Fighting With Sticks and Stones

On March 23, 2003, a convoy of the United States Army’s 507th Maintenance Company was ambushed near Nasiriyah, Iraq by Saddam Hussein’s forces. In the course of the ambush, the Iraqi forces employed rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and even tanks to attack a small column of supply trucks that had taken a wrong turn into enemy territory. The ambush cost the United States eleven of its finest and also resulted in the capture of seven brave American soldiers, including the now-famous Jessica Lynch.

Admittedly, the circumstances that permitted the ambush were unfortunate. But ineffective weaponry, more than bad luck, was what left the 507th defenseless in the face of the enemy. In Lynch’s case, her standard-issue M16A2 rifle had jammed so badly that it was “about as useful as a hockey stick.”

Sadly enough, malfunctioning weaponry isn’t a new phenomenon in the War on Terror. Equipment failure has been a constant problem in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, and despite much public criticism and even a Congressional investigation, little has been done to actually address the issue. Regardless of the politics involved, America’s war fighters—who have already put their lives on the line—deserve the best equipment possible. Unfortunately, what passes for standard-issue these days doesn’t even come close.

In many cases, American lives could have been saved with a little more attention to the details. A subsequent Army investigation of the Nasiriyah incident discovered that the lubricant oil for the M16 rifles in question, called cleaner lubricant preservative (CLP), was in large part to blame for the 507th’s losses, finding that “soldiers provided consistent comments that CLP was not a good choice for weapon’s maintenance in this [Iraqi] environment.”

To make matters worse, a commercially available and easily affordable alternative called Militec had already been approved for general issue by the Defense Logistics Agency, but had simply not been issued due to its cost. “I’m sure large amounts [of CLP] are acquired [by the Army] at a low cost,” said Aaron Johnson, a ten-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserve in an interview with DefenseWatch.

Criticism of the Army’s weapons procurement system has not been limited to noncombat units or even the Iraqi theatre of operations. In Afghanistan, the M16’s little brother, the M4 carbine, has also been the target of a litany of complaints. A 2006 survey of returning veterans revealed that 19 percent of those who had been issued an M4 had suffered a stoppage during combat, and that almost 20 percent of these users had not been able to clear the jam without assistance. Considering that the M4 is a specialty weapon mainly issued to elite operators in Special Forces units, this is especially troubling .

While the M4 isn’t even close to reliable in its current state, a simple and affordable solution is already on the market. Heckler & Koch, a widely respected German defense contractor, has developed a drop-in part called the HK416 that rectifies that vast majority of the M4’s problems. When pitted against the regular M4 in “torture tests” that involved exposing the weapons to sandy and dusty conditions, the HK416 was proven to be almost four times more reliable than the standard-issue carbine.

Furthermore, the HK416 is just one component of an already existing gun. Converting the Army’s inventory of M4’s to use the new part would be much cheaper and more cost-effective than buying an entirely new weapons system in the near future, such as the heavily hyped but ultimately disappointing XM29 Objective Infantry Combat Weapon.

While the War on Terror has proven to be a politically controversial topic, one goal that both sides of the aisle should share is the preservation of our service members’ lives. Simple solutions to our military’s current problems, such as better lubricant oil and the HK416, have the potential not only to make our soldiers safer and more effective, but even save us money in the long run. Although military technology will never prevent the loss of life entirely, purchasing better equipment could make it more likely that any future wartime sacrifice would be paid in dollars and cents instead of American blood.

Eugene Kim ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Kirkland House.