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Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer (Part 2)

So that paper we linked to and wrote about yesterday, Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer, is generating some major heat, particularly down at Special Operations Command (SOCOM), we learned today.

The paper, written by a student at the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Leavenworth, that’s the one for the Army’s best and brightest officers, says the infantry’s standard small arm (the M-4 rifle) cannot engage the enemy in Afghanistan where most firefights occur past 300 meters. This is due to an ineffective round, the 5.56mm, and inadequate training. The paper was written last fall, but has really been making the rounds just in the past few weeks.

I brought the paper up this morning during a roundtable discussion at the Pentagon with the folks from Program Executive Office – Soldier. Col. Doug Tamilio, program manager for Soldier weapons lethality (this guys weapons knowledge is unreal), said it was a very good paper, although he thought some of the conclusions were a bit out of context. Tamilio has made it mandatory reading for his shop, particularly after spending a few days down at SOCOM and hearing the splash the paper has made there.

“He’s right, the fight in Afghanistan is longer… But you’ve got to go back to where soldiers are today. Can a soldier engage beyond 300 meters accurately? The answer is probably not.” Most soldiers coming out of basic training can’t shoot expertly, except for the few sharpshooters. “It takes a while to become an expert at shooting at ranges beyond 300 meters,” he said.

But PEO Soldier is focused on equipping, not so much training. So what is PEO Soldier giving the infantry to take back that half kilometer?

To begin with the 7.62mm M-14 Enhanced Battle Rifle (EBR), a modern version of the venerable M14 rifle, Tamilio said. Long a favorite of Navy SEALS and other special ops units, the Army is now distributing two EBR 14s per rifle squad to get more range and lethality. Soldier feedback so far has been very positive, he said. A team is in Afghanistan right now collecting feedback from soldiers and putting together a report to brief to Congress.

The other weapon that’s gained favor with foot soldiers in Afghanistan is the Mk. 48 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), a 7.62mm version of the SAW that is used by SOCOM but the Army is now buying. Soldiers are leaving behind the 5.56mm SAW and taking the 7.62mm version with them instead, he said.

“The fight in Afghanistan has probably shown us that 7.62mm, in certain aspects, is needed and required,” he said. Soldier preference for the EBR 14 and the Mk. 48 SAW backs that up.

But moving the entire rifle squad to the heavier round is a bigger question for the Army infantry school at Fort Benning to wrestle with, Tamilio said. Until now, the policy has been that in a 9-man squad the Army would keep the 5.56mm round across the squad. “We’re starting to think of a mix within our squads.”

The question then becomes do you need a 7.62mm in every type of fight? Is it the right round for close quarters urban firefights? These are the questions the Army is grappling with, Tamilio said. He wasn’t ready to say the Army should move to the bigger round across the board.

PEO Soldier is trying to provide a “modular” capability to the rifle squad, where they can mix and match weapons for different missions, said Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller. That’s a concept borrowed from special operations, where they have a big closet full of weapons, tailored to specific missions, that they can choose from. The paper’s author referred to this preferred approach as the “arms room concept.”

The focus right now is on the three Afghanistan surge brigades, he said. “We’ve gone to them and said here is some additional capability we have in our closet that hasn’t been fielded… we can’t field it to the whole Army. But I can give you an increased capability so you have a little more kit in your kit bag to adapt to that environment.”

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