Continued from page 3

“It has no penetrating power,” he said of the M4. “It’s ineffective against vehicles, against bunkers. It’s ineffective against virtually anything except a man in the open. Put a flak jacket on the enemy and it’s virtually useless.”

The Army believes it is answering critics such as Gen. Scales with a 5.56 mm round — the “green” lead-free M885A1 introduced in 2010. The ammunition, the Army contends, has more penetration power and longer effective range to kill the enemy.

Gen. Scales also asks why the Army issues only one model of conventional carbine.

“More soldiers are killed because of small-arms engagement than air-sea battle, air-to-air combat,” he said. “There is a difference between breaking down doors in Baghdad and fighting in the open, flat terrain of Afghanistan. One deserves a heavy bullet with longer range. One deserves to be light and nimble and maneuverable inside of buildings.”

In 2009, eight years into the war, an Army officer wrote a study making that point.

“Open source reports from Afghanistan since 2001 reveal that soldiers are engaging the enemy at ranges from contact distance to beyond the maximum effective range of the M4 carbine,” wrote Maj. Thomas P. Ehrhart, who at that time was attending the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. “Many comments focus on the ability of the soldier to hit his intended target or a failure of the bullet to achieve the desired effect.”

He summed up his findings by concluding that the M4 is not the best weapon for America’s longest war: “Operations in Afghanistan frequently require United States ground forces to engage and destroy the enemy at ranges beyond 300 meters. 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.”

Troublesome test reports

The first second-guessing on the M4 occurred inside the military in 2000, when U.S. Special Operations Command, in conjunction with gun specialists at Naval Sea Systems Command, conducted an exhaustive evaluation of its version — the heavier-barrel M4A1. At the time, SoCom had no idea it was testing a critical weapon on the eve of two major land wars that would thrust commandos into constant combat.

With SEALs and Green Berets in mind, testers subjected the carbine to the kind of constant barrel-burning fire in harsh conditions that would erupt in Iraq and Afghanistan.

SoCom’s private study called the M4A1 carbine “fundamentally flawed.” Upon firing, the bolt opened and attempted to extract a cartridge case that was stuck to the chamber because of pressure from the fired round. The gun can be kept at “reasonable levels of reliability” if subjected to “intense maintenance,” the report said.

The study also mentioned “alarming failures of the M4A1 in operations under harsh conditions and heavy firing.” It blamed six factors, including spare parts shortages and a “decline in quality control along with mass production.”

The report said that at a conference of joint special operations forces — SEALs, Rangers and Delta Force — the warriors “identified multiple operational deficiencies inherent to the M4A1” including reliability, safety and accuracy.”

Barrels can become loose and “become inaccurate.”

Still, the SoCom report said, the M4A1 “essentially meets the needs of conventional Army users.”

Story Continues →