First of two parts
Army Senior Warrant Officer Russton B. Kramer, a 20-year Green Beret, has learned that if you want to improve your chances to survive, it’s best to personally make modifications to the Army’s primary rifle — the M4 carbine.
Warrant Officer Kramer has been dropped into some of the most ferocious battles in the war on terrorism, from hunting Islamists in the mountains of northern Iraq to disrupting Taliban opium dealers in dusty southern Afghanistan. He was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in Operation Viking Hammer to crush the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam in Iraq.
The warrant officer said he and fellow Special Forces soldiers have a trick to maintain the M4A1 — the commando version: They break the rules and buy off-the-shelf triggers and other components and overhaul the weapon themselves.
“The reliability is not there,” Warrant Officer Kramer said of the standard-issue model. “I would prefer to use something else. If I could grab something else, I would.”
Documents obtained by The Washington Times show the Pentagon was warned before the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that the iterations of the M4 carbine were flawed and might jam or fail, especially in the harsh desert conditions that both wars inflicted.
U.S. Special Operations Command in 2001 issued a damning private report that said the M4A1 was fundamentally flawed because the gun failed when called on to unleash rapid firing.
In 2002, an internal report from the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey said the M4A1 was prone to overheating and “catastrophic barrel failure,” according to a copy obtained by The Times.
The test findings also carried ramifications for the regular Army. By 2002, soldiers were carrying thousands of the conventional, light-barrel M4, of which the service ultimately would buy nearly 500,000 and send them into long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The M4, at times, has been called upon to perform the same kind of rapid fire as the M4A1.
Colt Defense LLC of Hartford, Conn., which lost exclusive M4 design rights in 2009, has steadfastly defended the rifle through years of controversy. The Army contract went to another manufacturer last year.
Colt did not respond to requests for comment.
The gun manufacturer’s website states that “throughout the world today, the Colt’s M4 reliability, performance and accuracy provide joint coalition forces with the confidence required to accomplish any mission. Designed specifically for lightweight mobility, speed of target acquisition, and potent firepower capability, the M4 delivers. Proven in military combat operations all over the world, it is in a class by itself as a first rate combat weapon system.”
Colt’s monopoly on the Army’s weapon ended in February 2013, when the service awarded the M4 contract to FN Herstal, a global firearms manufacturer owned by Belgium’s regional Walloon government and the operator of a plant in South Carolina.
Colt had a good run. Since the mid-1990s, the Army has spent $600 million to buy more than a half-million carbines.
Critics say the SoCom and Army reports should have prompted the Army to pursue a better design in the early 2000s. The Army periodically improved the rifle, but did not conduct a comprehensive upgrade until a senator pressured the top brass years later.
In 2011, a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Army announced that it was converting M4s to the commando version with a heavier barrel and automatic trigger firing.
Some of the problems uncovered in 2001 and 2002, such as stoppages or jamming, became evident in the conventional firearm, most infamously in the 2008 Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan in which nine U.S. troops lost their lives.
“Realistically speaking, there’s been loss of life that is unneeded because there was a dumbing-down of the weapon system,” said Scott Traudt, who advised the Army on how to improve the M4 a decade ago.
Today, he is a special adviser at Green Mountain Defense Industries of Strafford, Vt., a Colt competitor that is manufacturing a new rifle that it hopes to sell to special operations.
Replaced by SCAR
In an independent overall survey of soldiers back from Iraq and Afghanistan, 20 percent reported that the M4 jammed during battle, and one-fifth of those said the stoppages made a “large impact.”
Faced with inaction by the Pentagon, soldiers such as Warrant Officer Kramer have taken matters into their own hands, even at the risk of discipline.
“There are enhancements you can do to your weapon to bring that reliability level up. While we’re not authorized to change our weapon or modify them in any manner, obviously there are some guys out there, including myself, we’ll add some things to our guns to bring that reliability level up,” he told The Times. “I’d rather face six of my peers in a court martial versus being 6 feet down.”
The M4 has brought consistent complaints about at least three shortfalls: At a 250-yard effective-kill distance, it lacks range; its 5.56 mm round lacks killing power; and the gun requires constant maintenance — cleaning and lubricating — in sandy conditions or is prone to jamming. Soldiers also complain that the magazine dents easily and the springs break.
The short-barreled weapon was suited for house-to-house fighting in Iraq. But in Afghanistan, its lack of range meant that the Taliban could operate at a safe distance.
Mr. Traudt said there are M4 failures in battle that do not get publicized. The fact that M4s broke down at Wanat was not known publicly until Army historians chronicled the battle and released their narrative in 2010. Even the general in charge of buying the gun said he had not heard of the problems until the press reported on the Army history.
There does not appear to be a comprehensive assessment of the M4 by any oversight agency — even though the weapon is the ground warrior’s most critical asset. The Government Accountability Office, Congress’ auditor, has not assessed the M4 since it entered service in the mid-1990s. Likewise, the Pentagon’s top operational tester has not conducted live-fire tests of the M4 or the commando M4A1.
Alarmed after the 2001 test, SoCom developed its own gun, the Special Operations Forces Assault Rifle (SCAR), and handed it out to Army Rangers, Green Berets and Navy SEALs. Delta Force, the Army’s elite counterterrorism unit, bought a German-designed rifle. Sources say SoCom is not entirely happy with either gun and still relies on the M4A1.
“The 5.56 [caliber] SCAR was a failure from the viewpoint of the men,” said Ryan Zinke, a former member of SEAL Team 6, the elite terrorist-hunting unit.
A questionable standard
The M4 carbine’s Iraq-Afghanistan history is replete with spotty tests and performance, but also with praise from a devoted cadre who took it to war. The M4, a lighter, shorter-range version of the M16 rifle, is generally popular among the majority of combat-savvy soldiers who completed questionnaires, Army surveys show.
The Times interviewed two active-duty special operations troops who noted flaws but expressed love for the Colt-developed gun.
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“The reality for all armies is that governments cannot afford to purchase a perfect assault rifle. It is simply cost-prohibitive,” said an Army Green Beret who is not authorized to speak on the record. “For its cost, I consider the M4 to be an amazing assault rifle. Between the M16 and M4, I’ve carried weapons from that family for nearly 30 years and would not trade them for any other fielded families of assault rifles.”
A Marine commando who served in Afghanistan praised the firearm but noted that it requires constant cleaning or becomes vulnerable to jamming. “The first thing you do back at camp is clean the gun,” he said.
Mr. Zinke, the former SEAL, said the M4A1 improved as its flaws were worked out.
“The M4 has become the standard special forces weapon system,” said Mr. Zinke. “The rail system has greatly improved over time and can easily accommodate advances in optics, illumination and targeting. The 5.56 mm M4 provides an appropriate trade-off between range and firepower. Improvements and diversity in ammunition types has also improved its versatility.”
Mr. Traudt, of Green Mountain Defense, said the military paid his company a decade ago for ideas for fixing the M4. He produced his company’s product, a 2001 technical report titled “Carbine extended life barrel and selected reliability improvement components identification.”
“The M4s were substandard,” he said. “The Army paid us to find a way to improve them, improve them cheaply with a little bit of extra engineering and metallurgical changes to make a gun that was markedly more reliable than the Colt weapon. The Army took our advice and did nothing with it.”
‘It’s virtually useless’
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, an artillery officer who earned the Silver Star in Vietnam, is a prominent M4 critic.
He said its 5.56-caliber bullet is too small and the gas-piston firing system is prone to stoppage. He said better weapons — the German Heckler-Koch G36 and Russian AK-74 (a version of the venerable AK-47) — use superior firing systems.
“Frankly, this whole thing is scandalous,” Gen. Scales said. “We send soldiers into close combat with lousy weapons and we’ve done it since World War II and nobody complains. It’s a national outrage.
“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.”
Months later, the Army’s Armament Technology Facility, part of the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, conducted its own study of the M4A1.
The 2002 report sent by the facility’s chief to Special Operations Command told of “reliability problems related to the failure to extract and eject casings, broken bolts, failure to function in arctic and over-the-beach (surf zone, surface and subsurface swimmer) environments,” according to a copy obtained by The Times.
“The M4A1 has also experienced cook-off [premature ammunition explosion] after a relatively few numbers of rounds have been fired at a high rate of fire,” it said. “Catastrophic barrel failure has also been experienced after a relatively low number of rounds have been fired.”
The Times asked Special Operations Command why it continued to distribute the M4A1.
“The M4A1 and M4 Carbines have served our forces well during more than a decade of sustained combat,” said Navy Capt. Kevin Aandahl. “The Army has improved the M4A1/M4 significantly over the past 12 years. The Army developed a heavy barrel and placed it in production in 2002. In addition, the M4 and M4A1 have received improvements to the trigger assembly, extractor spring, recoil buffer, barrel chamber, magazine and bolt. These upgrades addressed the issues raised in the 2002 report.”
Capt. Aandahl said the command on its own has fielded new gun parts to “improve the M4A1 capability to meet USSOCOM requirements for close-in, urban operations and room-clearing types of engagements that require this type of weapon.”
The same year Picatinny weighed in, the Marine Corps conducted its own testing of the conventional M4. The Corps infantryman’s main rifle was then, and is today, the longer-range, heavier-barrel M16.
The Army Times, an independent Gannett newspaper, later reported that the “M4 malfunctioned three times more often than the M16A4.”
To Mr. Traudt and other M4 critics, the testing should have prompted the Army to rethink the design as thousands of the carbines were about to be shipped overseas.
Mr. Traudt said he thinks the jamming problems encountered by a significant segment of troops over the past decade could have been avoided if special operations continued developing Green Mountain’s Reliability Product Improvement Kit.
The kit was tested at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Ind., in 2001 and at Picatinny in 2002. It included replacing the extractor spring, ejector spring, gas tube and gas plug with more heat-resistant ones, and moving to a one-piece, four-coil system that was engineered from more thermally durable materials to make the gun function better.
“An M4A1, when equipped with those parts, will fire continuously on full-automatic magazine after magazine until its barrel disintegrates,” Mr. Traudt said. “In our tests, M4A1 barrel failure occurred at 1,375 rounds. A normal Army M4A1 is out of action at 840 shots fired when equipped with its standard, metallurgically and technologically antiquated parts — and this isn’t even barrel failure. It’s gas system or bolt failure.”
At the time of the tests, internal reports by SoCom and Picatinny said the M4A1 was terribly flawed and not suited for commando missions.
One person on Capitol Hill eventually took notice. By 2007, enough anecdotal evidence had poured in from the wars to prompt Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, to launch a campaign for the Army to find a new rifle.
“Considering the longstanding reliability and lethality problems with the M16 design, of which the M4 is based, I am afraid that our troops in combat might not have the best weapon,” Mr. Coburn wrote to the Army in April 2007. “A number of manufacturers have researched, tested and fielded weapons which, by all accounts, appear to provide significantly improved reliability.”
The senator fought a lonely battle the next five years. No other lawmaker joined his campaign for a better basic rifle, but in the end, he forced the Army to change.