Experts: Pentagon must look for more powerful rifles and ammo to replace the M4
It was 48 years ago next month when a young field artillery officer rolled over three of his soldiers killed by North Vietnamese troops to find a shocking sight: M16 rifles broken in a desperate attempt to fix a malfunction.
Army Capt. Robert Scales was awarded a Silver Star for coordinating fire against the enemy in that engagement, but for him, that firefight was less about battlefield heroism and more about the failures of the equipment that his men were issued.
“I never forgot that,” he said.
Scales, who retired as a major general, recounted the vivid tale before a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing Wednesday on the military’s standard issue M4 semi-automatic rifle and its 5.56 mm caliber ammunition that he and critics have said for decades should be replaced to keep pace with modern weapons and body armor.
The M4 carbine is the standard-issue rifle fielded since the mid-1990s and used across the military as a replacement for the M16. The M4 trades shorter barrel length for less muzzle velocity and 50 fewer meters of effective range.
“The M4 rifle is a terribly flawed weapon,” Scales said bluntly during his testimony, describing the central issue of the reliability of the descendant to the M16 rifle that he carried in Vietnam.
The bolt is gas operated and floats back and forth, allowing dirt, dust and sand to cause jamming, he told the lawmakers.
Other nations, including Russia, use closed bolts in their rifles that are far less likely to malfunction, Scales said. That matters in a firefight, he said, when a Russian infantryman can fire 140 rounds a minute with an AK-74 or other rifles — double the amount an M4 can reliably shoot.
Another issue is the ammunition, Scales said. The 5.56 mm NATO round — smaller than the typical 7.62 mm round fired from rifles such as the AK-47 and the 5.45x39 round now used by Russia — lacks mass to produce absolutely lethal effects beyond 400 meters, he said.
Blunting the round’s ability to kill even further is the widespread use of modern body armor, which can withstand the 5.56 mm round, retired Army Lt. Gen. John Bednarek told lawmakers, as the round lacks the velocity over long distances and is designed to fragment on impact.
“We were shooting enemy wearing T-shirts and baggy pants” at the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2002 and 2003, he said. “But now they’re approaching [advanced] body armor.”
Scales’ interest in an ammunition and weapon overhaul potentially dovetails with his defense consultant work in the past. He is the co-founder of Colgen, a firm that focuses on “land power and the services that provide it,” including Army and Special Operations forces, according to SourceWatch.org, a site that tracks the interests of experts such as Scales.
Colgen’s client list included various government agencies, one of which is the Army Materiel Command, according to SourceWatch’s overview of Colgen’s website from 2008.
The command manages ammunition stockpiles, but it remains unclear if Scales is still involved with Colgen or if the firm has secured recent contracts.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a combat veteran, said the 5.56 mm round does have redeeming qualities, such as being half the weight of 7.62 mm rounds and produces less recoil. But Cotton did cite instances from the battlefield when its reduced firepower failed to bring down adversaries.
Scales and Bednarek agreed an intermediate range round between 6.5-7 mm would be an ideal balance between weight, stopping power and recoil.
Scales said modularity is a key feature for a new rifle, where the basic weapon pattern is issued with interchangeable upper receivers, which houses the barrel. Interchangeable upper receivers could be swapped out with short or long barrels depending on the characteristics of the mission.
Reduced lethality over long distances has long been a controversy and crystalized in a paper written in 2009 by then Army Maj. Thomas Ehrhart called “Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking back the Infantry Half-Kilometer.”
Ehrhart collected stories and reports from troops who served there and concluded that many firefights were engaged at distances of 300 meters or more. The M4 has a maximum effective range of 500 meters but that does not take into effect the ballistic shortfalls of the 5.56 mm round, Ehrhart said in his paper.
“While the infantryman is ideally suited for combat in Afghanistan, his current weapons, doctrine, and marksmanship training do not provide a precise, lethal fire capability to 500 meters and are therefore inappropriate,” the paper said.
Ehrhart and other critics have recounted incidents where insurgent forces, armed with more powerful rifles such as the AK-47 would intentionally engage troops at distances greater than their weapons could effectively fire, creating a situation where U.S. troops were limited in their ability to return fire.
“The current 5.56-mm cartridge has limited application in open or mountainous terrain and should be improved, augmented, or replaced,” Ehrhart said, while also advocating for the adoption of a more powerful round in the 6.5-7 mm range.
That echoes a 2006 study by the Joint Service Wound Ballistics–Integrated Product Team, a Pentagon arms research office, which also set the ideal range at 6.5 mm to 7 mm.
During the hearing, the experts and lawmakers tore into Pentagon acquisition officials, who according to committee members said it would take 5 to 7 years to find, buy and field a new rifle.
It could be accomplished possibly in a year with a rapid fielding initiative similar to the Mine-Resistant Ambush Vehicles, which were sped to Afghanistan and Iraq in 2007 after troops there encountered rising threats from improvised explosive devices, Scales said.
Scales and Bednarek shot down concerns over the estimated cost of billions of dollars to replace the M4, suggesting a rifle like the Hechler & Koch HK416 is ready for evaluation. The rifle is based on the AR15 design but with an improved gas piston system and already in some Marine Corps units as the M27.
Scales said Army acquisition officials are held back by the concept of “pure fleeting,” meaning every soldier outside of special operations must carry the same rifle. The acquisition could be sped up by only issuing new rifles and more lethal rounds to ground combat units.
About 85 percent of soldiers perform duties outside combat, Scales said, but “only the infantry closes with and destroys the enemy.”
Scales and Bednarek conceded one issue of replacing ammunition is the stockpile of millions of 5.56 mm rounds in the United States, conflict zones and with allies, particularly in Europe, where forward equipment is kept on hand to be accessed quickly if a conflict with Russia were to erupt.
However, Bednarek said Russia’s advances in body armor and focus on powerful rifles might convince European allies to ditch the 5.56 mm round used by NATO forces. Scales added he believes the M4 rifle cannot reliably penetrate body armor worn by Russian soldiers.
Delays in finding a solution to the M4’s setbacks could have consequences on battlefields today and in the future, Scales said, invoking the idea of his grandson one day fulfilling his promise to serve.
“If we leave the Army’s acquisition bureaucracy in charge of developing our next generation of small arms, I’m fearful he will be walking point one day with the same weapon that failed my soldiers so tragically 50 years ago in Vietnam.”