October 05, 2007

Somehow, I Just Don't Think That's the Whole Story

Via VOA News:

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has expressed concern that the slow process of approval for U.S. arms sales is forcing some countries, including Iraq, to buy weapons elsewhere. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Santiago, Chile, where Secretary Gates is visiting.

Frustration over the slow approval process resulted in a $100 million Iraqi arms purchase from China, announced in Washington Wednesday by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. The light weapons are for Iraq's police forces. Secretary Gates says that causes him some concern.

"We have been concerned that our process is taking too long. On the other hand, the first request we received from the Iraqis for weapons was in January. We have already delivered over $600 million worth of weapons," he said.

Secretary Gates says another two-to-three-billion dollars worth of Iraqi purchases are in the process of being approved. The secretary says he is not particularly concerned that the Iraqi police purchase went to China, but he says the United States needs to improve its Foreign Military Sales Program for all its customers.

"This is an issue that we have to look into and see what we can do in the United States to be more responsive and to be able to react more quickly to the requirements of our friends," said Gates.

If his Wikipedia bio is accurate, Robert Gates has never had any sales experience, which explains a lot. Let me take this opportunity, as someone who had sold a weapon or two, to explain what probably really happened here.

The slow procurement process may have been a good excuse, but for this particular $100 million small arms purchase from China, an excuse is probably all it was. The truth is that U.S. small arms are inferior for Iraqi needs.

The primary U.S. military assault rifle these days is the M4, a variant of the decades-old M16. It shoots a 5.56mm, .22 caliber bullet.

The M4 features a much shorter barrel than the M16, which means that the small 22-caliber bullet doesn't build up that much velocity or power. The result? Bad guys often don't go down even when shot multiple times, and are often quite capable of still fighting back. Because of this poor performance from short-barreled rifles, various other calibers are being tested as a replacement, including the 6.8 SPC and 6.5 Grendal.

In addition to stopping power issues, the M4/M16 family of weapons, while typically quite accurate, require diligent maintenance, and if they aren't take care of, quickly become inoperative. As a result, variants of the weapon with completely different operating systems are under development, and trials to replace the entire weapons system ebb and flow around the obsolete design.

Compounding all of this is that fact that these are not inexpensive firearms, with variants potentially costing into the thousands of dollars for a single firearm when all the bells and whistles are added, and the magazines (which are considered consumables), parts and cleaning kits are also costly over the life of the weapon.

By contrast, the AK-pattern rifles popular in Iraq and elsewhere are favored for a number of obvious reasons. They are quite inexpensive to produce and purchase, require far less maintenance than most comparable weapons systems, and fire a far more effective cartridge(7.62x39) than the 5.56 NATO, which also happens to be far more readily available and less expensive on the open market.

If you have $100 million to spend to arm a police force composed primarily of new recruits who will get only moderate (and uneven) training, are unlikely to practice a diligent maintenance schedule, who live in harsh environment when sand and grit will constantly be introduced to their weapons, and prefer that the people they shoot act like they've been shot, which weapon would you choose?

If I'm in charge of procurements, I'm going for the more reliable, powerful, less expensive weapon every time, a decision not made any more difficult by any gratuities that may result of this already no-brainer decision.

We've got an antiquated weapon system requiring far too much TLC that fires an anemic round.

That we're delivering it slowly isn't exactly our greatest problem.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at October 5, 2007 10:14 AM

Instead of doing an expose' of the body armor used by US forces, they should have done an expose' on the main combat weapon. My days were before the M4, but I was around for the M16 A1 and A2 and I absolutely hated that weapon. I have read that soldiers encountering resistance entering a building have shot the enemy multiple times only to receive return fire. The AK-47 may not be as accurate, but in near combat I would take the spray gun that has the best knock-down power.

Posted by: Mekan at October 5, 2007 02:00 PM

Great post that cuts through the BS.

Can you tell me honestly why you would still support a President dumb enough to appoint a SOD who could not handle this?

Posted by: nick at October 5, 2007 03:19 PM

But, whatever happened to the 190,000 guns that were "lost" in Iraq?

Posted by: IntelVet at October 5, 2007 04:06 PM

require far less maintenance than most comparable weapons systems

That's a very polite understatement.

The AK and even moreso the SKS are damn near idiot proof. Leave it in the mud for a few weeks? No problem, hose it off and shake it dry. Ten thousand rounds fired without cleaning the barrel? So what.

That and the price differential - who needs skilled armorers when you can just buy another crate load.

Posted by: ThomasD at October 5, 2007 05:18 PM

Nick, the M4 was offically adopted by the US Armed Forces in 1994.

Who was SecDef in 1994? Who was President? What party was he from?

Posted by: C-C-G at October 5, 2007 08:26 PM

Nick, even a complete moron understands that SoD cannot change our main battle rifle in a year. Remember that the next time you trip over yourself trying to zing one at the current administration without thinking.

sheesh, are all these boneheads completely unhinged from reality?

Posted by: iconoclast at October 6, 2007 01:58 AM

I'm amazed at how the 400-lb-gun-show-habitué community remains bitterly down on US weapons. No sooner had we started the thing in Afghanistan when bogus, fabricated posts began appearing on gun fanboy websites about how awful the M16 series weapons were and how much better we'd be served with a return to 1950s vintage technology.

Yes, the AK is cheaper. Yes, it's very reliable. It's also horribly inaccurate. AK accuracy has probably saved more American lives this war than body armor. These are all consequences of its design. It was intended to be a submachine gun replacement, meant to be used in short-range, automatic fire by soldiers with rudimentary training, and was provided with a secondary aimed capability. That's why the sight radius is as short as it is, and why the first click on the selector is crowd control.

One thing that armchair gun fanboys don't grasp is that rifles are only one part of a combat unit's combat power, and they are normally not its most effective part. Your machine guns and mortars kill the enemy. Your rifles protect the flanks of your crew-served weapons.

In urban combat, good ergonomics, light weight, rapid target acquisition, and night vision integration are most important. But a weapon needs to be useful both indoors and out.

With the ACOG, we've had kills to 500m with the M4. Outside 500m ain't rifle range -- not for anything you can also use inside a mud house.

The biggest single problem with the M4 system is the low-quality, "minority set-aside contract" magazines, which are the cause of most stoppages. Best way to keep the thing rockin' is to hoard older magazines (one guy I knew stuck to Vietnam era 20-rounders) or suck it up and buy the HK steel mags (very expensive).

Yes, the terminal ballistics of the A2/M4 generation weapons with the M855 ball are poor. That's because Big Green decided, for whatever reason, that armor penetration at 800m was the driving terminal ballistic criterion, so you often get overpenetration on everyday targets like Hadji in a cotton man-dress. That's not the fault of the weapon as much as the procurement system. There are better loads in the system but they're not available to everybody (and from time to time the JAGs go nuts banning various rounds -- there may be a difference between JAG and Al-Q but it doesn't show up at team level).

Some of the gun show heroes ought to diet off a couple hundred pounds and go for it. See if you can pass the 18B course. If you want to play with guns, we've got your ticket to all the guns in the world right here.

In the meantime, I'm sick of these guys telling me how much better the M14, or BAR, or 1903A1 would be in combat. No, it wouldn't. (There have been a few M14s brought back for special purposes... mostly because we get occasional longer shots, and 14s were in inventory and fire a round with longer range capability. We use a few shotguns too, but that's not a general purpose weapon either). It's those same armchair experts that fought successfully against optical sights for over 50 years, and still whines about them today. Iron sights are as obsolete as the crossbow, steam engine and adding machine.

Historical guns are fine for collectors. (I have AKs and SKSs for that reason myself). But I've fired thousands of rounds from all these weapons and had God-knows how many fired at me, and I have to say that if I got my choice, I'd choose the M4 for shooting other people, and the AK for taking the shot myself.

Of course, as a simple Indian in this tribe I don't get my choice, but Congress may be vulnerable to all the gun-groupie whining and do, as Congress ever does, something stupid.

The Army, on the other hand, often does do the right thing by its guys in weapoons procurement. An example is the replacement, finally, of the crummy M60 by the more durable and dependable M240B. Even though it was "not invented here."

Posted by: Kevin R.C. 'Hognose' O'Brien at October 6, 2007 10:05 AM
sheesh, are all these boneheads completely unhinged from reality?

To ask that question is to answer it.

Posted by: C-C-G at October 6, 2007 10:24 AM

Kevin, who was suggesting a return to 1950s era tech? Certainly not I, and nor did I see anyone else making that suggestion in the comments.

The gas system of the M4 is prone to fouling, and when that fouling gets bad enough, the gun stops working. There are far more reliable systems out there, even using the AR as a base, such as piston guns by POF and HK.

Yes, there are better loads for the 5.56 caliber than the standard M855, but the fact remains that the 5.56 is a first-generation AR cartridge and there is plenty of room for improvement. The 6.5 Grendal, 6.8 SPC and others ares superior to the 5.56 in almost every way, other than the number of rounds that can be carried.

The M4/M16 family of weapons isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, but there is significant room for improvement in a four-decade-old design of both the gas system and the choice of cartridge, and considering the available tech, a complete ground-up approach may be warranted.

As for Army small arms procurement of general issue rifles/carbines, their track record over the past 150 years has been one I would not brag about.

Posted by: Confederate Yankee at October 6, 2007 07:47 PM

I am no weapons expert. I just remember the M16 fouling and the handgaurd pinching and twisting. That is the extent of my gripes from personal knowledge.

I have been shown the poor penetration of the round. Is this true or significant. I would say yes.

Would I rather be protected by a US soldier or Marine with an M16/M4 or an Iraqi with an AK47? There is no question I am with our soldiers and Marines. I simply think that we can do much better.

Posted by: Mekan at October 6, 2007 09:20 PM

The Army Times has an interesting article on the M4 and the HK 416. I don't pretend to understand all contained within or that the article is the last word on USA battle rifle options, but it is informative.

But if the firearm requires as much maintenence as the article indicates, then equipping Iraqi Police and Army with it might be be open to legitimate debate.

Posted by: iconoclast at October 7, 2007 05:21 PM

Very interesting article indeed, Iconoclast.

Posted by: C-C-G at October 7, 2007 11:59 PM

One additional factor no one's yet mentioned is that many Iraqis are already familiar with the AK, which cannot be said for American weapons.

Posted by: mwl at October 8, 2007 11:54 AM

very timely thread. in today's wsj was an article on equipping the Iraqi Army with M-16's. Many of the points brought out here were brought up in the article as well.

Plan to Sell Iraqis M-16s
Triggers New Controversy

some interesting comments from a variety of sources in-country.

Posted by: iconoclast at October 8, 2007 02:03 PM


@ Kevin

"I'm amazed at how the 400-lb-gun-show-habitué community remains bitterly down on US weapons. "

I spent a few years as a US Marine rifleman and M-60 machinegunner. And yeah I'm one of those that despise the M-16 and all of it's variants.

A rifle incapable of dealing with grit and sand is useless. The fact of the matter is the close tolerances between the bolt carrier group and the receiver makes it imperative for any rifleman to carry around brushes to clean out the rifle. Frankly I don't know how many times I've had to run around sand, dirt and grit and then have to partially disassemble the rifle in order to clean the bolt carrier group.

Additionally the bolt carrier group is far too light to carry forth the energy from the recoil buffer in order to drive the round home and lock the bolt ... which of course resulted in the A1 model where you had the bolt carrier assist.

Then you've got the gas tube instead of a recoil piston. So instead of a piston that forces back the bolt carrier group, thereby starting the reloading cycle, you've got hot carbon-laced gases flowing through the bolt carrier group which both increases the amount of carbon fouling of the bolt carrier group and vastly increases the temperature of the bolt carrier group. And because of the close tolerances the combination of airborne grit, carbon-fouling and temperature induced expansion of the bolt carrier group and the receiver, you end up with a rifle that basically stops going "bang".

Now with a recoil tube the carbon-fouling would occur mostly at the muzzle end as the combustion gases would impact the recoil piston at the muzzle end with the force of these tapped gases traveling back to re-cock the rifle. No transmission of heat or carbon-fouling.


So what would be my preferred battle rifle? The AR-18. I owned the civilian model, the AR-180, and I loved it. Tough, heavy-ass piece of steel for the bolt carrier, gas piston, folding stock. It ate any ammo without problems. Fouling was minimal and shot beautifully.

Posted by: memomachine at October 9, 2007 02:42 PM

Who else doesn't like the M-16?

Its co-designer, Jim Sullivan: http://www.P ... B ...

Another "400-lb gun-show habitue," no doubt.

Posted by: kabosh at October 9, 2007 05:14 PM