Reader response: the rifle debate
3 Feb 2015|

Dr Deane-Peter Baker raised some interesting points in his article about the firearm presently used by the Australian Army. His post provides a good starting point for a more robust discussion about the topic. The F88 is a capable weapon. But the issues raised in Baker’s article, such as its lack of railing systems for modifications, inability to be easily fired in an ambidextrous manner, and lack of an adjustable buttstock, are things that we should look to correct in any future procurement.

Still, Baker’s post needs to be read within a wider context. The conclusion—that we should acquire the M4—is itself contentious. The M4 certainly meets the standard discussed above but the weapon’s primary operator, the United States, is certainly not content with it, albeit, not for those reasons.

As a point of entry to the discussion, consider the Battle of Wanat in 2008. During that encounter, over 200 Taliban fighters attacked a position held by the US Army and supporting troops from the Afghan National Army (ANA). Coalition forces sustained a worryingly high number of casualties, and the engagement was the subject of later analysis which drew the following conclusion about weaponry (see pp.219–220 of the report):

In fact, most of the weapons that jammed at Wanat were M4 carbines. The M4 was the basic individual weapon carried by US Soldiers in Afghanistan and was not designed to fire at the maximum or cyclic rate for extended periods. Enemy action and weapons dispositions forced the defenders of COP Kahler and OP Topside to use their M4s in uncharacteristic roles. This, not weapons maintenance deficiencies or inherent weaknesses in weapons design, was the reason a number of weapons jammed during the 220 battle. The maintenance of a high rate of fire was critical to retaining fire superiority and to prevent positions…from being overrun by determined and continuous insurgent assaults.

Still, it’s worth observing that dusty combat environments are problematic for the weapon and soldiers often need their weapons to fire under less than ideal conditions. In 2007, the M4 was tested alongside three of its competitors in a high dust test; it finished last. That’s not to say the M4 is a poor weapon, it’s not. It continues to be the weapon of choice of the Australian Special Forces community and maintains a high degree of soldier’s confidence within the US Army. The reason for its performance issues alongside the other weapons is that the competitors are newer and more advanced. As such, the M4 isn’t the ‘one answer’ that Baker’s otherwise fine article claims. The reality is more complicated.

Presently the United States is engaged in a prolonged discussion over its own choice of weapon. Alternative designs have been proposed, rejected and proposed again, then cancelled again. This process could charitably be described as ‘halting’ but it’s producing a new generation of rifles that are more advanced than the M4. Decision-makers in the United States aren’t yet happy enough with those weapons that they’re prepared to make the leap from the M4. But the gap between the F88 and those weapons is substantial, as Baker illustrates.

Baker suggests we should look to our special forces in making decisions about the future of our weapons procurement. That’s a wise suggestion but we should also take into account the broader context of what our allies are doing. Presently the United States DoD is using special forces as a test bed of ideas in order to produce an indication of future direction.

That experimentation’s produced more reliable weapons and caused USSOCOM to more or less abandon the M4 as the primary choice of weapon. The present choice, the FN-SCAR family, meets all of the criteria set out by Baker as well as being more reliable. It’s also capable of being converted to fire different rounds, the standard 5.56 and the larger 7.62. This trend towards selecting weapons that can be easily converted to accommodate different rounds has the potential to make any weapons choice substantially more complicated.

The standard NATO round common to most coalition militaries—including Australia—is the 5.56. It’s lightweight and highly respected but the larger 7.62 round allows soldiers to engage targets at a longer distance (albeit with trade-offs such as greater recoil and reduced ammunition). There’s now a burgeoning discussion within the United States armed forces proposing a compromise choice of round between the two. Changing the standard NATO round would have significant flow-on impacts to allies and implications for our own procurement choices. If we chose a weapon and the US process continued to produce improving models, we’d be faced with the possibility of going to war with different equipment. Conversely, if we peg our decision to the US’ then we’d be hostage to their continuing indecision.

The good news is that there are many options for us to select as we go forward. The M4 replacement process is producing weapons that are highly capable and in many ways more advanced than either our present weapon or the M4. The United States is clearly not yet ready to make a decision on moving from the M4 to another rifle. We’ve no such commitment to the M4 and, as a result, have every reason to look past it. Australian defence officials would do well to involve themselves in this ongoing debate in order to ensure that our soldiers get the best equipment they possibly can.

Robert Potter is currently assisting with research at the Kennedy School. Previously he was a visiting scholar at Columbia, a student at Cornell and an Australian Army Reservist. Image courtesy of US Department of Defense.