"Today's weapon of choice"
That's how Colt describes its product, the M4, which is standard issue in the US military and has impressive furniture options. It's a stubbier version of the former standby, the M16, firing a 5.56 mm round and can be retrofitted with an M203 grenade launcher (With other grenade launchers, in the SEALs we would do the same with our NATO 7.62 mm M14s. They were called thumpers, although I never needed the use for one).
Until recently, the M4 has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a reliable weapon. Yet the disaster in the, until recently, little publicized battle at Wanat in eastern Afghanistan (near the Pakistani border) on July 13, 2008 that resulted in nine dead and 27 wounded American troops is calling the weapon's reliability into question. Unfortunately, the M4 carbine's performance in key battles is merely a synecdoche to a much larger problem that brings to mind the earliest stories concerning the war in Iraq.
A recent study by Douglas R. Cubbison, a military historian with the U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, has listed some grave and troubling deficiencies at the command level just prior to the attack of the outpost that saw its young commander, Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, killed along with 8 of his men when they were overrun by 200 Taliban insurgents who came from a staging area in Pakistan and with the support of the local police department.
In fact, the deficiencies at the command structure were so glaring, that Congressional intervention is being called for. Gun rights advocate Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has also been a vocal critic of the M4 of late. Here's what KITV in Hawaii said last year:
Brostrom's father, David, said he had been concerned about his son's safety even before the lieutenant died.
"They're fighting in a situation where they don't (have) enough troops on the ground and it's been like this for a long time," David Brostrom told KITV in July 2008.
Brostrom's father is a retired Army colonel who spent 30 years flying Army helicopters.
David Brostrom said during a home leave, his son told him he feared for the safety of his men without enough manpower to maintain security.
"That's when I started to worry about him," David Brostrom said.
At David Brostrom's urging, Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Virginia Sen. James Webb have called for an independent investigation by the Department of Defense's solicitor general.
An earlier Army investigation left commanders blameless.
A week and a half ago, Gen. David Petraeus, possibly trying to keep the matter as internal as possible and heading off a Pentagon IG probe, ordered his own investigation into the matter well over a year after the bloodbath.
Increasingly, US troops have been complaining that the M4 jams at the worst possible time. I can tell you from personal experience that a desert environment makes this especially likely if you don't strip, clean and oil your weapon very often. The troops and their superiors often check their ordinance and I have no reason to believe that paratroops wouldn't properly maintenance their weapons knowing fully good and well the effect that sand can have on any machine with moving parts.
"Today's weapon of choice" has time and again been discarded in the heat of battle for other weapons when the barrel overheated during firefights (Contrary to the TIME article, it's an impossibility for a gun to continue firing effectively when the barrel turns white hot. A breakdown would surely happen by the time the barrel turned red-hot.).
The choice of weapon is largely, if not totally, predicated on the terrain. Another determinative factor is the type of battle you'll be fighting, the enemy's range, their ordinance, etc. If you're expecting a full frontal assault by an enemy in vastly superior numbers, you may not want to go with a weapon with a 30 round clip. Even with six round bursts, you'll still find yourself reloading every minute or so. And in the middle of a 7 1/2 hour-long firefight, you will experience breakdowns. Where were the .50 calibers and other large bore full auto ordinance? Where were their own long-range weapons that could counter the Taliban's RPG's? Did they not have actual artillery? An adequate intelligence report gleaned by an unmanned surveillance drone could've answered all these questions (An Afghani tribal leader even asked about the drones in meetings with the US military).
This dovetails into the issue of the lack of heavy machinery. The 45 US and 20 Afghani troops of the Vehicle Patrol Base could only carry what they could carry and the issue of dysfunctional kinetics is what led to their deaths and ceding control of that area to the Taliban (the US Army bristled at the thought we retreated from an area of tactical importance, stating that Wanat was not considered important enough for long-range defense, which begs the question of why we sent a badly-equipped and badly-advised VPB there to begin with.). The bottom line is their ordinance was woefully not up to the task and they lacked the fortifications aside from what the natural terrain offered for an adequate defense.
Cubbison's report returned some other disturbing findings that's becoming tragically familiar:
According to Cubbison, a few days before the battle, on July 4, a US Army helicopter mistakenly attacked and killed 17 local Afghan civilians, including all of the Afghan doctors and nurses at a local clinic, infuriating local Afghans throughout the area. In response, platoon commander Brostrom and company commander Matthew Myer notified senior commanders that they were worried that a retaliatory attack was imminent and that extra surveillence was necessary. Rather than bolstering security around Wanat, however, US Army leaders at Bagram air base ordered the withdrawal of all intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets from the area.
And those are just some of the epic fails of this COIN (counterinsurgency) operation. It brings back memories of the misguided bombs that fell on Fallujah during Operation Desert Storm, the Iraqis' revenge on us in 2004, the two US retaliations and so forth.
US Army commanders were also slow-footed in both bringing to up speed and getting consent from the surrounding tribal elders whose support would've been crucial. In fact, it took them ten months, nearly a year, to bring these tribal leaders into the loop. These same commanders had also gotten word prior to the attack in Wanat that 200-300 insurgents were massing around the outpost and that there was a likelihood of a full frontal assault on our troops. They were attacked days later on two fronts of 100 Taliban militants each who were armed with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenade launchers).
And these same Army commanders, at the worst possible time, never personally scouted the outpost for its tactical suitability, pulled and diverted all unmanned drone recon, much-needed heavy machinery, no effective air support (although they did drop 500 pound bombs) and to fight a nearly hopeless battle with problematic weapons in which they were outmanned three and a half to one (45 US troops and 20 locals vs 200). Seven and a half hours after the assault started, nine US troops were dead with no reason for the tactical failure and the inexplicable decisions by their commanders.
Such oversight would be reprehensible if America was fighting its first COIN campaign. But we've been in Afghanistan for over eight years, which as George Will recently said is over twice the length of time of our combined involvement in both world wars. Such command failures after all these years are absolutely unforgivable.
(Cubbison's report has yet to find its way onto the internet and has been released only to the AP and very few other news outlets. If anyone can find a link to a copy of the report, please pass it along so I can post it.)