Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Are U.S. Soldiers Dying From Inadequate Weapons? No.

I dislike doing rebuttal posts. The temptation is strong to adopt a simple quote-and-refute style, which costs little time and allows me to return to my only modestly interesting but very necessary daily life. This style is only compatible with lazy writing, however, and it's bad form to use it too often. Even so, there is a need for a direct response to some works of "journalism" which rely on sensationalist headlines over content to get attention, and which spread falsehoods, misconceptions, and sometimes even outright lies in the process.

I was asked by a friend what I thought about this hit piece on the M16/M4 platform and the 5.56mm caliber, which I decided offered me an opportunity to write a little more about the subject. As if anyone felt I hadn't already written enough, that is. Interestingly, the piece was written by Tom Kratman - a name I had to google - who is apparently a veteran of the 5th Special Forces Group and of 19 years in regular Army, eventually retiring at O-5 (the same as my father, of a different branch, coincidentally). He also writes science fiction for Baen, the same publisher where the old THR (a major haunt of mine, once upon a time) moderator Larry Correia now writes.

Kratman is then no neophyte as a writer or novice to military thinking, but this in my opinion only lends a hue of bafflement to his two EveryJoe articles. This man was special forces, and an officer, I must keep reminding myself as I read every tired myth, regurgitated piece of gunwriter hype, and mis-remembered factoid.

It is difficult for me to not be critical of the pieces, both from a factual and a writing standpoint. When my inner monologue reads the figures on my liquid crystal display, I am taken back to caffeine-and-pizza fueled spring mornings and afternoons, sitting in one piece chair-desks intended for the tiny Japanese furniture maker who designed them while listening to a youth who hasn't yet learned to shave the few wisps of a Van Dyke growing on his otherwise newborn face wring out a thin argument he decided on a week before. "Write something we can sell," I wonder if that phrase was ever uttered aloud or transmitted via electrons down copper wires during the planning phase of these two articles. Or perhaps Mr. Kratman truly believes in his premature ideas, which are so poorly supported they are in free-fall, about to reach terminal velocity.

"Remember, he was in 5th Special Forces Group, and a Lieutenant Colonel," again.

Let's step back. Many people disagree with me regarding my opinions of the AR-15 rifle family and the 5.56mm cartridge especially. Some of those people, I can hold a discourse with, and present the evidence I have for my position as best I can, to reach a mutual understanding of ideas, experiences, and views which led our opinions to where they are. Some I cannot, because they are too used to fighting the good fight; too zealous for a true mutual discourse.

Many more are too wrapped up in thin premises fed to them via casual reading of the latest issues of tactical magazines in the Barnes & Noble to really have a decent conversation with. It's this last kind that Mr. Kratman most closely resembles, from his escape-velocity exaggeration of the differences in capability of the M4 carbine and M16 rifle, to his mis-placed snark about the vagueness of the ACR program from the 1980s and 1990s. This last plays off an assumption that isn't true - that the ACR program demanded a deliberately vague "100% improvement" over the M16, begetting the almost laughably inane comment: "That means that we will never have a rifle that’s 99% better." In truth, the ACR program's goal was very specific: The winning rifle had to demonstrate a 100% improvement in hit probability during a highly sophisticated course designed specifically to measure that factor with soldiers under combat stress.

None of the rifles even came close. None of the advanced concepts, not burst fire, not caseless ammunition, not four power optical sights, improved the probability of a hit anywhere close to 100% over the M16A2 rifle. Those design elements that did significantly aid the hit probability - most notably optical sights - were incorporated into future AR-15 pattern service rifles and are in use today. To Mr. Kratman, however, the M4A1 with laser, CCO, vertical grip, and light might as well be an M16A2. The degree to which this is true is irrelevant - A G11 might as well be an M16A2 in terms of hit probability, something that Mr. Kratman ignores in favor of the white-noise-esque "they're failing our boys!" drone.

Kratman rounds out the article with more sophomoric whinging dressed as snark, and an off comment about the French. "A Lieutenant Colonel and veteran of the 5th SFG..." Yes, of course, I mustn't forget.

His follow up begins by repeating another half-truth about the M16; that the Army never wanted it and it was all McNamara's fault, a "fact" that ignores that the Army agreed to cancel M14 production in favor of the extremely ambitious SPIW, and McNamara was forcing them to, you know, actually provide rifles to the troops in the meantime. It may be presumptuous of me to think that this is something armies are expected to do, but I'll risk it. Eventually, SPIW crashed and burned, and the surprisingly good M16 became the mainstay of the Army for a half-century. None of this matters to Kratman, of course, since it doesn't make for good copy.

Where some sensationalist gunwriters would take a "back to basics" tack, and suggest re-adopting the M14 in .280 British or some such nonsense, Kratman instead talks about some potential technological improvements that could be in the pipeline for small arms, along with a number of other things that rifle salesmen want you to believe are technological improvements, but actually aren't. His list goes: 1. Intermediate-intermediate calibers, 2. Hyper burst, 3. Carbon-fiber barrels, 4. Electronic ignition, 5. Plastic cased ammunition, 6. Caseless ammunition, 7. A gas piston operating rod, and 8. Optical sights. 2, 3, 4, and 5 fit in with potential technologies that could improve the rifles of the future, 1 and 7 mostly sell rifles, not really offering anything over the 5.56mm cartridge and the AR-15 platform, 6 is all but dead due to technical issues, and 8 has already been implemented, further calcifying my suspicion that Mr. Kratman's technical knowledge of the subject is stuck in 1991.

What's strange is that he doesn't use this list to paint a rosy picture of the future of small arms in contrast to its oft-claimed stagnation; he uses it (in yet another attempt) to bash the M16. As if, somehow, they could have issued rifles then in 1964 that utilized technologies that are just now maturing to a basic level of feasibility. Some early AR series rifles did trial composite barrels and carbon-fiber handguards, features subsequently deleted in later versions because they didn't work very well then. It's as if Mr. Kratman doesn't understand that just having a working prototype doesn't mean you can make ten million rugged, mature, combat-ready weapons.

"A Lieutenant Colonel and veteran of the 5th SFG," I must remind myself.

It's bizarre to read a piece so sophomoric and poorly researched and constructed, only to follow the authorship trail and read a biography that impressive. Simply put, while I do not demand that everything I read reinforce my own opinions and ideas, I do not expect this sort of thing from a Special Forces Group veteran, much less one who's an O-5 rank and who gets paid to write for a living.


  1. Your research skills are deficient. A. Infantry officer. B. _Attached_ 5th SFGA, not an SF Officer. Ranger yes. CIB yes, SF no.

    Your reading and comprehension skills are also deficient. Try reading again, as to what those eight items address. Don't bother looking for "we must have these eight now," because that's not in there. Instead match those to Bennings claim that no improvement in rifles is possible, and see if that's true in light of those eight.

    I presume, based on your column, that you do not want the LSAT program to continue.

    You might also work on reducing your zealousness. Really.

    1. First, thank you for commenting on my blog. Regardless of what I think of your EveryJoe articles, I will always appreciate an even discussion on my writing and subjects that interest me.

      I apologize for the error I made regarding your service. I will defer to you on this; would you like for me to edit the article to make it more accurate, or leave my mistake as is?

      Now, with respect, the titles of your two articles are "America's Soldiers Deserve a Better Rifle" and "Are U.S. Soldiers Dying From Inadequate Weapons", and further your opening paragraph of the latter article states "Last week we looked a little at some of the history behind why we still have the inadequate M16 as our basic infantry rifle, more than 50 years after it was forced down the Army’s throat by Robert Strange McNamara.". This sets the tone for your articles, the second of which is mostly constructed from your eight points. Don't you think the marriage of that title and opening paragraph and then majority of content in the second article is an unhappy one? Isn't it strange to use potential future technologies to support an idea of inadequacy of the AR series of rifles? Or to put it another way, if a reader of one of your novels didn't understand a section of the book, or thought it was unfocused and muddy, would you feel that it would be appropriate to tell them in response that they just have poor reading comprehension skills?

      Further, don't you think Ft. Benning's assessment was less that there weren't technological improvements that could be made, and more that their worth was relatively low? Consider that the ACR program was concerned with hit probability. Advantages like the lower weight of caseless ammunition would not thus fall under its purview. In fact, much of our understanding of how stress affects the shooter was improved through the ACR program itself. What was discovered then was that, even though significant improvements could be made rifle hit probability (hyper burst, etc), these paled in comparison to the errors made by the shooter. I say "a G11 might as well be an M16A2" in terms of hit probability because the man behind the trigger is the same, and accounts for something like 90% or more of the shooting error. The rifle can only make a modest difference in this, no matter how advanced it is. Would you agree that your misconception of this follows from the over-simplified wording of "100% improvement over the M16A2" cited in your article?

      It's not for me to decide whether LSAT continues or not. If they feel there is more to learn from continuing the program, or that the technological hurdles the program has experienced (the many problems with caseless, and the barrel wear issue of cased telescoped ammunition) are surmountable within a reasonable expenditure of time, effort, and tax dollars, then maybe they should continue it. However, LSAT is not the only weight reduction program in progress right now, and several of its competitors seem more promising and would require less effort and debugging, so LSAT is not the "only hope" for a technological improvement.

      Finally, I felt that I was addressing what I saw as sensationalist writing with appropriate tone and language. Against articles with titles like "America's Soldiers Deserve a Better Rifle" and "Are U.S. Soldiers Dying From Inadequate Weapons", is what I wrote really overzealous?

      Again, thank you for commenting on my blog. I always appreciate discussion of what I've written, and I never moderate legitimate comments just because I don't like what they say, so feel free to continue the discussion below.



    2. As a man also raised on blue crab I can contest to the above article. As a proud owner of a Tavor bull pup. I was sand tan with envy when my marine friend out shoot me with out any hiccups. When I took his "unreliable" weapon and effortlessly with out concentration hit 3 on the paint out of five. Using ghost sights! My 2 plus k investment seemed like a whim. He had a bushmaster style. Light carbon reciever. The bottom line is progress. And when we design a riffle that Wil not fail, and needs your finger prints to shoot, then the enemy will never use then against us , like so often before .....

  2. This was a great read, well thought out, and well written. I really liked the way you dealt with the potentially touchy subject and circumstances with open minded analysis, rather than emotion and anecdotes.

    I am glad I found this blog. (jumped the fence from TFB)

    -Dan Citizen

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I haven't had much time to update this blog since I started working for TFB, but this format does allow me to be more critical and less diplomatic than I would be there.

      BTW, you are my favorite commenter over on TFB. Don't ever let your wit lose its edge!

    2. One cartridge will not do it all. We have been trying that for decades and adding a even more mechanically complex platform with first generation exotic ammunition might be just the proverbial bag of burning dog crap waiting to happen. The 5.56MM round and the M4 Tourist Carbine are not going away anytime soon in the USMC and US Army. The easiest solution to fix range and lethality issues with the M4 Tourist Carbine is to issue fighting units with a 7.62MM Nato caliber Rifle, maybe the FN SCAR, as their mission and terrain needs require. Surprisingly, even the British and New Zealand Armies have come to the conclusion recently.

  3. >> the piece was written by Tom Kratman ... years in regular Army, eventually retiring at O-5 ... A. Infantry officer. B. _Attached_ 5th SFGA, not an SF Officer. Ranger yes. CIB yes, SF no.

    Nothing about this background necessarily indicates skill or knowledge of small arms and marksmanship beyond a novice level. Outside of formal marksmanship programs, Army leadership has again documented this recently ("Lack of Institutional Training for Leaders on How to Instruct Marksmanship").


    John M. Buol Jr.

  4. I like some of kratmans sci fi I am no great fan of the AR or McNamara, and still find his article headline over the top.

  5. Actually there are quite a few innovations; roller cam pin, metallurgy and finishes (ie: NP3 and 7075, inconel gas tubes, anti-tilt carriers, anti-tilt buffer tubes), drop in triggers, heat sinks, adjustable gas, improved hand guards, probably more....but the 5.56 is a turd against the 7.62x39 so really a force multiplier is a relevant concern.

    1. I don't know where this myth came from that the 7.62x39 was some kind of godlike doomlaser, but it's untrue:

      "The Soviet AK-47 Kalashnikov fires a full-metal-jacketed, boat-tail bullet that has a copper-plated steel jacket, a large steel core, and some lead between the two. In tissue, this bullet typically travels for about 26cm point-forward before beginning significant yaw. This author observed, on many occasions, the damage pattern shown in Fig 2 while treating battle casualties in Da Nang Vietnam (1968). The typical path through the abdomen caused minimal disruption; holes in organs were similar to those caused by a non-hollow-point handgun bullet. The average uncomplicated thigh wound was about what one would expect from a low-powered handgun: a small, punctate entrance and exit wound with minimal intervening muscle disruption."
      -Dr. Martin Fackler