regions on the planet.
M16 rifles and newer M4 carbines now were exposed to the super-fine dust and sand that blow across the desert landscapes of Afghanistan and Iraq. Still, the Army is quick to blame most M16-family malfunctions on soldiers not cleaning weapons properly.
The key to the 416’s reliability lies in its gas system. It looks like the M4 carbine on the outside, but on the inside, H&K has replaced Colt’s “gas-tube” system with the short-stroke piston system. This eliminates carbon being blown back into the chamber and greatly reduces parts wear. The result, experts say, is that the 416 is more reliable, easier to maintain and has a longer parts life than the M4.
“It was a phenomenal gun,” said former Delta member and current H&K consultant Larry Vickers. “In my opinion, it has the best gas system on the market for a shoulder-fired autoloading weapon.”
Vickers retired as a master sergeant in 2003 after serving 15 of his 20 years on active duty with Delta Force. He helped develop the 416 while working as weapon research and development sergeant for Delta.
It was in Iraq in no time, but not before H&K and Delta put “a quarter-of-a-million rounds through it,” Vickers said. “It had the right kind of testing — endurance firing to 15,000 rounds with no lubrication. It runs like a sewing machine.”
At Colt’s plant in Connecticut, a government inspector pulls samples from each lot of M4s and performs a 108-point inspection to ensure they meet the Army’s specifications. M4s are also routinely subjected to endurance firing, but only to 6,000 rounds.
It’s the Army that sets the stanard, Colt officials say.
“We make to their specs,” Keys said. “We are not authorized to make any kind of changes.
“If we have a change that we think would help the gun, we go to the Army … which is not an easy process, by the way. We spent 20 years trying to get [an extractor] spring changed. They just said ‘well, this works good enough.’”
Like Colt’s chief executive, the head of H&K is a career military man with combat experience.
Meyer, a retired Army major general, said the fact that soldiers are fighting with basically the same weapon he used four decades ago as a military police captain in Vietnam shows the Army places a low priority on small arms.
“This will sound parochial, but I’m also an ex-soldier and I think it’s very shortsighted that we have a weapon that we are using now for 42 years,” Meyer said.
The Army, however, isn’t interested in the 416 or any other current rifle technology.
RESTORE THE REPUBLIC!
R.W. "D1ck" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952- (Plt #437PISC)-'72
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