Despite the ages-old rifles in Taliban hands, reports suggest our soldiers may be outgunned in Afghanistan's hills. To counter, the Army plans a slew of upgrades to certain weapons -- and several entirely new guns.
Taliban fighters in Afghanistan are attacking U.S. Army soldiers with AK-47s, while the army relies upon the M4 Assault rifle. The AK-47 uses a larger bullet, which leads to more kickback upon firing. Some reports indicate that the U.S. Army is looking to upgrade the weapons being used in Afghanistan to larger caliber guns.
An AP report published over the weekend in Army Times argued that the M4 rifle's light bullets lack sufficient velocity and killing power in long-range firefights. The report states that the U.S. is considering a switch to weapons that fire a larger round, one largely discarded in the 1960s.
"What's the right caliber?" asks Jim Battaglini, executive vice president with Colt Defense and a retired major gen with the U.S. Marine Corps. "The debate has been ongoing for over 40 years, with pros and cons for all options being considered."
The 7.62mm round in the AK-47 is heavier and larger than the 5.56mm caliber bullet in the M4, and can therefore fly further on average. But Battaglini dismisses reports that the Army is considering rearming soldiers in Afghanistan. "On the battlefield, there are no reported operational issues with the M4. It's the weapon of choice in Iraq, and still the desired weapon in Afghanistan," he told FoxNews.com.
Colonel Douglas Tamilio, project manager for Soldier Weapons in the Army's Program Executive Officer (PEO) Soldier division, downplayed the report too, as well as the significance of discussions about adopting larger caliber weaponry.
"You look at the fight you're in and decide, do I need to go back and do that?" But Tamilio is unswerving in his loyalty to the M4, calling it simply better than the Ak-47.
"To me there is no comparison. The M4 is inherently much more accurate than the AK-47," he told FoxNews.com. Tamilio explained that there are far more factors at play in determining the lethality of a weapon than mere caliber.
"We look at the ability of our soldier to incapacitate a target based on the weapon he's carrying, the recoil, the round the weapon is chambered for, what situation the soldier is in, how many rounds can he carry, his training, does he have optics on him ... there are so many variables that determine lethality."
"They're different system, difficult to compare," agreed Daniel Wasserbly, land forces reporter for Jane's Defence Weekly. He points out other differences, such as the shorter barrel in the M4, which makes it somewhat more geared to urban combat and the close-in battles of Iraq than the more open warfare in Afghanistan.
"But all the M4s have fairly advanced optics, which really add to their capabilities," he told FoxNews.com.
Col. Tamilio, who's PEO group is responsible for developing, fielding and sustaining new weapons, explained that the M4 has evolved substantially over the years, and that new upgrades and even new guns planned for this summer should dramatically enhance our soldiers' capabilities.
For one thing, U.S. special forces will be given a new supergun this summer, the XM25 grenade-launcher, which is capable of showering the Taliban with grenades from more than 700 meters away.
To address the issue of snipers, there's the M14EBR, a 7.62 caliber rifle designed to handle the recoil from big bullets better. That gun will be accurate to 800 meters.
"It's not the AK-47s putting a significant threat on our soldiers, it's the sniper rifles," Tamilio said, citing the Soviet era guns capable of killing from 600 to 700 meters away. "We need the ability to answer back to those."
His division took old M14s and made them like new, added new stocks, rails, bipods, and powerful optics to create a new gun.
"It's not a sniper weapon, but it's pretty damn close to it."
PEO also plans enhancements to the M4, adding to the 62 improvements the U.S. Army has made to the M4 since it was released. The Army has over 500,000 M4s in its arsenal.
Tamilio's group has improved the ammunition for the guns, upgrading the standard 855 round to the 8551a, "which strips away the dependency on yaw and made it more consistent." The new rounds should be in guns in Afghanistan this summer, along with barrels 5 oz heavier, for increased sustained fire.
He also cites plans for a new bolt and an improved adapter, called a Picatinny rail, which allows mounting of flashlights, lasers, and so on. Why upgrade a weapon that's "outgunned"? Tamilio flat-out disagrees with the characterization.
"The M4 is getting a bad rep, and it's an unfortunate thing. It's the best weapon in the world today. "
Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.