Since I got some pretty good traction on my rant about the V-22 Osprey boondoggle (and its habit of plummeting from the sky and killing enlisted men) I thought I'd bring you another clipping to file under "Oh Hell Yeah, We Are Supporting the Shit Out of the Troops."

I'm not the kind of person who watches the Military Channel and masturbates to the various gun porn now playing 24-7 on satellite TV, but looking at these issues from a nuts-and-bolts perspective offers an excellent snapshot of how "Support the Troops" means "Support the Military-Industrial Complex" in practice. When the choice comes down to saving the lives of the (poor, rural, or colored) enlisted people or building some $30 billion flying coffin to appease Lockheed Martin, there's really no choice at all. That's why we have 19 year old kids getting shot up in poorly armored, poorly defensible Hummers, body armor that is proven to be far inferior to an alternative product now available, helicopters that fall out of the sky and now rifles that occasionally don't fire.

Part of this stems from the generalized tendency of the military to resist change. It's in the military doctrine to convince themselves that whatever they're using is the best, and therefore replacements are always viewed skeptically. But the recent tests of the M4A1 standard battle rifle shows that the military is also capable of sticking its head in the sand, ignoring empirical data, and disregarding the complaints of men and women who are forced to use a weapon in which they have questionable confidence.

Briefly, the M4A1 is a very old design, modernized over the past three decades but based on the 1960s-vintage M16 design that fared so poorly upon introduction. Essentially the M4 is a carbine (lighter, with a shorter barrel for use in close quarter combat) version of the M16, using the same flawed action and equally difficult to keep clean and prevent jamming. If you're not familiar with the saga of adopting the M16 in Vietnam (it was originally designed as a cheap, plastic rifle for guarding stateside military bases, not for being dragged through swamps) you can get some background here. Let's just say it proved very difficult to keep clean, tended to jam regularly, and did not endear itself to soldiers.

After years of Congressional prodding (led by GOP Senator Tom Coburn) the Army finally conducted an "extreme environment" dust test of its rifle alongside competitors used, or under consideration, in other branches. Not to put too fine a point on it, the M4A1 was the Dennis Kucinich of this competition. Each weapon fired 6000 rounds (cleaning every 1200) in an "extreme dust" environment, like, you know, one finds in Iraq or Afghanistan. For example.

The prototype XM8 jammed 127 times, followed by the Special Forces SCAR (226) and the Marine Hk416 (233). The M4 pulled up the rear – and that's being generous – with 882 jams, nearly 4 times as many as its nearest competitor. To put that in perspective, that is 1 in 68, and a clip holds 30 rounds. So the average soldier can expect his or her rifle to jam and refuse to fire approximately once every two clips. Not to get too heavily into the mechanics of warfare, but…let's just say that one's rifle not firing is a bad thing. Imagine trying to disassemble, clean, and reassemble your toaster while someone is trying to kill you. That'll give you a rough estimate.

Of course the fine folks in command have decided that the tests were bunk, in no way influenced by the new, massive deal signed with manufacturer Colt Firearms. Top buyer General Mark Brown responded to the tests with, "The M4 carbine is a world-class weapon. (Troops) have high confidence in that weapon, and that high confidence level is justified, in our view, as a result of all test data and all investigations we have made."

Huh. That's an interesting interpretation of the test data.

Once again I suppose it's up to Congress to do something, as unlikely as that seems, because the likelihood of the Executive Branch or military-industrial gangbang dealing with an issue by prioritizing lives over lobbyists is statistically equivalent to zero. Why the military seems to believe that "pretty good" is the gold standard, irrespective of the number of superior alternatives, is baffling by any other logic.

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  • Oddly enough, I am the kind of person who watches the Military Channel and masturbates to gun porn (okay, not really, but I have referred to guns as "sexy" on several occasions) and this has always been the example I provide of the military being more interested in saving money than saving lives. For the record, my interest in guns is mainly derived from the belief that, given the state of the nation, liberals have a much better reason to be armed than conservatives.

    In fairness, the M16A3 and M4A1 are vastly superior to the M16/M16A1 of the Vietnam era. Talk to anyone who was in that war and they know at least one or two guys who died because their weapon jammed at the wrong time. Today's rifles are fairly reliable if you keep them clean like you're supposed to, but "like you're supposed to" basically means a full cleaning at least once a day in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan. They work fine for the average soldier who patrols most of the day and then returns to base, but on multi-day operations or in extreme conditions such as sandstorms they have a lot of problems. While it's not so terrible as Vietnam, a new weapon design has been necessary for decades now. They're available, too–the Swiss SIG 550/551/552, the Heckler & Koch G36 (basically the same internal design as the XM8), the Belgian FN SCAR and F2000, the Austrian Steyr AUG (a design dating to the 70's), and the Barret 468 (which also has the advantage of being chambered in 6.8mm Remington, as opposed to the ineffective NATO-standard 5.56mm round) are all superior alternatives to the outdated M16/M4 design. Several of them are externally close enough to the M16/M4 that the only thing the military would have to buy is a bunch of upper receivers, and they could keep the majority of their already-owned hardware. And of course, the AK47 and its variants, which have been known to fire while full of mud, sand, water, and with the bolt rusted shut so badly it had to be kicked to chamber a round, have been around since 1947 and yet the US military's weapons programs can't base a design on it (cause it's a dirty commie weapon), claiming that it's too inaccurate–mostly because it's generally fired by illiterate conscripts and untrained guerillas. This didn't matter to soldiers in Vietnam (and some of today's Special Forces teams), who were more than willing to trade in their M16's for AK47's they'd picked up off a dead enemy or from a found weapons cache.

    But between the unwillingness of the military to implement change, and the reluctance to fund something that's only going to save some grunt's life, it will likely be quite some time before the Army decides that hey, maybe we better change to a design that hasn't been sucking for the last 50 years.

  • It used to be that the lowest bidder was what gave the government the crap products. With what we are paying for today's crap, it's not the lowest bidder anymore.

  • I shot a m4 Shorty and a M4a2 Carbine in Las Vegas and they both jammed once or more per clip. The Shorty (short barreled or SWAT version) jammed every time you tried to fire a short burst. "Just let her rip or shes gonna jam" the range tech told me. For $30 a clip F**K you, I'm not gonna let her rip. The M4a2 faired better, only jamming 2 or 3 times in three clips.

    The carbine just need the cartridge extractor pulled and the charged handle recycled. The shorty had to go see the gunsmith.

  • Thanks Kreggg…..I assume you were not testing this under "extreme conditions" either, and it doesn't seem to have performed very well. Good job, army.

  • Yeah, I understand Jessica Lynch and the other people with her that nice day when she was allegedly "captured" were incapable of firing their weapons because they had all jammed. Nice. Although she and the others were surrounded and taken by the Iraqis, it was also interesting that when the Iraqis tried to return her to her command, no one would listen.

    Then the story became that she was "captured while blazing away with her rifle and was a hero" when in fact she could not shoot and was wounded.

    Oh well, the gun jamming ruins such a kool story.

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