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Small Arms Failures Contributed to Wanat Debacle

by jimmy_wu on October 12, 2009

wanat-M4.jpg

We’re reporting a pretty hard-hitting story today on the conclusions of an Army official report on the Wanat battle showing that the small arms used in the battle showed significant levels of failure, malfunctioning and jamming “at high cyclic rates of fire.” The weapons include the M4 and SAW.

Defense Tech doesn’t have the final version of the report compiled by the Army Combat Studies Institute at Leavenworth. But we did find a draft version and went through it to find all references to M4s, small arms and the reported malfunctions.

Basically, the most damning conclusions are compiled in the recommendations section of the report. There are a few instanced specified in the report of an M4 fouling, and one where the M4 fouled and the Soldier picked up a SAW and that was jammed up as well.

In one instance, Staff Sgt. Erich Phillips had multiple M4 failures:

Staff Sergeant Phillips poured out fire, as recalled by another Engineer Specialist loading for him, [SSG Phillips] went through three rifles using them until they jammed.

SSG Phillips recalled: My M4 quit firing and would no longer charge when I tried to correct the malfunction. I grabbed the Engineers SAW and tried to fire. It would not fire, so I lifted the feed tray tried clearing it out and tried to fire again. It would not.

As you know, Defense Tech as been at the forefront of the debate over whether a better solution to the current M4 configuration is out there. It’s pretty clear that the gas impingement system is maintenance intensive. And I recall all too well when I confronted PEO Soldier officials with a hypothetical instance very similar to this during a brief I had at the Pentagon on the dust tests conducted on multiple carbine types at Aberdeen. I posited the battle of Fallujah, where Marines and Soldiers were fighting for days on end with barely enough time to eat or sleep. Keeping your weapon clean is arguable as important as eating, some crusty old gunnies and sergeants first class would argue, but if the carbine you’re carrying is so maintenance intensive and you’ve got better options out there that can stand up to more abuse, how can you tell that trooper if his gun jams in that situation it’s all his fault?

Well, it looks like the Wanat battle, at least in part, may have brought up that issue…but has it?

According to the report, the Soldiers had kept their weapons religiously maintained. It looks like the single point of failure might have been the high cyclic rates they were operating under and the M4 just wasn’t able to catch up.

Some GWOT and U.S. Army veterans queried by the author have suggested that this could have been caused by improper weapon cleaning. However, numerous Chosen Few NCOs interviewed for this study have been vehemently adamant in stating that weapons were meticulously and regularly cleaned, and rigorously and routinely inspected by the chain of command. Other GWOT veterans consulted have noted that the high rates of fire sustained during the two hour intense engagement phase at Wanat could possibly have contributed to these failures. However, numerous weapons failed relatively early in the engagement (particularly a number of M-4 rifles and at one SAW at the mortar pit), and in any event the maintenance of cyclic rates of fire was critical to restore fire superiority, and to prevent positions (particularly at OP Topside) from being overrun by determined, numerous, and hard pressed insurgent assaults.

The report goes on to suggest that the PEO Soldier work to find a solution to this problem.

We could go on for hours on this, and I thinks it’s appropriate to do that in a forum like this. I’m digging through my old notes, but I’m pretty sure that “high cyclic rates” were addressed in the dust test, and the M4 came out near the bottom of the pack on that amongst its competitors. The Army keep saying that surveys have shown that 94 percent of Soldiers say they’re satisfied with the M4. But as I replied when confronted with this straw man argument, isn’t it hard to say whether you’re truly satisfied with a weapon unless you have some experience with other options — umm, like the special operations forces do? And what do they prefer? The HK 416 and the SCAR, which are both less maintenance-intensive, gas piston operating systems.

What does this say about the Corps’ program for the Infantry Automatic Rifle? Why replace a good portion of your automatic weapons with one that only has a 30 round magazine? And, I could be wrong on this, but aren’t M4s assigned to straight leg infantry units configured to fire in three-round bursts and semi auto? Only special operators have ones with a full auto switch? If this instance shows anything that a counterinsurgency strategy demonstrates, it’s that small units will likely be confronted with superior numbers of bad guys and will need to pour out the lead when the you-know-what hits the fan. And what about weapons tactics training? There’s a scary line in the report that quotes one of the Soldiers saying he was unprepared for such an Alamo style fight. You’d have thought since Blackhawk Down we’d be teaching how to hold off wave attacks with superior fire.

There are so many more actionable lessons to the drawn from the report, and I encourage DT readers to scour through it again. But kudos to the AP reporter who brought this out and one has to wonder whether the Army will work toward a more rugged solution as it explores options to the M4 this year.

– Christian

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