American troops are often outgunned by Afghan insurgents because they lack the precision weapons, deadly rounds, and training needed to kill the enemy in the long-distance firefights common in Afghanistan's rugged terrain, according to an internal Army study.
Unlike in Iraq, where most shooting took place at relatively short range in urban neighborhoods, U.S. troops in Afghanistan are more often attacked from high ground with light machine guns and mortars from well beyond 300 meters (327 yards, or just over three football field lengths). The average range for a small-arms firefight in Afghanistan is about 500 meters, according to the study.
Unless U.S. troops under attack call in artillery or air strikes and risk civilian casualties, the only way they can fight back is with long-distance precision shooting -- a capability currently in short supply among infantry units, according to a study
done at the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies
at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., by Maj. Thomas P. Ehrhart.
According to Ehrhart's paper, Army infantrymen do not regularly train and practice shooting at distances of more than 300 meters. The round fired from their M4 carbines and M16 rifles, the 5.56mm bullet, don't carry enough velocity at long distances to kill.
While the Army has moved recently to equip each infantry company of about 200 soldiers with nine designated marksmen to overcome this problem, they don't often carry weapons with sufficient killing power at distance, and there aren't enough of them, Ehrhart reports.
Army spokesmen had no immediate comment on Ehrhart's paper, which was released by SAMS last month and given wider circulation by defensetech.org
and the Kit Up! blog
Most infantrymen in Afghanistan carry the M4 carbine, a version of the standard M16 rifle, but with a shorter barrel. It was designed to allow soldiers to operate from cramped armored vehicles and in the city neighborhoods of Iraq. But the shorter barrel robs the weapon of the ability to shoot accurately at long distances, because the bullet doesn't acquire as much stabilizing spin when it is fired as it does in a longer barrel.
Soldiers commonly are taught in training to use "suppressive fire,'' in effect returning enemy attacks with sprays of gunfire, which are often ineffective in Afghanistan.
One reason is the ineffectiveness of the most commonly used round, designated the M855. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, was once accidentally shot in the chest with an M855 round from a light machine gun; rather than being killed, he walked out of the hospital several days later.
Ehrhart recalls seeing a soldier shot with a M855 round from a distance of 75 meters in training. Twenty minutes later he was "walking around smoking a cigarette.''
Such incidents may be flukes, but they do illustrate that the rounds can lack killing power. Most infantrymen are equipped to fire the M855 round from their M4 carbine, M16 rifle, or the SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon), a light machine gun. When a firefight erupts in Afghanistan, they are unable to fire back accurately at more than 200 or 300 meters, leaving it to soldiers with heavier weapons -- the M240 machine gun, 60-mm mortars or snipers equipped with M14 rifles.
"These [heavier] weapons represent 19 percent of the company's firepower,'' Ehrhart wrote, meaning that "81 percent of the company has little effect on the fight.
"This is unacceptable.''
One quick fix, he suggested, is to equip the designated marksmen within each company with a powerful weapon that can kill at long distances, the M110 sniper weapon
, which is effective out to 800 meters.
These rifles are expensive -- about $8,000 apiece. But you could outfit every infantry squad in the Army with two M110 rifles for the price of one U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor supersonic stealthy fighter, Ehrhart noted.
Ironically, American doughboys in World War I were better trained and equipped for Afghanistan-style firefights than today's GIs.
"The U.S. infantry weapon has devolved from the World War I rifle capable of conducting lethal fire out to 1,200 yards, to the current weapon that can hit a target out to 300 meters but probably will not kill it,'' Ehrhart wrote.
The School of Advanced Military Studies, where Ehrhart was a student last year, trains the Army's brightest young officers for senior leadership. His unclassified paper, written last year, does not reflect official Army positions. But the paper has rocketed around in military circles and has been read avidly in some units preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.
But even before his report began circulating widely, some Army units were acting on the hard-learned lessons from Afghanistan, where the Army has been fighting for almost nine years.
Several weeks ago I watched an infantry battalion of the 10th Mountain Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team working on live fire maneuvers in central Wyoming.
One key focus, according to Command Sgt. Maj. Doug Maddi, was to hone soldiers' skills in high-angle and long-distance shooting -- precisely the skills not widely required in regular Army training, according to Ehrhart.
Where normal Army marksmanship training is often conducted on level ground against pop-up targets, Maddi and the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Chris Ramsey, had their men shooting up towering ridgelines and down steep inclines, and at distances out to 600 meters.
The battalion's troops, wearing their full battle kit, also were firing live rounds while running, and while running with heavy packs, up and down the steep Wyoming ridges
"We're here to replicate the environment of Afghanistan,'' said Ramsey, who brought his battalion to Wyoming from its home base at Fort Polk, La. "We don't get this kind of terrain at home.''
Ramsey told me he had not read Ehrhart's paper before his battalion deployed to Wyoming for a month's training in early February. Polishing those skills was "intuitive,'' he said. But he said the paper now has been read across the battalion.
At a meeting with reporters this week, Army Secretary John McHugh was asked whether he was familiar with the Ehrhart report. McHugh said he was not, but after hearing a brief description, he said he would track down the paper and read it.