May 14, 2007: The U.S.
Army has just ordered another $375 million worth of M4 rifles . This got a lot
of troops agitated because of the continuing jamming problems with the M4 and
M16 rifles. In dusty places like Iraq and Afghanistan, you have to clean your
M16 and M4 rifles constantly, otherwise the combination of carbon and dust in the
chamber will cause jams. The army and marines both decided to stick with their
current weapons, rather than adopt an easier to maintain weapon, like the XM8
or H&K416, because of the billion or so dollars it would cost to switch
rifles. If the issue were put to a vote, the troops would vote for a rifle
using a short-stroke system (like the XM8 or H&K416). But the military is
not a democracy, so the troops spend a lot of time cleaning their weapons, and
hoping for the best.
The debate involves two
intertwined attitudes among senior army commanders. First, they don't want the
hassle, and possible embarrassment, of switching to a new rifle. Second, they
are anticipating a breakthrough in weapons technology that will make a possible
a much improved infantry weapon. This is likely to happen later, rather than
sooner, but the generals keep thinking about it.
Earlier efforts to just
get the troops a more reliable rifle have failed. Back in 2005, the U.S. Armys
design for a new assault rifle, the XM8, was cancelled. But now the
manufacturer has incorporated one of the key components of the XM8 into M4
rifles, and calls the hybrid the H&K 416. Heckler & Koch (H&K)
designed the XM8, which was based on an earlier H&K rifle, the G36. SOCOM
is using the 416, but no one else is (except for a few police departments).
The XM8 had one major
advantage over the M16. The XM8 (like the G36 and 416) uses a short-stroke
piston system. The M16s uses gas-tube system, which results in carbon being
blown back into the chamber. That leads to carbon build up, which results in
jams (rounds getting stuck in the chamber, and the weapon unable to fire.). The
short-stroke system also does not expose parts of the rifle to extremely hot
gases (which wears out components more quickly). As a result, rifles using the
short-stroke system, rather than the gas-tube, are more reliable, easier to
maintain and last longer.
H&K developed the 416,
for SOCOM, at the same time the XM8 was being evaluated by the army. SOCOM got
the first 416s in 2004, a year before the army cancelled the XM8. The 416 looks
like the M4, for the only thing that has changed is the gas system that automatically
extracts the cartridge after the bullet has been fired, and loads the next
round. SOCOM can buy pretty much whatever they want, the U.S. Army cannot.
SOCOM listens to what its troops want, the army doesn't. In trying to avoid
embarrassment and scandal, the army leadership is blundering into it anyway.