Second of two parts. Read first part here.
A former Army historian who chronicled the infamous Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan, where nine U.S. soldiers died after their M4 carbines jammed, tells The Washington Times that his official account was altered by higher-ups to absolve the weapons and senior officers.
M4 critics have long pointed to the Afghanistan battle on July 13, 2008, as evidence that the rifle’s design was flawed. They cite reports from soldiers on the ground that their guns overheated and jammed that day.
But the gun’s supporters have pointed to a single sentence in the official Wanat history issued in 2010 by the Army’s Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. It blamed the gun’s sustained rapid fire that day, not its design, for the malfunctions.
“This, not weapons maintenance deficiencies or inherent weaknesses in weapons design, was the reason a number of weapons jammed during the battle,” the sentence read.
Higher-ups inside Army command edited that sentence into the history, the report’s author says.
“That was not my conclusion,” said Douglas R. Cubbison, a former Army artillery officer and principal Wanat history author. “That was the Combat Studies Institute management that was driven from the chief of staff’s office to modify findings of that report to basically CYA [cover your ass] for the Army. You know how that works.
“Other soldiers have informally told me of similar problems they had with the M4 at high rates of fire,” said Mr. Cubbison, who is now curator of the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum.
Higher-ups made other changes, such as removing much of the historian’s criticism of senior officers for not better preparing the outpost for an attack.
“The Army tried to manipulate that study after it was basically done. They significantly changed things to a classic CYA,” Mr. Cubbison said.
Lt. Col. James Lowe, a spokesman at Fort Leavenworth, said the Army sticks by the changes it has made.
“The way that our studies are done, it’s a staff process,” he said. “And they disagreed with some of his conclusions about the weapons, and they firmly believe that the analysis supports what’s actually in the report.”
M4 critics say exonerating the M4 at Wanat follows a pattern: The Army vigorously defends its front-line rifle in public; behind the scenes, it works to correct its flaws.
The Times reported Thursday that documents it obtained show the Pentagon was warned as early as 2001 and 2002 that the M4A1 carbine — the commando version — had flaws that made it more likely to jam in desert conditions.
The editing to absolve the M4 was important because Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, was waging a campaign to convince the Army that the gun was faulty and needed replacing.
Critics said Mr. Cubbison’s history showed the gun was not designed for America’s longest war, in which triggers, magazines and pistons must withstand sand and be called on to unleash rapid fire.
An interesting footnote is that, until the history was first leaked in 2009 and published a year later, no one had reported publicly that multiple M4s failed soldiers that day. A lengthy TV documentary on Wanat never broached the subject.
Mr. Cubbison said the history spoke for itself and did not need changes by managers.
“It was also not the assessment of numerous soldiers at Wanat,” he said.
Unlike Desert Storm, a war fought mostly with planes and armor, counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan put rifles to the ultimate test in a series of fire fights, year in, year out, making the M4 the soldier’s most important weapon.
Failure in the heat of battle
The history recounts in detail the day a Taliban force assaulted a combat outpost in Wanat in the Nuristan province of northeastern Afghanistan. Manned by 49 U.S. soldiers, including 40 paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, the outpost sat in a bowl surrounded by mountains from which the soldiers predicted in homemade videos that they would be attacked one day like sitting ducks.
Staff Sgt. Erich Phillips, a seasoned combatant who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, burned out three M4s trying to defend a mortar position.
“In particular, the M4s experienced difficulty maintaining such a rate after the barrels got excessively hot. When that occurred, the weapons would jam, as happened to Phillips,” the history said.
These soldiers were experiencing the types of weapon failures found by testers in 2001 and 2002.
“Six years later, we can’t fix a known problem in the middle of a war,” Mr. Cubbison told The Times.
Spc. Chris McKaig told of firing from a crow’s nest as a comrade, its only other inhabitant, was gunned down.
“My weapon was overheating,” he said. “I had shot about 12 magazines by this point already and it had only been about a half-hour or so into the fight. I couldn’t charge my weapon and put another round in because it was too hot, so I got mad and threw my weapon down.”
The historians wrote that “most of the weapons that jammed at Wanat were M4 carbines.”
Still, they concluded it was not the M4’s fault.
In the official Army history, the full management edit — not performed by the authors — reads: “The M4 was the basic individual weapon carried by U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan and was not designed to fire at the maximum or cyclic rate for extended periods. Enemy action and weapons dispositions forced the defenders to use their M4s in uncharacteristic roles. This, not weapons maintenance deficiencies or inherent weaknesses in weapons design, was the reason a number of weapons jammed during the battle.”
Scott Traudt, a small-arms specialist whose company, Green Mountain Defense Industries, is manufacturing its own assault rifle, called the finding a whitewash.
“Fielding a battle rifle whose barrel blows up in sustained fire after only 490 rounds is criminal negligence,” he said. “[The] weapons failed because they were designed around some arbitrary, ‘average’ combat situation by somebody oblivious to the present and future high consumptive, mobile, asymmetric wars and insurgencies we face.”
Mr. Cubbison said there was talk inside and outside the Army that the soldiers were to blame for not maintaining their M4s.
“I can tell you, I guarantee you, weapons were cleaned in that platoon,” he said. “I’ve talked to just about every guy who was there. They knew it was a bad location. They expected to get hit and get hit hard. Nobody was going to neglect weapons maintenance when they’re expecting to be in the soup at any moment. Weapons cleaning wasn’t an issue.”
Mr. Cubbison said he has a contact inside a small-arms unit of Program Executive Office Soldier, the Army command that equips warriors.
“I know that those guys have done a lot of work on reviewing and evaluating the weapon and trying to figure out what the problem is with it,” he said.
Retired Army Col. David Brostrom lost his son, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, that day in Wanat village. After reading early post-action reports, he became convinced those soldiers were let down by superiors who failed to take basic steps to protect the outpost and heed intelligence reports. He pushed for further investigation, which led to an extensive U.S. Central Command report in June 2010.
It found that the company, battalion and brigade commanders were derelict in their duties. A four-star general disciplined three officers but withdrew the punishment after they provided additional information.
Col. Brostrom says today he should have pushed the inquiry to focus more attention on performance of the M4.
“Maybe it was my mistake. I didn’t focus on the jamming,” he said. “I knew about the gun, and I knew it wasn’t great. It took a lot of fire discipline among your soldiers to keep the gun working.
“Because they were so close to the enemy, some were just sticking their weapons above the sandbags and spraying and praying. Putting the weapons on automatic and letting it go.
“A little bit of dirt in that thing, it won’t sustain that high rate of fire at all. The barrel gets hot and everything melts in the dang thing. They were firing their weapons trying to save their lives and just about everything jammed.”
Col. Brostrom said he does not know whether some M4s jammed after limited fire while others quit after rapid automatic rounds. He does know that by the time his son made his way to the outpost under intense fire, virtually all the weapons had shut down. A corporal had no working gun when Lt. Brostrom arrived.
The corporal “jumped down to the lower step and tried to go after them with his bare hands. They shot him point-blank in the chest,” he said.
The Taliban shot his son multiple times.
“I know now if the weapons were better and they would not have jammed, there would be more soldiers alive, maybe even my son,” Col. Brostrom said.
Chief Warrant Officer Tyler Stafford knew the M4 had drawbacks months before a wave of rocket-propelled grenades hit the Wanat outpost that day.
Then-Spc. Stafford had experienced two gunbattles during which his M4 jammed because of what he considers a substandard 30-round magazine.
He contends that, while Army higher-ups say soldiers pushed the carbines beyond their firing capacity that day and burned out the barrels, faulty magazines could be the culprit in some of the stoppages.
“The Army never looked at the type of magazines that were used,” he said. “That’s what we found would cause a lot of failures. If you used the standard old Army tin magazines that had been used in a couple of deployments, they really wore down and would cause a lot of jams just because of failure to feed and the springs were worn out in them.
“They just don’t get replaced readily, and when they do, they still get replaced by a standard-issue magazine that just isn’t a very good magazine at all.”
To improve the M4 on the run, Chief Warrant Officer Stafford said, “A lot of us went out and bought our own magazines. They worked far better.”
Defending the carbine
Chief Warrant Officer Stafford has left the gritty job of infantryman for the world of Army aviation, flying AH-64 Apache helicopters.
Since the 2008 battle, he took the time to research the M4’s history — the spotty tests, the soldier surveys, the attempts to improve it — and compared the data with his own experiences.
His assessment: “It is my personal belief that the M4 is a substandard front-line weapon and lacks the reliability and firepower that many infantrymen are in need of.
“Everybody’s biggest problem with the M4 is that it’s such a high-maintenance weapon, that continually you have to keep it very, very clean, very well-oiled,” he said. “In the infantry world, that’s tough to do, especially when you’re living in the dirt and fighting every other day.”
Whatever the internal discussions, the Army has defended the rifle in public for more than a decade.
Lt. Col. Donald Peters, a spokesman at the Pentagon, said the service has made 41 improvements since 2001 that were among 90 engineering changes to the M4 and commando M4A1 since the gun was in development in the early 1990s.
The plan now is to revamp M4s into higher-performance M4A1s beginning this winter.
“The M4A1 the Army is currently producing has a slightly heavier barrel than the M4, which increases the weapons system’s ability to withstand heat and therefore gives it a greater sustained rate of fire,” Col. Peters said. “The M4A1 also has full auto capability and more consistent trigger pull, along with ambidextrous fire control.”
The Army often cites surveys to defend the M4. It questions every unit that returns from combat and finds that eight out of 10 like the gun.
The Center for Naval Analysis found the same results in a 2006 independent survey of 2,600 soldiers who had been in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But soldiers did complain about a lack of lethality. One of the major gripes was from retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a highly decorated artillery officer.
Perhaps more important, 20 percent reported that the M4 had jammed during a firefight. Of those, 18 percent said the stoppage had a “large impact” in battle.
Put to the test
Gen. Scales said the problem with such surveys is that they do not focus on the soldiers who engaged in the most intense combat during which the M4 is fired and relied on the most.
“The people who use the M4 seriously, the close-combat soldiers, when they use it seriously for a Wanat, their vote is the same in these surveys as the kid who is a computer operator at Camp Victory,” he said. “So when you lump it all together, the whole thing seems to be perfectly fine.”
As for Chief Warrant Officer Stafford’s firsthand experience with M4 magazines, Gen. Scales said: “If my son were in the infantry, for his birthday I would buy him about 50 [German] Heckler and Koch magazines, not just for him, but for his buds. Why do we die for a dollar-and-seventy-cent item when a fighter plane costs $550 million?”
Exactly one year after Wanat, the Army began fielding what it said was an improved M4 magazine.
The survey numbers on jamming alarmed Mr. Coburn. He took on a large group of Army supporters — its huge following of lawmakers and staffers in Congress and retired top brass who sit on the boards of various munitions manufacturers — to advocate a better rifle.
By December 2007, the Army was testing the M4 against competitors at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
The competition matched the M4 against three European-designed assault rifles, all firing 6,000 rounds in sandstorm conditions. The three interlopers recorded 233 or fewer stoppages. The M4 racked up more than three times as many: 882, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The Army and manufacturer Colt Defense LLC later said the M4 had much fewer shutdowns and blamed the high count on M4s that were not combat-ready.
Next came the Army’s most extensive M4 review to date: a small-arms capabilities-based assessment. By January 2009, the Army was telling Congress that its rifles and machine guns, including the M4, had 25 “capability gaps,” including a need for greater lethality and for a gun that did not need constant cleaning and lubrication — in other words, what critics had been saying about the M4.
With the report completed, the Army embarked on a major M4 upgrade, though it contended the gun’s basic design remained sound.
Critics persisted. One was Sgt. Charles Perales, at the time stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.
He wrote a letter published in Defense News:
“My unit — B Company, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment — was deployed to Afghanistan from April 2005 to March 2006. While there, we were attached to Special Forces at Camp Tillman on the Afghan border. I saw first-hand what happens when your weapon jams up because of the harsh environments we have to call home there. An 18B weapons sergeant was shot in the face due directly to his weapon jamming. I just can’t believe that after things like this happen, the Army is still buying more M4s. Soldiers’ lives are on the line. Why is it a hassle to make an improvement that could save lives? The M4 isn’t a bad weapon; it just needs improvements. It’s about time people stop fighting to keep things the same and start moving toward a better weapon system.”
After the shootout
Green Berets have a method to prevent a “Wanat” from happening: They upgrade the rifle themselves.
Senior Warrant Officer Russton B. Kramer, a 20-year Green Beret, said he realized during training that the M4 was subject to malfunctions. Shells would not extract. Overheating. The gun got too dirty.
“It’s a maintenance queen,” he said. “It’s an incredibly finicky gun. You have to run it with the right amount of lubrication. You have to keep it clean. You’ve got to be kind of delicate with it to make it function right.”
But he never experienced jamming in battle because he took precautions — by performing unauthorized upgrades on the gun himself.
Senior Warrant Officer Kramer recalled the five-day battle of Operation Siege Engine. The military dropped five Special Forces teams into Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2008 to take down a Taliban opium lab. While one group destroyed components, the others defended a perimeter against waves of Taliban.
“I don’t have time to perform maintenance,” he said. “I don’t have time to pull back to a safe perimeter and clean my gun. I may not have time to pull a little bottle of oil out of my pocket and fix my gun.
“If we don’t make these changes to our guns out there, I don’t feel like it’s going to be a reliable weapon,” he added.
Gen. Scales said he wants to see a debate in Washington on “Why does the world’s greatest superpower have less capable small arms than the enemy? For whatever reasons, we are perfectly happy to give soldiers and Marines crappy small arms and not pay any attention to it.”
Mr. Coburn tried to spark such a debate. He sent letters, gave interviews and delayed Pentagon appointments — all over the M4. The Army appeared to be on the edge of moving toward a more advanced carbine.
To find the next light, short-barreled rifle, the Army started a grand shootout in 2011 pitting some of the world’s most renowned rifle makers: Colt, which designed the M4, along with Beretta, Fabrique Nationale, Adcor Defense, Heckler & Koch, Remington and Lewis Machine & Tool.
By March 2103, the Army got a blunt warning from the Pentagon’s top fraud and waste investigator. Lynne Halbrooks, principal deputy inspector general, told a House panel that the Army could not guarantee the gun would be any better than the M4. She also said the service wanted to buy thousands of new rifles as its soldier force was shrinking.
The Army apparently got the message. When the smoke cleared in June, it scheduled a press conference to update the competition. The winner: no one. The M4 remained the champ, by default.
After the Army called off the competition, the Defense Department inspector general scolded the Army again — this time in a written report — for conducting the shootout. It said the service’s 2009 small-arms assessment did not identify a need for a new carbine, just an improved one.
“The final report stated that none of the solutions for meeting small-unit effectiveness, lethality, and survivability start with replacing the M4,” the report said. “As a result, the Army wasted $14 million on a competition to identify a source to supply new carbines it does not need.”
In the end, Mr. Coburn, who declined to be interviewed for this report, did not get soldiers a new gun. But he did prod the Pentagon to improve what it had.
“The senator fought a long battle to get the soldiers a better gun,” said Mr. Traudt. “The Army is powerful. It can close bases and send jobs elsewhere.”