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Left Behind

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Somebody please help the infantry.

Think of how many new generations of fighters, naval combatants, and fighting vehicles have been deployed since the 1960s.

Contrast that record to the individual firearm -- the rifle, carbine or handgun carried and used by almost any one wearing a uniform. The same basic M16 rifle and M4 carbine first used in Vietnam -- with the same basic flaws still uncorrected -- remain the primary infantry weapons for the US military today.

Why?

Surely, a nation that can muster $250-$300 billion to develop and deliver the Joint Strike Fighter, $160 billion to build a new family of combat vehicles and $8 billion to develop and build a next-generation aircraft carrier can come up with some spare change to upgrade the infantry's arsenal of automatic weapons.

All the services are fond of promoting the concept of dominating any potential threat through superior technology. Yet the M16 and M4 remain matched -- if not inferior -- to the firepower provided by the weapon of choice for insurgents/terrorists/pirates worldwide: the even older AK-47 design and its antecedents.

A new generation of superior guns are available for purchase today, offering improved firepower and less of the reliability problems of the older generation. Examples include the Heckler & Koch 416 enhanced carbine and the FN Herstal Special Operations Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR).

Giving the Army more cash may not be the answer. Part of the problem is the way the Army manages small arms. Back in the 1950s, the Army was so loathe to develop an automatic rifle to compete with the AK-47 that some think it sabotaged tests on the M16. It fell upon Air Force General Curtis LeMay to rescue the M16 program and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to compel the Army to buy it. Even then, the Army sabotaged the M16 by initially filling the cartridge with the wrong gunpowder. (Read more here.)

More recently, the Army aborted its plan to replace the M16 with the XM29, which was cancelled in 2005 after a $100 million investment.

The good news is that the commercial marketplace has already solved the Army's problem. The question is whether the Army is willing to bring itself to make the change.

-- Steve Trimble

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