The M4 is an updated version of the M16, which was designed for close quarters combat in Vietnam. But while the weapon is better suited for the kind of urban warfare common in Iraq, some have questioned whether it is deadly and accurate for Afghanistan – where U.S. troops often find themselves in long-range combat.
An Army study found that the 5.56mm bullets fired from the M4s don’t retain enough velocity past 1,000 feet to kill an enemy. In Afghanistan, forces are often up to 2,500 feet apart.
“It just makes no sense,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Scales Jr., a Fox News military analyst.
Scales said the M4 is “unsuitable” for Afghan terrain and “notoriously unreliable” in the first place. The Army Times reported on an Army weapons test three years ago that found the M4 performed worse than three other newer carbines when subjected to an “extreme dust test.”
Problems with the M4 locking up were also cited in a study last year on a July 2008 firefight that left nine U.S. soldiers dead in eastern Afghanistan.
The Taliban are meanwhile using heavier bullets that allow them to fire at U.S. and NATO troops from distances that are out of range of the M4.
To counter these tactics, the U.S. military is designating nine soldiers in each infantry company to serve as sharpshooters, according to Maj. Thomas Ehrhart, who wrote the Army study. The sharpshooters are equipped with the new M110 sniper rifle, which fires a larger 7.62mm round and is accurate to at least 2,500 feet.
As for what could ultimately replace the M4, the Army’s center for small-arms development is trying to find a solution.
Col. Douglas Tamilio, program manager for U.S. Army firearms at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, said the M4 has the advantage of more-rapid firepower.
“The 5.56 caliber is more lethal since it can put more rounds on target,” he told The Associated Press. But he acknowledged the weapon is much less effective at 2,000 feet out.
A possible compromise would be an interim-caliber round combining the best characteristics of the 5.56 mm and 7.62 cartridges, Tamilio said.
Scales said the U.S. military simply needs to engineer a better weapon – he said the M8, a weapon that was under development before being halted several years ago, could be revived and improved for Afghanistan.
“We’re the world’s largest superpower. Why don’t we just make one,” Scales said. “This isn’t rocket science. We’re not putting a man on the moon here.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.