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Bloody Engagement Caught Up in M4 Controversy
By Harold Hutchison

The Battle of Wanat was one of the deadliest fights that American troops were involved in during Operation Enduring Freedom. Nine Americans died in the battle, fought on 13 July, 2008, when as many as 500 Taliban attacked an American base defended by 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Nuristan Province.

According to a report in the Washington Times, issues with the M4 carbine, which is standard issue to Army units, played a part in the battle. “Realistically speaking, there’s been loss of life that is unneeded because there was a dumbing-down of the weapon system,” Scott Traudt, a special advisor at Green Mountain Defense Industries, told the paper.

However, a 2010 study done by the US Army Combat Studies Institute may indicate that Wanat might have been a case of the exception proving the rule. In “Wanat: Combat Action In Afghanistan, 2008,” the staff of the Combat Studies Institute noted, “A superficial examination of these failures may lead to the conclusion that the root causes were either inherent to the weapons’ design or lay in poor maintenance by the operators. However, a more systematic analysis of weapons usage shows that almost all of the weapons that failed did so after firing a high volume of rounds in a short period. While about a fifth of the weapons failed sometime during the action, all but one of these cases occurred after the weapons were fired at a high rate for a number of minutes.”

The report went on to admit that while many of the weapons that jammed during the battle were M4 carbines, “Enemy action and weapons dispositions forced the defenders of COP Kahler and OP Topside to use their M4s in uncharacteristic roles. This, not weapons maintenance deficiencies or inherent weaknesses in weapons design, was the reason a number of weapons jammed during the battle.”

The American troops at Wanat had a number of heaver weapons, including M240 machine guns, Mk 19 automatic grenade launchers, M2 heavy machine guns, mortars, and even a TOW launcher, but enemy fire disabled many of them. The study noted, “The two mortars were positioned in such a manner that the enemy was able to place direct small arms fire onto their locations. RPG fire at the beginning of the action destroyed the vehicle mounted TOW. The crew of one of the M240 machine guns at the OP was severely wounded by RPG fire at the first enemy volley and the operator of the sniper rifle was killed early.”

An Army historian claimed that the report was re-written to cover up problems with the M4 due to efforts by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to improve the rifle. “That was not my conclusion,” Douglas R. Cubbison, a former Army artillery officer and principal Wanat history author, told the Washington Times. “That was the Combat Studies Institute management that was driven from the chief of staff’s office to modify findings of that report to basically CYA [cover your ass] for the Army. You know how that works.”

“Other soldiers have informally told me of similar problems they had with the M4 at high rates of fire,” Cubbison added. Two of the soldiers at Wanat, Staff Sergeant Erich Phillips and Specialist Chrs McKaig, described weapons failures during the battle.

Another soldier, Tyler Stafford, described troops buying their own magazines due to problems with those issued. He also added, “Everybody’s biggest problem with the M4 is that it’s such a high-maintenance weapon, that continually you have to keep it very, very clean, very well-oiled. In the infantry world, that’s tough to do, especially when you’re living in the dirt and fighting every other day.”

Did the M4 fail the troops, or was Wanat more an outlier that’s giving the M4 a bum rap? We want to hear what you think about this.