To this day, the US ground forces find various reasons not to equip soldiers in the firing line with more effective small arms than the M16.
The rifle used by the infantry today has changed little since the 1960s, although it has many flaws. And the life of the military depends on this cheap combination of metal and plastic. Why can't the richest country in the world provide its soldiers with better weapons?
One month and a half after the Battle of Gettysburg, the creator of the seven-shot magazine rifle, Christopher Spencer, traveled with Abraham Lincoln to a grassy field near where the Washington Monument stands today to demonstrate the amazing capabilities of his new weapon. Lincoln had heard of the mystical power of the repeating magazine rifle, which had shown itself at Gettysburg and in other battles in which the Northerners used this weapon. He wanted to test this rifle and equip the rest of his soldiers with it. The President quickly drove seven bullets into a small target 40 yards away. He was impressed.
But for the army bureaucrats, multiple rounds were a costly inconvenience that wasted too much ammunition. The uneducated, narrow-minded, vain, and criminally treacherous General James Ripley, in charge of arming the army, tried to thwart any effort to equip the Northern army with multiple-shot rifles, mainly because he did not want to be unduly bothered. He has achieved considerable success. Civil War historian Robert V. Bruce suggested that if the entire army of the North had been armed with these rifles by 1862, the Civil War would have ended several years earlier, saving the lives of thousands.
Ripley's bureaucratic victory over Lincoln was the start of the longest-running War Department scandal in American history. I know. I almost became one of Ripley's victims. In June 1969, I was in command of a battery in the mountains of South Vietnam. We fired all day, supporting the infantry who had dug in at Hamburger Hill with fire. Every person, every object in our battery was covered with a layer of reddish-brown clay, which was lifted up by the propellers of the Chinook helicopters that delivered us ammunition. By evening, the tired soldiers fell asleep next to their M16s. I was too inexperienced, or perhaps too lazy, to order my soldiers to clean their weapons, although we heard disturbing rumors about the consequences of firing a dirty M16.
At three o'clock in the morning, the enemy struck. It was armed with strikingly reliable and durable AK-47 assault rifles. The Vietnamese climbed for several hours, dragging their submachine guns through the mud; but they opened deadly automatic fire without any problem. But for my subordinates, everything went wrong. To this day, I am haunted by a painting: three of my soldiers, lying on their disassembled rifles, which are jammed, and which they desperately tried to clean.
The weapon that almost half a century ago killed my soldiers in Vietnam, after going through several modifications, continues to kill our soldiers in Afghanistan. General Ripley's ghost still haunts us today. From Gettysburg to Hamburger Hill and the streets of Baghdad, I learned in 35 years of military service that America's passion for equipping troops with lousy rifles has cost us a mind-boggling number of avoidable deaths. Over the next several decades, the Department of Defense will spend more than a trillion dollars on F-35 stealth aircraft, which, after ten years of testing, have never been used in a war zone. And bad rifles are in the hands of our soldiers in every war zone.
In the wars after World War II, the overwhelming majority of military personnel were not directly involved in the destruction of the enemy. Their work has become about the same as that of civilians. It is the task of the infantry - to purposefully seek and destroy the enemy, while risking their own lives. Ground forces infantry, marines and a small number of special forces make up about 100 thousand people in aggregate, which is equal to five percent of the total military personnel of the armed forces. During World War II, 70% of those killed at the hands of the enemy were infantrymen. In subsequent wars, this figure rose to 80%. These are people (mostly men) whose lives depend on their weapons and ammunition.
In battle, an infantryman lives the life of a beast. The primitive laws of fangs and claws determine whether he survives or dies. A person dies quickly. The fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq confirms the lesson that small arms combat cannot be fair and honorable. The infantry enters the engagement zone exhausted, tired, confused, hungry and frightened. Her weapons and equipment are dirty, old, shabby, and often out of order. Infantrymen are killed in patrols and searches, from enemy ambushes, from sniper fire, from mines and improvised explosive devices. The soldier has only a split second to take his weapon at the ready, aim and pull the trigger, ahead of the enemy. Whether he survives or not depends on his ability to apply more lethal force over a greater distance and with greater accuracy than the enemy.
Any disadvantage, any lost advantage, no matter how small, means death. A cartridge jammed, the enemy turned out to be faster and more elusive, having escaped aimed fire or found himself out of range of fire, and he himself can conduct powerful return fire - all this negates the huge advantages of expensive American air and sea-based weapons systems that can provide fire support to ground forces … The soldier is told during the young soldier's course that the rifle is his best friend and the ticket home. And if the lives of such a huge number of people depend on the creation of a cheap object of metal and plastic worth 1,000 dollars and weighing less than three kilograms, then why the richest country in the world cannot provide its soldiers with quality weapons?
The answer to this question is both complex and simple. The standard automatic rifle of today's infantry, the M4, is a lightweight version of the M16 rifle that killed so many of its armed soldiers in Vietnam. (M16 is still widely used today.) In the early morning of June 13, 2008, a Taliban attack on a checkpoint near the village of Wanat in the Afghan province of Nuristan killed nine infantrymen. Some of the surviving Sweat soldiers said that during the battle, their rifles overheated, and they often jammed. The story of the death of soldiers near the village of Vanat is very similar to what happened in Vietnam. In fact, aside from a few cosmetic changes, the rifles were virtually the same in both wars. And because of the shortened barrel, the M4 is less effective at long distances than the old M16. This is a very serious flaw in modern combat, which is increasingly fought over long distances.
Standard automatic carbine of today's infantry M16A4
The M16 began life as an ingenious invention of one of the world's most famous gunsmiths. In the 1950s, an engineer named Eugene Stoner used space-age materials to improve the then-mainstream M14 infantry rifle. The 5, 56 mm cartridge of his choice was not a modified cartridge from the M14. It was a cartridge from a Remington hunting rifle that was used to hunt small predators. The AR-15 rifle invented by him was light, comfortable, and could conduct controlled automatic fire. It was superior in quality to the heavier, more recoilless M14. However, the ground forces again reluctantly went into rearmament. As James Fallows noted in 1981 in his journal, it took "strong support" from President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for the Army to reconsider its attitude towards the larger caliber M14. In 1963, the army began slowly transitioning to Stoner's invention.
The M16 became the "militarized" version of the AR-15. This militarization, which included more than 100 design changes that were supposed to make the rifle fit for battle, killed the first party put on the front, and the number of soldiers killed was enormous. From the charge ordered by the ground forces, gunpowder remained in the barrel, which clogged the rifle. The meticulously crafted parts of the M16 made the rifle a whimsical "princess and a pea" in terms of care and maintenance. In the conditions of Vietnam with its humidity, dust and dirt, it required constant cleaning. Over time, the ground forces improved the rifle - but before that, many American soldiers died.
Not all of the M16's problems can be blamed on the army. In the design of the M16, and now the M4, there is one flaw that cannot be eliminated by any militarization and alterations. In the Stoner rifle, the cartridge is fed from the magazine into the chamber using the energy of the powder gases discharged from the bore when a bullet passes through it. Powder gases discharged from the bore through a thin aluminum gas vent tube produce a strong push, pushing the bolt back. Thus, the bolt mechanism moves freely in the rifle body. Dust, dirt, remnants of gunpowder - all this can cause jamming of the bolt, and therefore the entire rifle as a whole.
Unlike the M16, the Soviet AK-47 has a sturdy gas piston rod connected to the bolt. The pressure of the propellant gases discharged from the barrel presses on the stem and on the bolt as a whole, and the firm locking of the barrel with the bolt ensures that neither dirt nor dust will interfere with the machine's function. Fearing the fatal consequences of failure of the cartridge feed mechanism in combat, some elite SWAT units such as Delta and the 6th SEAL are using a more reliable stem mechanism. However, the Army and Marines still fire with weapons that jam more often than the AK-47. The failure of the feed mechanism affects all aspects of modern combat. A Russian infantryman can fire about 140 bullets per minute non-stop. The rate of fire of the M4 is about two times lower.
During the Civil War, General Ripley, among other things, argued that it would be difficult for infantrymen to cope with complex multi-charge weapons. We still hear similar and very unconvincing arguments today. Over the 13 years of the war, the current soldier has repeatedly shown that he can cope with the greatest difficulties. He is a seasoned professional with many years of service behind him, and deserves the same excellent small arms as the "elite" SWAT team, which purchases the best civilian weapons and equipment if they wish.
What should be the new universal infantry rifle of the new generation? It must be modular in design. Now, at one base, you can collect different types of weapons. A squad fighter can equip his weapon according to needs, attaching different barrels, butts, grips, feed systems and devices. As a result, he can get a light machine gun, carbine, rifle or infantry machine.
The military must change the caliber and cartridge of the weapon that the infantryman is fighting with. Stoner's small 5.56mm cartridge was ideal as it reduced the recoil of WWII infantry calibers and allowed fully automatic fire. But today's cartridge is simply too small for modern combat. Lack of mass reduces its range to 400 meters. The optimal caliber for the rifle of tomorrow is somewhere between 6, 5 and 7 millimeters. The new cartridge can be made almost as light as the 5.56mm brass cartridge by using a plastic cartridge that is currently in development for use by the Marine Corps.
The Ground Forces can create an infantry version of the stealth weapon by equipping each rifle with state-of-the-art silencers. Instead of simply drowning out the sound of the shot by venting the gases, the new design allows the propellant gases to be directed forward to reduce flash and bore sound. Of course, the enemy caught under fire will hear muffled sounds of shooting. But as with other types of weapons with stealth characteristics, the enemy will be in an extremely disadvantageous position when he tries to determine the exact location of the weapon from which they are firing.
Computer miniaturization allows high precision scopes to be made. All that an infantryman with a sight of a new type will need to do is to aim the red dot at the target and press the button located on the front of the trigger guard. The computer on his rifle will take into account such data as the range and lead angle to a moving target, and then fire a shot at the moment when an accurate hit is guaranteed. Such a sight will "see" the enemy day and night at a distance of more than 600 meters. An enemy soldier caught in the crosshairs of such a sight will die long before he realizes that he was seen. And he will definitely not be able to open an effective return fire.
But Marines don't have rifles with these new scopes today. And the hunters do. In fact, new rifles and ammunition are already available. They are made by a wide variety of manufacturers - civilian weapons factories, foreign arms suppliers who equip the special forces elite. Unlike conventional infantry, spetsnaz units at the top of the military hierarchy are not burdened with numerous rules when purchasing weapons and equipment. They have good funding and freedom of action, using which they can demand from private enterprises to create convenient and effective innovations. These units test new weapons in battle, and often get excellent results: greater accuracy, reliability, destructive power.
The Army says the new rifle will cost more than $ 2 billion - during a period of funding shortages. But let the Army and Marines buy new rifles only for those who use them the most, namely the infantry. If each rifle were to cost $ 1,000, it would cost roughly $ 100 million per 100,000 infantry. That's less than one F-35 fighter. The ground forces and marines will be able to keep the existing stocks of M4 and M16 in reserve for arming non-infantry personnel with these rifles in the unlikely event that they find themselves in battle.
From the days of General James Ripley to this day, ground forces have found various reasons not to equip soldiers in the line of fire with the safest and most effective small arms. Investing a few dollars now will save the lives of many brave foot soldiers of future generations.