- - Thursday, February 20, 2014

A two-part expose by The Washington Times’ national security reporter, Rowan Scarborough, on the shortcomings of the M4 carbine is a story of institutional ineptitude that has cost soldiers’ lives.

However, the sad story of the American rifle also serves as a metaphor for a defense culture that slights the little stuff to fixate on buying big war machines that haven’t been employed in serious combat for generations, and probably never will be again.

Propelling this latest rush to buy ships, planes and air- and sea-launched missiles is China, the only country on the planet still worthy of a good dose of American shock and awe. Frustratingly, the Chinese seemed not interested in returning the favor.

The story is different for ground forces, though.

During World War II, the most dangerous jobs belonged to submariners and bomber crewmen. Next came the infantry, who, because of their greater numbers, accounted for about 70 percent of all those killed at the hands of the enemy.

In wars fought since then, no submariner has died in combat. In fact, the U.S. Navy fought its last major sea battle the year I was born — 1944. The last bomber crewman lost to enemy action died during the 1972 Christmas bombing offensive over Hanoi.

In contrast, close-combat troops (Army and Marine infantry, as well as special operators like Delta, Rangers and SEALs) have suffered more than 80 percent of deaths from enemy action in post-World War II conflicts. This is a force that makes up less than 4 percent of all those serving in uniform.

Today, a special operator like Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, honored with a three-minute ovation during President Obama’s State of the Union address, stands about one chance in four of being killed or seriously maimed in today’s wars.

While the defense intelligentsia remain fixated on fighting tomorrow’s techno-wars, the American people seem to have a more realistic and pragmatic view of human conflict.

Polls tell us that Joe Citizen recognizes and respects the sacrifices made daily by (mostly) men fighting the enemy in very close quarters in inhospitable places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

They crowd theaters to watch their blue-collar colleagues perform selfless, amazingly heroic acts in movies like “Acts of Valor,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Lone Survivor,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Captain Phillips.”

One would think that Beltway gurus would strive to keep alive as many of our close-combat warriors, those most likely to die, by giving them the best stuff. Mr. Scarborough’s reports clearly show that they do not. The M4 story is just one of many.

In fact, our primitive, illiterate enemies have better small arms — rifles, carbines and machine guns — than do American close-combat forces.

Our venerable “Ma Deuce” heavy machine gun was designed in 1919 and is an antique by Soviet standards. The Army’s heavy mortar, the most-used infantry-support weapon in Afghanistan, was designed in 1931 and is consistently outranged by virtually all contemporary mortars.

To understand the vital importance of range, one only has to read Jake Tapper’s book “The Outpost,” which recounts the desperate fight by an isolated infantry platoon that might have turned out differently had some form of outside supporting fire been within range.

Recall the moving ceremony when Mr. Obama presented Sgt. Salvatore Giunta with the first Medal of Honor given to a living recipient from the war in Afghanistan. His actions in repelling a Taliban ambush and saving his buddies were extraordinary.

But why in 2007 (and today) could an enemy force approach to within 40 meters of Sgt. Giunta’s position? Why can’t the richest country on earth give these guys a simple early-warning detector like many of you have to protect your homes?

Remember last year’s Medal of Honor ceremony for Capt. William Swenson, who bravely fought off a Taliban ambush to save his soldiers from certain death? According to unclassified reports of the battle, an aerial drone showed up over Capt. Swenson’s unit five hours after the ambush was sprung.

What if our military could put a drone over every ground patrol walking into danger? Surely had a drone been overhead, the Taliban would never have dared to open fire.

The video clip taken of Capt. Swenson carrying his wounded comrade to a medevac helicopter was the first of a Medal of Honor recipient in action.

Did you happen to notice in the video the bulky radio stuffed in Capt. Swenson’s backpack? This battle was fought in 2009, a time when ragpickers in Mumbai had cellphones. Why can’t our fighting men and women have cellphones in combat?

The bottom line is simple: We continue to buy glitzy and insanely expensive instruments of shock and awe while troops in the close fight have to fight a “fair” fight.

Ground troops seemingly only get new stuff after many of them die. That’s when American parents watch the bloodbath on television and call their congressman to demand better weapons, body armor and armor-protected vehicles.

The M4 carbine highlighted in Mr. Scarborough’s expose is virtually the same weapon that jammed and nearly killed me almost 50 years ago in Vietnam.

If the Defense Department really wanted to keep close-combat troops alive, they would re-equip them with first-rate carbines, all for about the price of a single, modern fighter plane. But they won’t.

Maj. Gen. Robert Scales retired in 2001 after 37 years’ service in the U.S. Army. His last assignment was commandant of the Army War College.

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