My Backwoods Upbringing Serves Me Well

I found this article while glancing at Thomas Ricks' blog at FP–It's about the issues that US troops have been facing in Afghanistan with the weapons they're assigned.  I've commented on similar micro-level issues before and I think this AP article is pretty closely related, although it focuses more on the US side.  I really think framing the issue in the way that the AP does undercuts our ability to
understand what the problem is. 

First, I think the AP article does a poor job at framing the issue.  They really make it sound as though the weapons that the Taliban are using are very primitive and archaic.  Actually…They flat out call them primitive:

The U.S. military's workhorse rifle – used in battle for the last 40
years – is proving less effective in Afghanistan against the Taliban's
more primitive but longer range weapons [emphasis added].

First, the way in which the AP article frames the issue suggests that the US military, as well as past military ventures in Afghanistan, have been bogged down by a wily opponent with primitive weapons.  Essentially, the Taliban are using outdated rifles with longer ranges and the US issued M-4 rifle finds itself out-ranged.  I mean they even go so far as to talk to a curator at a war museum?!  A museum?!  And what does 1890 have to do with anything?!

These are important considerations in Afghanistan, where NATO forces are
frequently attacked by insurgents using … sharpshooter's rifles,
which are all chambered for a full-powered cartridge which dates back to
the 1890s," said Paul Cornish, curator of firearms at the Imperial War
Museum in London. 

Now, I grew up in
upstate New York
, and I don't mean Westchester county.  Hunting in
this environment, surprisingly enough, is a popular activity for many. 
My father was a state trooper, and served as a firearms instructor for
the state police agencies for years.  Furthermore, I've shot plenty of
the rounds that they're talking about in this article.  So while
firearms don't really play into my day-to-day life as much these days, I
was around this stuff for years and I know a fair amount about the
topic.  And had I known that this was such a huge problem I could have referred someone to this store, which I believe is relatively commonplace in the US.  I'm fairly certain you could walk in and talk to the guy at the counter and get the same information.  I've never been much of a hunter, but even I know that you don't go deer hunting with the round used in the M-4 (Alternatively, other animals are probably too small).  And the end of the article also acknowledges that there are issues with the barrels as well, so it's not just the round used.   

The issue here is NOT that the weapons are incredibly primitive–the link above should take you to something that is pretty commonplace and is still manufactured today.  And Taliban fighters could be using rifles manufactured in 2010 and we would see the same effect and have the same problem.  The issues are about path dependence and the difficulties associated with getting massive bureaucracies to respond to micro-level concerns.  The issue is about the inability of ground troops to alter tactics as needed because their equipment is based on bureaucratic attempts to establish a one-size-fits-all solution to warfare.  The United States military made the decision years ago to make a certain weapon and a certain caliber standard issue.  But the wars we're fighting now aren't standard issue.  And framing the issue as ancient weapons conquering modern technology is highly inaccurate and not at all helpful.   

The AP article talks about the mandate that each company have nine sharpshooters armed with rifles capable of firing longer ranges.  This may seem like a solution, but you're essentially asking nine guys to take on the responsibility of covering an entire company's worth of men in situations where they face opponents armed with longer range rifles.  And what I think is most troubling is that this article appears to be referring to changes made relatively recently.  It really took the better part of a decade for someone to realize that the Taliban was out-reaching our troops?  I'm fairly certain one of the biggest developments in military technology during the 1800s was the advent of rifled barrels.  Anyone want to take a stab at why that was so important?  That's right, it allowed weapons to shoot farther than smooth-bore muskets.  In this instance it is a matter of technology providing superiority, but the tactics didn't really change (at least not initially)–only the range at which those tactics could be employed changed.

The weapons employed by the Taliban in Afghanistan are not necessarily primitive.  They might have come off the assembly line a few decades earlier than the weapons used by US soldiers, but the technology is still used today in making hunting rifles.  And I think it does us a lot of harm to portray US weapons as somehow better because they can carry more bullets and shoot faster.  The issue here is about tactics and the ability to adjust tactics to meet the demands of your opponent.  Unfortunately it appears that the military still wants to pursue a one-size-fits-all solution:

A possible compromise would be an interim-caliber
round combining the best characteristics of the 5.56mm and 7.62mm
cartridges, Tamilio said.

The challenge is
compounded by the fact that in flat areas of Afghanistan, most
firefights take place at shorter ranges of up to 1,000 feet (300
meters), where the M-4 performs well.

soldiers in militant-infested Zhari district in southern Afghanistan's
Kandahar province said they haven't experienced problems with the range
of their M-4 rifles.

Perhaps the solution is something more nuanced than trying to create a new round in between the two currently under consideration.  By offering this solution the US military is indicating that it is not looking to adjust tactics, but to simply adjust technology.  I'm not sure this is much of a solution.  Rather than developing a new weapon that uses a new, or modified, caliber, maybe it would be a better move to arm units depending on geographical regions in which units serve.  The ratio of different weapon types could be modified according to the terrain in their areas of responsibility.  Overall I think this provides another nice example of the difficulties involved in getting large bureaucracies to respond to the needs of ground-level operators.  As always I invite anyone with more/greater insight into the workings of the military to comment.


About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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