US uses bullets ill-suited for new ways of war
US uses bullets ill-suited for new ways of war
By RICHARD LARDNER, Associated Press Writer 14 minutes ago
As Sgt. Joe Higgins patrolled the streets of Saba al-Bor, a tough town north of Baghdad, he was armed with bullets that had a lot more firepower than those of his 4th Infantry Division buddies.
As an Army sniper, Higgins was one of the select few toting an M14. The long-barreled rifle, an imposing weapon built for wars long past, spits out bullets larger and more deadly than the rounds that fit into the M4 carbines and M16 rifles that most soldiers carry.
"Having a heavy cartridge in an urban environment like that was definitely a good choice," says Higgins, who did two tours in Iraq and left the service last year. "It just has more stopping power."
Strange as it sounds, nearly seven years into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, bullets are a controversial subject for the U.S.
The smaller, steel-penetrating M855 rounds continue to be a weak spot in the American arsenal. They are not lethal enough to bring down an enemy decisively, and that puts troops at risk, according to Associated Press interviews.
Designed decades ago to puncture a Soviet soldier's helmet hundreds of yards away, the M855 rounds are being used for very different targets in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of today's fighting takes place in close quarters; narrow streets, stairways and rooftops are today's battlefield. Legions of armor-clad Russians marching through the Fulda Gap in Germany have given way to insurgents and terrorists who hit and run.
Fired at short range, the M855 round is prone to pass through a body like a needle through fabric. That does not mean being shot is a pain-free experience. But unless the bullet strikes a vital organ or the spine, the adrenaline-fueled enemy may have the strength to keep on fighting and even live to fight another day.
In 2006, the Army asked a private research organization to survey 2,600 soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly one-fifth of those who used the M4 and M16 rifles wanted larger caliber bullets.
Yet the Army is not changing. The answer is better aim, not bigger bullets, officials say.
"If you hit a guy in the right spot, it doesn't matter what you shoot him with," said Maj. Thomas Henthorn, chief of the small arms division at Fort Benning, Ga., home to the Army's infantry school.
At about 33 cents each, bullets do not get a lot of public attention in Washington, where the size of the debate is usually measured by how much a piece of equipment costs. But billions of M855 rounds have been produced, and Congress is preparing to pay for many more. The defense request for the budget year that begins Oct. 1 seeks $88 million for 267 million M855s, each one about the size of a AAA battery.
None of the M855's shortcomings is surprising, said Don Alexander, a retired Army chief warrant officer with combat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Somalia.
"The bullet does exactly what it was designed to do. It just doesn't do very well at close ranges against smaller-statured people that are lightly equipped and clothed," says Alexander, who spent most of his 26-year military career with the 5th Special Forces Group.
Paul Howe was part of a U.S. military task force 15 years ago in Mogadishu, Somalia's slum-choked capital, when he saw a Somali fighter hit in the back from about a dozen feet away with an M855 round.
"I saw it poof out the other side through his shirt," says Howe, a retired master sergeant and a former member of the Army's elite Delta Force. "The guy just spun around and looked at where the round came from. He got shot a couple more times, but the first round didn't faze him."
With the M855, troops have to hit their targets with more rounds, said Howe, who owns a combat shooting school in Texas. That can be tough to do under high-stress conditions when one shot is all a soldier might get.
"The bullet is just not big enough," he says. "If I'm going into a room against somebody that's determined to kill me, I want to put him down as fast as possible."
Dr. Martin Fackler, a former combat surgeon and a leading authority on bullet injuries, said the problem is the gun, not the bullet. The M4 rifle has a 14.5 inch barrel — too short to create the velocity needed for an M855 bullet to do maximum damage to the body.
"The faster a bullet hits the tissue, the more it's going to fragment," says Fackler. "Bullets that go faster cause more damage. It's that simple."
Rules of war limit the type of ammunition conventional military units can shoot. The Hague Convention of 1899 bars hollow point bullets that expand in the body and cause injuries that someone is less likely to survive. The United States was not a party to that agreement. Yet, as most countries do, it adheres to the treaty, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The Hague restrictions do not apply to law enforcement agencies, however. Ballistics expert Gary Roberts said that is an inconsistency that needs to be remedied, particularly at a time when so many other types of destructive ordnance are allowed in combat.
"It is time to update this antiquated idea and allow U.S. military personnel to use the same proven ammunition," Roberts says.
In response to complaints from troops about the M855, the Army's Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey assigned a team of soldiers, scientists, doctors and engineers to examine the round's effectiveness. The team's findings, announced in May 2006, concluded there were no commercially available rounds of similar size better than the M855.
But Anthony Milavic, a retired Marine Corps major, said the Army buried the study's most important conclusion: that larger-caliber bullets are more potent.
"It was manipulated," says Milavic, a Vietnam veteran who manages an online military affairs forum called MILINET. "Everybody knows there are bullets out there that are better."
Officials at Picatinny Arsenal declined to be interviewed. In an e-mailed response to questions, they called the M855 "an overall good performer." Studies are being conducted to see if it can be made more lethal without violating the Hague Convention, they said.
Larger rounds are not necessarily better, they also said. Other factors such as the weather, the amount of light and the bullet's angle of entry also figure into how lethal a single shot may be.
Heavier rounds also mean more weight for soldiers to carry, as well as more recoil — the backward kick created when a round is fired. That long has been a serious issue for the military, which has troops of varied size and strength.
The M14 rifle used by Joe Higgins was once destined to be the weapon of choice for all U.S. military personnel. When switched to the automatic fire mode, the M14 could shoot several hundred rounds a minute. But most soldiers could not control the gun, and in the mid-1960s it gave way to the M16 and its smaller cartridge. The few remaining M14s are used by snipers and marksman.
U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., is buying a carbine called the SCAR Heavy for its commandos, and it shoots the same round as the M14. The regular Army, though, has invested heavily in M4 and M16 rifles and has no plans to get rid of them.
A change in expectations is needed more than a change in gear, said Col. Robert Radcliffe, chief of combat developments at Fort Benning. Soldiers go through training believing that simply hitting a part of their target is enough to kill it. On a training range, getting close to the bulls-eye counts. But in actual combat, nicking the edges isn't enough.
"Where you hit is essential to the equation," Radcliffe says. "I think the expectations are a little bit off in terms of combat performance against target range performance. And part of that is our fault for allowing that expectation to grow when it's really not there at all."
The arguments over larger calibers, Radcliffe says, are normal in military circles where emotions over guns and bullets can run high.
"One of the things I've discovered in guns is that damned near everyone is an expert," he says. "And they all have opinions."
History is lost once again...
It would appear no one with any real pull is bothering to study the history of the .223 and it's effect in that part of the world. Our troops had problems in Somalia with it and they continue to have problems in an environment where limited armor, and daytime supplements to increase both metabolism and adrenalin, are common.
There has been talk for awhile now of the military adopting an inbetween round, something in the neighborhood of a .243, but no movement has happened and it would appear none is scheduled. While I understand the military reservations to adopting a full blown .308 caliber assault weapon, I don't understand the stubborness to adopt a cartridge of a greater knock down power over the standard M855 ball.
Here is hoping that our troops always have the best available gear. And when they don't, that there are clear enough heads, without the egos, to make the right decisions and get that gear in the hands of the troops would have stepped forward to do their bidding.
It's a good article, but incredibly old news.. And sadly, the Military is no closer to getting into a new heavier caliber. The 6.8mm is a fairly good round, but cost prohibitive, unless the mil made the switch and started ordering by the boat load. And the .308 is a stone killer, but alas it also is cost prohibitive and I doubt the powers that be will let the entire force swap to SOCOMS or AR10's
Hope the guys and gals "over there" are handed a better round for urban combat, and soon..
Hmmm, think about the old adage: "follow the money."
Too many people interested in keeping the .223. As we're not a signatory to that convention, perhaps fighting insurgent wars is good enough to allow use of hollowpoints.
They allow the use of mines, air-burst bomblets with flechettes,, etc. etc. but no hollow points! Military Intelligence....
I once saw a quote by a well known American firearms writer sho said "The .223 is a wonderful calibre....if we ever go to war with woodchucks" and I could not agree more.
Lovely small game cartridge but crap for warfare.
If I had a dollar for every pilot that ever asked me what was the best handgun for him to carry on combat missions, I'd have about 6 dollars.
My response was always the same: "The smallest handgun you can kill a rabbit with." Some of those guys thought that they could shoot their way out of Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, etc.....
The missile has to match the mission. Anyone here carry wadcutters in their CCW? Slow, soft, and prone to spreading, just like Monica Lewinsky.
But to the topic at hand..... No organization having the research capabilities of our Armed Forces could possibly have overlooked the ballistic mismatch our guys are faced with today. It's not a matter of nobody recognizing the problem, but a failure of those charged with solving it to do so.
I don't know what any of you heard or believe about the boiler-plate effects of Clinton's military cuts, but they were extremely significant. From my end, it was a matter of cannibalization of assets because there simply was no money for spare parts. It was waiting weeks for answers on sensitive weapons programs issues because the regional HMFIC was in Washington explaining to a bunch of suits why we needed things like Explosives Safety programs. No-Fly days while deployed because the government was shut down. Everything we had spent years learning and fine-tuning ground to a halt because someone needed to generate a "surplus". Our mission became subordinate to a *$%@!$% election campaign slogan.
Off the coast of Somalia years (Damn I've been out too long) ago, the SEAL Team Senior Chief asked me if we had anything that could be launched or dropped on the bread factory which was the headquarters of Aidid's local warlord, which wouldn't endanger the girl's school right next door. The answer was "No", and you can bet that it's still "No." We had an inert Laser Guided Training Round at the time which would have been ideal, if only it had a tactical counterpart.
On the other hand, hard-target penetrators ("Bunker Busters") showed up still hot from pouring during Operation Desert Storm.
We're not busting bunkers from 50,000 feet anymore. We're in the streets fighting hoodlums in Adidas tee-shirts, and every shot counts. Pass-throughs need to be turned into kills.
I was never really aware of this problem as I have no been overseas (yet). I find this really interesting, and frustrating.
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