The death of the M4 has been greatly exaggerated.
A bizarre Fox News article appeared last Wednesday: “M4 vs. AK-47: Is U.S. Army Outgunned in Afghanistan?“:
Despite the ages-old rifles in Taliban hands, reports suggest our soldiers may be outgunned in Afghanistan’s hills. To counter, the Army plans a slew of upgrades to curtain weapons — and several entirely new guns.
Taliban fighters in Afghanistan are attacking U.S. Army soldiers with AK-47s, while the army relies upon the M4 assault rifle. The AK-47 uses a larger bullet, which leads to more kickback upon firing. Some reports indicate that the U.S. Army is looking to upgrade the weapons being used in Afghanistan to larger caliber guns.
An AP report published over the weekend in Army Times argued that the M4 rifle’s light bullets lack sufficient velocity and killing power in long-range firefights. The report states that the U.S. is considering a switch to weapons that fire a larger round, one largely discarded in the 1960s.
The 7.62mm round in the AK-47 is heavier and larger than the 5.56mm caliber bullet in the M4, and can therefore fly further on average. But Battaglini dismisses reports that the Army is considering rearming soldiers in Afghanistan. “On the battlefield, there are no reported operational issues with the M4. It’s the weapon of choice in Iraq, and still the desired weapon in Afghanistan,” he told FoxNews.com.
Anyone reading the article would come to the conclusion that rusty AK-47s give the poorly trained Taliban an advantage over U.S. troops armed with M4 carbines, M16 rifles, and M249 machine guns firing 5.56 NATO rounds. It is a supposition based upon ignorance of the battlefield, the training, and the weapons and cartridges themselves. Other than that, the article is fine.
Much of the combat taking place in mountainous Afghanistan occurs at much longer ranges than U.S. soldiers have encountered in recent wars, and engagements at ranges in excess of 500 meters are not uncommon. Obviously, at these extended ranges the marksmanship of the combatants is of vital importance to their effectiveness. Poorly trained combatants will not hit their targets with frequency, and may not even pose enough of a threat to keep their opposition pinned down. In this type of combat, a weapon needs to be reliable and accurate, and fire a cartridge that retains energy, is relatively flat-shooting, and is resistant to wind drift.
Author Jeremy A. Kaplan does get some details of his story correct.
The AK-47 fires a 7.62 bullet that is larger and heavier than that of the 5.56 round in most of the Army’s M4s, and the weapon does have considerably more recoil. The M4’s 5.56 round does lack killing power at long range, due to a combination of the M4’s shortened barrel generating lower velocities and the 5.56 round being heavily dependent upon velocity to function effectively.
Despite these truths, the M4 is not inherently inferior to the AK-47. It is simply a product of different methodologies in making weapons and in training soldiers.
The AK-47 was designed to be manufactured easily using relatively crude technologies (by today’s standards), and fielded by conscript soldiers with only rudimentary training and firing ammunition of dubious manufacture and consistency. As a result, the AK-series is very reliable when it comes to firing. But it simply isn’t designed to hit anything beyond several hundred meters with any degree of regularity, being designed as a shorter-range weapon to be used by masses of troops.
The philosophy behind the M4 was to create a more nimble, close-quarters variant of the M16 rifle that was the AK’s Vietnam-era contemporary. It is designed to be very accurate and incorporates rail systems that enable soldiers to mount optics, lights, and lasers to increase their speed and accuracy.
When you compare the weapons and training, the U.S. Army has a huge advantage over the Taliban at long-distance engagements in placing rounds on target.
The problem our soldiers are encountering isn’t as much the aging M4 (which is getting long in the tooth) as it is the anemic caliber it has traditionally been chambered in. The 5.56 uses a .22-caliber bullet, and that severely limits the potential terminal ballistics of the weapon. There are dozens if not hundreds of stories of soldiers who served in Iraq who had fired 4-5 shots into insurgents at close range with little immediate effect. In Afghanistan, where the ranges are often considerably extended, the effectiveness of the cartridge degrades even further.
Kaplan’s answer to the problem seems to be resurrecting the even older (but more powerful and longer ranged) M14, or entirely scrapping the existing M4 system in favor of an entirely new rifle. I don’t argue in the least that the M4’s role could better be served by more modern designs, but the simple fact of the matter is that it serves well enough and new weapons in the same 5.56 NATO caliber would still run into the same inherent limitations of the cartridge.
What our soldiers need is a bigger, better bullet, and guess what? One exists.
The 6.8 SPC (Special Purpose Cartridge) was designed explicitly to overcome the shortcomings of the 5.56 cartridge. Just as importantly, it was specifically designed to work with the Army’s existing M4 rifles. It outclasses the AK-47s cartridge in every measurable way.
The story that Fox News missed is a simple one: why hasn’t the Army begun upgrading it’s 5.56 M4 rifles to the more powerful 6.8 SPC cartridge? It offers superior performance at every range, with less recoil and weight than the heavier and older M14. No doubt there will be logistical hurdles to overcome in making such a transition during a time of war, and such transitions aren’t inexpensive, but they require almost no retraining and provide our soldiers with a distinct edge over their enemies.
Our media should be asking generals to explain why our soldiers are still using weapons in a caliber that was known to be suboptimal in many situations nearly half a century ago.
Our soldiers should have the best tools to complete their mission.
Why don’t they have them?