Friday, March 16, 2007

The Army doesn't want a better gun

Better than M4, but you can’t have one

Delta Force worked with a gun maker to come up with a better weapon. The 416 is now considered in many circles to be the best carbine in the world, but the regular Army is sticking with the M4 and M16.

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 dependsupon.

Members of the elite unit linked up with German arms maker Heckler & Koch, which replaced the M4’s gas system with one that experts say significantly reduces malfunctions while increasing parts life. After exhaustive tests with the help of Delta, the H&K 416 was ready in 2004.

Delta Force uses it

Members of the elite commando unit — formally known as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta — 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 famed dependability of the rugged AK47.

For the foreseeable future, however, the Army is sticking with the M4 and M16 for regular forces.

To Col. Robert Radcliffe, the man responsible for overseeing 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.”

No 416 any time soon

“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 mind-set is off target now that soldiers are locked in a harsh desert war with no end in sight.

“We are not saying the [M4 and M16 are] bad,” said former Army vice chief of staff retired Gen. Jack Keane. “The issue for me is do our soldiers have the best rifle in their hands.”

Soldiers say

But many soldiers and military experts say this mind-set is off target now that soldiers are locked in a harsh desert war with no end in sight.

“We are not saying the [M4 and M16 are] bad,” said former Army vice chief of staff retired Gen. Jack Keane. “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 that 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 OICW — only to see it sink last year in a sea of bureaucratic opposition.

“If we are going to build the best fighters, and put the best tanks on the ground, don’t our soldiers deserve, absolutely hands down, the best technology for a rifle?,” Keane said. “Not good enough, but the best.”

Constant cleaning

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 associated with urban combat.

Experts, however, contend that the M4 in many ways is even less reliable than the M16.


The M4 suffers from 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 use and training regimens — the M4 Carbine is not the gun for all seasons,” the report concluded.

A different war we're fighting

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 shooting wars in the harshest regions on the planet.

M16 rifles and newer M4 carbines no longer were stored in clean arms room racks. They were now a soldier’s constant companion, 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.

More reliable

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, which leads to fouling problems, and greatly reduces parts wear created by super-heated gases used to cycle the weapon. The result, experts say, is that the 416 is more reliable, easier to maintain and has a longer parts life than the M4.

What the troops say

“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. It’s lightweight, very efficient; it’s clean and has minimal heat transfer.”Vickers retired as a master sergeant in 2003 after serving 15 of his 20 years on active duty with Delta. He played a major role in the development of the 416 while working as weapons research and development sergeant for Delta.

Vickers has stayed connected with the special operations community as a weapons trainer since his retirement. He remembered that Delta leaders were so happy with the 416 they bought the first 500 to come off the assembly line.

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.”

The Army, however, isn’t interested in the 416 or any other current rifle technology.

“We will hold on trying to replace the small-arms fleet, and we will search for technologies that might give us significantly greater capabilities in the next 10 years or something like that,” Radcliffe said.


A 25th Infantry Division soldier wrote, “The M4 Weapon in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan was quick to malfunction when a little sand got in the weapon. Trying to keep it clean, sand free was impossible while on patrols or firefights. Sometimes we spend more time cleaning the weapon than firing it.”


The Army conducted a more recent reliability test between October 2005 and April 2006, which included 10 new M16s and 10 new M4s. Testers fired 35,000 rounds through each weapon in laboratory conditions. On average, the new M16s and M4s fired approximately 5,000 rounds between stoppages, according to an Army official who asked that his name not be released.

By comparison, the 416 fires 10,000 to 15,000 rounds between stoppages in similar test conditions, Vickers said.

In use

In addition to Delta, experts say the 416 is also in use by other specialized Army units, including the Asymmetric Warfare Group, as well as the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6. Infantry Center officials said it’s much easier for special mission units to find the money for new weapons.


Perhaps the most well-known incident of M16s failing in battle involves the 507th Maintenance Company in 2003 during the opening days of the ground invasion of Iraq.

Enemy forces ambushed 507th soldiers outside Nasiriyah, killing 11 and capturing six, when the unit became separated from a supply convoy.

Several of the 507th soldiers later complained that their M16s, and other weapons, failed them during the March 23 ambush.

The Army responded by revamping Basic Training to make sure soldiers knew how to better maintain their weapons and perform malfunction drills.


RoseCovered Glasses said...

I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak.

Let's get off this weaons kick and get to the real problem.

We have bought into the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). If you would like to read this happens please see:

Through a combination of public apathy and threats by the MIC we have let the SYSTEM get too large. It is now a SYSTEMIC problem and the SYSTEM is out of control. Government and industry are merging and that is very dangerous.

There is no conspiracy. The SYSTEM has gotten so big that those who make it up and run it day to day in industry and government simply are perpetuating their existance.

The politicians rely on them for details and recommendations because they cannot possibly grasp the nuances of the environment and the BIG SYSTEM.

So, the system has to go bust and then be re-scaled, fixed and re-designed to run efficiently and prudently, just like any other big machine that runs poorly or becomes obsolete or dangerous.

This situation will right itself through trauma. I see a government ENRON on the horizon, with an associated house cleaning.

The next president will come and go along with his appointees and politicos. The event to watch is the collapse of the MIC.

For more details see:

Nick Brunetti-Lihach said...

I'll look into this, thanks for the info.