We Can Put a Man on the Moon, but…
Call me, “Tom.” The picture? It’s a dozen years old.
I’m a retired infantry officer, lieutenant colonel, a recovering attorney, and a science fiction and military fiction writer for Baen Publishing and Castalia House. I’m also a political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts.
Currently I make my home, with my wife and a couple of children, in Blacksburg, Virginia. Yes, I’m a curmudgeon. I came by it honestly; I acquired it with age.
I’ll be taking up the military and foreign affairs portfolios for EveryJoe, though not necessarily exclusively. Those are the things that interest me. Those are the things I’m reasonably knowledgeable about. And, for reasons I hope to make clear over the next several months, those are things that ought to concern everybody else, too.
“Wow; that’s just like a real rifle, only smaller.”
–Captain Sam Swindell, sneering comment to a Special Forces Team, themselves making a fashion statement with their M177s, Rhein-Main Airport, 1997
Here, on the 40th anniversary of the month I enlisted into the Army, it seems apropos to note that the United States Army and Marine Corps are still carrying versions of the same rifle I was issued at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in 1974.
What a success story; an American classic. America, F&%k Yeah!
Except it’s not.
First, a little history…
Think for a moment about another American classic, the Ford Edsel. You know, the Edsel? The byword for commercial failure? The murdered by then Ford Vice President Robert S. McNamara Edsel?
Interestingly, not only was our current, super-efficient, streamlined, ever victorious and all conquering Department of Defense (Ahem; you guys know I’m not being serious there, right?) designed by that same Robert McNamara, but this was also the same man who tried to inflict what turned out to be a fine heavy bomber, the F111/FB111, on the Navy, as a fighter for – you can’t make this stuff up – carrier operations. Not that the F111 turned out to be a bad plane; it was, in fact, impressive. But it didn’t belong with the Navy, which canceled its participation as soon as McNamara was safely out of the way.
McNamara seems to have been gifted with the reverse Midas Touch, where most everything important that he touched turned to crap.
And it was he, the man who tried to make the Navy take a heavy bomber, who also inflicted the M16 on a mostly unenthusiastic and unwilling Army.
It was never a great rifle. It had its good points, sure, notably its weight and the weight of its ammunition, plus soft recoil. But for combat performance, reliability, ease of maintenance? Meh. And the tumbling of the bullet in flesh, and some of the ghastly wounds inflicted, for both of which the M16 is famous, are largely functions of the bullet design, not of the rifle.
And we still have it, 40 years after I joined the Army and more than 50 years after Robert Strange (I told you; you can’t make this crap up) McNamara ordered production of the M14 rifle stopped, thereby leaving little recourse to adoption of the M16 by the Army and Marine Corps.
At least the Marines have adopted an improved version, rather than the Army’s firearms equivalent of Devo. Devo? De-evolution?
Source: Photo Courtesy of PEO Soldier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Oh, yes. The M16 was no great shakes, but the current Army version, the M4, while lighter and more compact than the M16 rifle I first carried — hence, just ever so cool, indeed, too cool for words, and what a fashion statement! — is also even less capable than the full sized rifle.
Some reports from Afghanistan suggest it is inherently less reliable, in sustained combat, as well. (Wanat, depending on whose story you read.) I’d call that ” de-evolution.” That said, even the full length M16, firing the 5.56mm, is hardly adequate to combat at some of the ranges experienced both in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that is the big reason why we must have a new rifle firing a better, longer ranged round than the 5.56.
The attempted replacements
In the last 40 years there have been a number of attempts at replacing the M16 family. All, prior to 2008, have failed or been rejected. All were too ambitious.
For example, the rifle project for the 1980s, the Advanced Combat Rifle, demanded a 100% improvement over the M16. A 100% improvement? That means that we will never have a rifle that’s 99% better. I’ve read that it only cost $300 million by the time it was canceled. What a bargain.
A little aside here, when something calls for nothing less than a 100% improvement in a weapon, be very skeptical. Does that mean 25% more accurate, 25% lighter, 25% cheaper, and with 25% better aesthetics for public relations?
Would 100% better PR be enough? Or is 100% more accurate necessary? What if it were 100% more accurate, but twice as heavy? And if it cost a hundred times more? All in all, wasn’t it really just an attempt to set a goal nobody could measure? I suspect so.
In any case, in killing the ACR, the Infantry School reported that rifles had reached their peak and only exploding bullets could improve matters. Never mind, of course, that this begged the question of whether the M16 family was that peak. Also, Fort Benning wasn’t serious about the exploding bullets, actually; they’re illegal. As for rifles having reached their peak, no, they haven’t and the only way someone could claim they had was by discounting any improvement that was less than a doubling. More on that a bit later.
Someone, however, apparently took that exploding bullet idea to heart. The next attempt was the OICW, the Objective Infantry Combat Weapon, a combined rifle and (semi) smart, fairly flat shooting, 20mm grenade launcher. This effort, while not reaching the previous attempt’s stated goal of 100% improvement in the rifle, still managed to chop the length of the rifle barrel down to something that even an M4 could sneer at, while allowing for the launching an utterly and preposterously inadequate 20mm grenade, albeit with great accuracy.
On the other hand, OICW did at least manage a more that 200% increase… in the weight… before being killed… after spending… well… nobody seems willing to admit what was spent. One suspects that the sunk and lost cost of OICW was just staggering, beyond belief.
And you know what’s really scary there? This is scary: The French PAPOP-2 seems to actually do most of what OICW was supposed to, without either castrating the rifle or making it a joke in poor taste, and while tossing a 35mm grenade that is actually pretty lethal, while keeping the weight within something more or less tolerable. That’s right, the French. Savor the taste of that one for a while.
Ah, but OICW wasn’t a complete waste. After all, we took the Heckler and Koch rifle that had been part of it and made it the M8… oh, wait. No, we killed that one, too. Bu-bu-but, we did get the grenade launcher… oh, wait. No, the Senate killed that, citing unreliability. They may as well have killed it for its ridiculous weight — so heavy the Rangers have refused to take it on mission — and preposterous cost, at $35,000 for the launcher and $55 a round.
“Fifty-five dollars a round? We sneer at mere cost.” Yes, well, what $55 a round meant is that they’d have been too expensive for the troops to train with, in maneuvering live fire, as units. If we’d been lucky, the designated grenadiers would have gotten enough ammunition for a familiarization and an annual qualification, as individuals, which really doesn’t do much for the team. And war is, after all, a team sport.
So what have we ended up with for all the money and time spent? We’ve gotten dead ends, junk, and burdensome paperweights. This is unacceptable. Our soldiers both need and deserve something better than outdated and underperforming weapons. They need something that will get the job done. And they don’t need misconceived, overpriced junk that’s too heavy to port and too expensive to train with.
Next week, we’ll talk about some promising new technology — and why it probably won’t reach the troops.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.