by Major General Robert Scales
A two-part expose by The Washington Timesâ€™ national security reporter,Â Rowan Scarborough, on the shortcomings of the M4 carbine is a story of institutional ineptitude that has cost soldiersâ€™ lives.
However, the sad story of the American rifle also serves as a metaphor for a defense culture that slights the little stuff to fixate on buying big war machines that havenâ€™t been employed in serious combat for generations, and probably never will be again.
Propelling this latest rush to buy ships, planes and air- and sea-launched missiles isÂ China, the only country on the planet still worthy of a good dose of American shock and awe. Frustratingly, the Chinese seemed not interested in returning the favor.
The story is different for ground forces, though.
During World War II, the most dangerous jobs belonged to submariners and bomber crewmen. Next came the infantry, who, because of their greater numbers, accounted for about 70 percent of all those killed at the hands of the enemy.
In wars fought since then, no submariner has died in combat. In fact, theÂ U.S. NavyÂ fought its last major sea battle the year I was born â€” 1944. The last bomber crewman lost to enemy action died during the 1972Â ChristmasÂ bombing offensive over Hanoi.
In contrast, close-combat troops (ArmyÂ andÂ Marine infantry, as well as special operators likeÂ Delta,Â RangersÂ andÂ SEALs) have suffered more than 80 percent of deaths from enemy action in post-World War II conflicts. This is a force that makes up less than 4 percent of all those serving in uniform.
Today, a special operator like Sgt. 1st ClassÂ Cory Remsburg, honored with a three-minute ovation during President Obamaâ€™s State of the Union address, stands about one chance in four of being killed or seriously maimed in todayâ€™s wars.
While the defense intelligentsia remain fixated on fighting tomorrowâ€™s techno-wars, the American people seem to have a more realistic and pragmatic view of human conflict.
They crowd theaters to watch their blue-collar colleagues perform selfless, amazingly heroic acts in movies like â€œActs of Valor,â€ â€œThe Hurt Locker,â€ â€œLone Survivor,â€ â€œZero Dark Thirtyâ€ and â€œCaptain Phillips.â€
One would think that Beltway gurus would strive to keep alive as many of our close-combat warriors, those most likely to die, by giving them the best stuff.Â Mr. Scarboroughâ€™s reports clearly show that they do not. The M4 story is just one of many.
In fact, our primitive, illiterate enemies have better small arms â€” rifles, carbines and machine guns â€” than do American close-combat forces.
Our venerable â€œMa Deuceâ€ heavy machine gun was designed in 1919 and is an antique by Soviet standards. TheÂ Armyâ€™s heavy mortar, the most-used infantry-support weapon inÂ Afghanistan, was designed in 1931 and is consistently outranged by virtually all contemporary mortars.
To understand the vital importance of range, one only has to read Jake Tapperâ€™s book â€œThe Outpost,â€ which recounts the desperate fight by an isolated infantry platoon that might have turned out differently had some form of outside supporting fire been within range.
Recall the moving ceremony when Mr. Obama presentedÂ Sgt. Salvatore GiuntaÂ with the first Medal of Honor given to a living recipient from the war inÂ Afghanistan. His actions in repelling aÂ TalibanÂ ambush and saving his buddies were extraordinary.
But why in 2007 (and today) could an enemy force approach to within 40 meters ofÂ Sgt. Giuntaâ€™s position? Why canâ€™t the richest country on earth give these guys a simple early-warning detector like many of you have to protect your homes?
Remember last yearâ€™s Medal of Honor ceremony forÂ Capt. William Swenson, who bravely fought off aÂ TalibanÂ ambush to save his soldiers from certain death? According to unclassified reports of the battle, an aerial drone showed up overÂ Capt. Swensonâ€™s unit five hours after the ambush was sprung.
What if our military could put a drone over every ground patrol walking into danger? Surely had a drone been overhead, theÂ TalibanÂ would never have dared to open fire.
The video clip taken ofÂ Capt. SwensonÂ carrying his wounded comrade to a medevac helicopter was the first of a Medal of Honor recipient in action.
Did you happen to notice in the video the bulky radio stuffed inÂ Capt. Swensonâ€™s backpack? This battle was fought in 2009, a time when ragpickers in Mumbai had cellphones. Why canâ€™t our fighting men and women have cellphones in combat?
The bottom line is simple: We continue to buy glitzy and insanely expensive instruments of shock and awe while troops in the close fight have to fight a â€œfairâ€ fight.
Ground troops seemingly only get new stuff after many of them die. Thatâ€™s when American parents watch the bloodbath on television and call their congressman to demand better weapons, body armor and armor-protected vehicles.
The M4 carbine highlighted inÂ Mr. Scarboroughâ€™s expose is virtually the same weapon that jammed and nearly killed me almost 50 years ago in Vietnam.
If the Defense Department really wanted to keep close-combat troops alive, they would re-equip them with first-rate carbines, all for about the price of a single, modern fighter plane. But they wonâ€™t.
Maj. Gen. Robert Scales retired in 2001 after 37 yearsâ€™ service in the U.S. Army. His last assignment was commandant of the Army War College.