Thursday, March 15, 2007

Unplanned Non-obsolescence

In today’s world, the Internet can turn up all sorts of interesting information. I found an item reporting Marines’ views on various U.S. weapons and equipment in the Washington Post (February 4, 2007). Washington Post Military Correspondent Tom Ricks cited as the source via friends in that website’s community. is quoted in the Post article as acknowledging that the information came to them without attribution but they having been persuaded by the item’s insights into the experience of U.S. Marines serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, they chose to use it.

The article as presented in the Post offers a succinct assessment of 13 items of weaponry and current equipment being used by the Marines:

Thumbs down M-16 rifle (chronic jamming due to dust, problems which also plague the more popular M-4 carbine; the 5.56mm (.223) round is
considered underpowered for their situation)

Thumbs down M243 SAW (squad assault weapon)(chronic jamming problems, often requiring partial disassembly)

Thumbs neutral M9 Beretta 9mm pistol (good gun but an old complaint about the underpowered 9mm round has resurfaced)

Thumbs up Mossberg 12ga military shotgun
Thumbs up M240 Machine Gun (7.62mm/.308 calibre)
Thumbs up, way up M2 .50 calibre heavy machine gun
Thumbs up .45 calibre automatic pistol
Thumbs up M-14 7.62mm rifle
Thumbs way up Barrett .50 calibre sniper rifle
Thumbs up M24 sniper rifle
Thumbs up Newer body armor
Thumbs way up Night vision and Infrared equipment
Thumbs up Lights

The interesting thing to me is the number of weapons on the ‘thumbs up’ portion of the list can be traced back the First and Second World Wars.

By the time of U.S. entry into World War II, the M2 ‘Ma Deuce’ Heavy Machine Gun was already a veteran weapon. I personally became acquainted with ‘Ma Deuce’ in the early 1970s, when she was already a grand old lady of more than 50 years service. The M2 has long been recognized has a powerful weapon with remarkable long-range accuracy. The Barret .50 calibre sniper rifle is in fact a close relative of the .50 machine gun, reflecting that well-recorded long-range accuracy. Before the development of today’s tank main gun fire control systems, many tanks were equipped with a .50 calibre weapon strapped to the main gun to be used to fire single round ‘aiming shots’ at selected targets, allowing the gunner to quickly and accurately fix the range to the target before firing the main gun. In the heat of armored combat, the single .50 calibre round was often not even noticed by the target vehicle’s crew.

U.S. forces have long used shotguns, sometimes civilian models and more often weapons modified for military use. A highpoint for military shotguns were the pump-action ‘trench broom’ shotguns of the First World War. Such weapons were as useful in the close combat of the trenches as they apparently are now in clearing buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The M240 Machine Gun is described as being based upon the operating system of the veteran Browning Automatic Rifle (or BAR) and the ammo belt feed system of the World War II German MG 42 (the gun that also inspired the older U.S. M-60 7.62mm machine gun). The BAR was introduced to U.S. forces during World War I as a squad level automatic weapon. The MG 42 was recognized during World War II as an outstanding weapon and was the bases for the U.S.’s 7.62mm M60 machine gun of Vietnam War fame.

The M-14 rifle, the first standard issue U.S. weapon capable of full automatic fire, was introduced in 1957. Basically an improved M-1 Garand rifle (the standard U.S. infantry weapon of World War II), the M-14 was replaced by the M-16. For some years, the U.S. Marines used the M21 model of the M14 as a sniper rifle.

The ‘great-granddaddy’ from this list of rediscovered weapons is the .45 calibre Browning automatic pistol first adopted by the U.S. in 1911 – more than 90 years ago. Undergoing various modifications and changes, the .45 Browning served U.S. forces until replaced by the 9mm Beretta in the 1980s – a decision criticized even then. Bringing this weapon out of retirement even on a small scale echoes the reported reasons for its original adoption. American troops in the Philippines were faced by strong resistance to the imposition of U.S. rule after the defeat of Spain in 1898. These soldiers reportedly complained that their Army Colt revolvers lacked the power needed to stop a charging Islamic Moro guerrilla warrior with his large machete like ‘bolo.’

A hallmark of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s tenure was his drive for transformation of the American military. Militaries do need to evolve, to adapt to new technologies, new opponents, new geography, etc. Meeting this need to evolve has almost always been accompanied by extended debate as different individuals claim to have the latest, best new idea, to have identified the true Revolution in Military Affairs whether it be the tank, the airplane, or network centric warfare. But the above list shows an interesting aspect to military evolutions and even military revolutions – not every idea or technology or weapon is obsolete just because it has been around awhile. Ask the B-52 flight crews who are flying airframes older than their parents. Achieving a better, more capable military force does not always require throwing away everything that went before. Keeping some of those capabilities and the related tools around can prove useful.


Mike Scholl said...

I think it's interesting that many of the "thumbs up" weapons are based on original John Browning designs. Rugged and reliable seem to be the base concepts for all of Browning's designs, and almost 100 years later the troops still seem to share his his design ideals.

Anonymous said...

You gave a military designation of M-243 to the SAW, it should be M-249 however. That being said overall, I really like your blog.

Robert A Mosher said...

Thanks to anonymous for the correction. Nomenclature is one of the minefields that must be navigated by those of us not directly using the weapons we discuss. While chatting with Jim Dunnigan once, we agreed that the most frightening questioner could be a 12 year-old boy who has memorized everything known about weapons, wars, armies, or whatever has attracted the young man's interest.