Two retired Army generals recently told Congress that the Army and Marine Corps should adopt a new infantry rifle with a more powerful cartridge than the current 5.56mm ammunition used in the M4 carbine.
Retired Lt. Gen. John Bednarek and retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales Jr. testified at a May 17 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee's Airland Subcommittee.
The hearing was held to look at the U.S. military's future small-arms requirements.
Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, opened the hearing by criticizing the M4 carbine's 5.56mm round as underpowered.
"There are lots of reports of enemy combatants surviving being hit by multiple 5.56 rounds," Cotton said. "Now we tried to improve the 5.56 round by developing different versions with greater range and firepower, but I'm not convinced this gives our troops the edge they need, especially if our enemies continue making advances in technology."
"It's time to upgrade to a higher, more lethal caliber weapons system for our infantry ground troops, regardless of service or component, regardless of color or uniform," he said.
Bednarek is the former chief of the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq. He has served in numerous combat arms leadership positions, including as rifle platoon leader in 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, in 1978 and commander of the 2/75 from 1996 to 1998. He also served in Operation Iraqi Freedom during his time as the assistant division commander for operations in the 25th Infantry Division (Light) from 2005 to 2008.
Bednarek told lawmakers that the 5.56mm ammunition used by the Army and the Corps cannot penetrate the "level two and level three body armor" of adversaries.
"Our capability to eliminate that threat at medium or long range is almost gone," he said. "So we must have small-arms systems that can stop and can penetrate that increased enemy protection."
Scales told lawmakers that the M4 carbine, in use by both the Army and the Corps, has an operating system that is "fundamentally flawed."
"All the things that we could do to marginally improve it aren't going to make a big difference, because the operating system is literally dependent on a puff of gas that blows a floating bolt back and slides it back into position," Scales said. "And any amount of dust, in my case, dirt in our soldiers' rifles -- fouling from the round -- will cause the weapon to jam."
Scales is the former commandant of the U.S. Army War College and an artillery officer who was awarded the Silver Star for bravery during the Vietnam War.
Scales said the M4 carbine's 5.56mm cartridge "is just too small for modern combat. Its lack of mass limits its range to less than 400 meters."
"I believe that tomorrow's rifle should be something in a midrange caliber between 6.5mm and 7mm," he said, adding that the new cartridge could be made almost as light as the 5.56 by using a polymer shell or plastic shell casing.
Scales said the Army has argued that in an era of declining resources, a new rifle will cost more than $2 billion.
"But if we only buy rifles for the infantry, a force that today -- Army, Marine and Special Forces of about 50,000 -- that total would be reduced to as little as $50 million," he said.
"The Army and the Marine Corps can keep their current stocks of M4s and M16s, because the vast majority of men and women in the ground services aren't infantryman. And frankly, for other MOSs like artillery and the admin services, the M4 works just fine."
Cotton asked why it's so hard to field a new rifle.
"It's not a ballistic missile defense system. It's not a new stealth bomber. It's not a new aircraft carrier. It's a rifle. Why is it so hard?" Cotton asked. "Why is the Acquisition Corps say it's going to take seven years to get a new rifle?"
Scales blamed the acquisition system.
"I hate to say it, but some of the people I've talked to in the Army staff recently are telling me that the same regulations that dictate building an F-35 fighter are at play in trying to design and build a little 7-pound piece of plastic and steel," he said.
Then, perhaps predictably, a lawmaker asked what special operators use.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked, "What do the SEALs use now for a weapon?"
Scales: "They use many things. They use the H&K 416, which is the Heckler and Koch weapon, the one that killed Osama bin Laden."
King: "Would that be a suitable weapon that would meet the needs that you've described?"
Scales: "It would."
OK, so that's what happened on Capitol Hill.
Now I'm going to offer my two cents, and I'm sorry but we've seen this movie before.
The Army canceled its competition to replace the M4 with an improved carbine in 2013, opting instead to upgrade to the M4A1. Several gunmakers were involved in the five-year effort, including H&K with its 416.
Scales said, "I didn't come here before the committee to advocate for a weapons maker, but let me say this. Most people will tell you that the H&K system is the best in the world. The Marines just bought -- they call it the M27, but, you know, it's really the H&K 416. It's the most reliable action in the world."
Again, I don't like to inject my opinion but, in this case, I can't help it. I find it very depressing when lawmakers get involved with weapons decisions, especially small arms.
They mean well, but they use rumors instead of fact-based research to make their point and often search for overly simplistic solutions that are impossible for the military to act upon.
Not to take away from the "credibility" of the witnesses, but I don't understand why there were no active-duty military members at the hearing. It's good to hear the unfiltered truth, but I have to question some of the criticism of the 5.56mm round.
I get the argument that soldiers and Marines could benefit from a new cartridge that is more effective than the 5.56 at longer ranges.
The 5.56mm round has had its problems in the past, particularly the M855 round. But the Army's M855A1 round and Corps' current MK 318 -- a 5.56mm round that's popular in the special operations community -- reportedly have impressive terminal effects on the battlefield.
If the Army and the Marines get serious about a new rifle, I do think the idea of issuing it strictly to infantry and other combat arms units has a lot of merit.
The Marines are currently looking at expanding the role of the M27 infantry automatic rifle and issuing it to infantry units as a replacement for the M4 carbine.
The Army, however, is still unwilling to look at adopting a new infantry rifle unless it is a true leap-ahead in technology.