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Our Soldiers’ Unmet Needs

U.S. Soldiers with 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division return fire during a firefight with Taliban forces in Barawala Kalay Valley in Kunar province, Afghanistan, March 31, 2011. Photo by Pfc. Cameron Boyd.

This commentary, originally titled "Rhetoric Versus Reality," first appeared on on Jan. 5, 2006.

Many in Congress and the Pentagon boast American Soldiers and Marines have the best equipment in the world. Reports from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan say otherwise. The information about the failures is not new; solutions are long overdue.

Reports from the Army's Natick Soldier Center and its Tank-automotive and Armaments Command and the Marine's Systems Command Liaison Team in Iraq, all from 2002 and 2003, tell us, for example, troops' “dislikes,” including uniforms that rip easily, eyewear that fogs up and fits poorly under helmets, and boots that blister, crack, and burst, and are “poor for movement,” or as in one soldier's e-mail are “truly awful and also painful.”

Troops buy some equipment with their own money, usually because Government Issue performs poorly. Such items include gloves, socks, flashlights, padding for backpacks, “CamelBak” hydration systems, and weapons cleaning equipment. Banal items? Perhaps to us back home, but certainly not for Soldiers fighting in the winter mountains of Afghanistan and the desert heat of Iraq, doing whatever it takes to keep their bodies and their weapons working.

It is remarkable that the Pentagon refuses to pay out enough for top quality supplies while spending over $1 billion per day. The Defense Department is only now implementing procedures for reimbursing troops for their personal expenses—an idea thrust on it by Congress.

The most disturbing information is about infantry weapons. In one official report, 13 to 20 percent of soldiers reported jamming in the M-4 carbine, even though many augmented their cleaning kits with special brushes and picks. Fifty-four percent of those equipped with the M249 machine gun reported maintenance problems, and up to 35 percent said they were not confident in the weapon. There were also complaints about the M9 pistol, that it suffers from corrosion problems and the weak magazine spring does not reliably feed rounds into the chamber. Complaints about poor performing M16 magazines are also common. These are not problems for the enemy; the Soviet-designed AK-47 assault rifle and its magazines operate unaffected in virtually all climates and conditions, even when not properly maintained.

An even more serious issue is lethality. The small size of the 5.56 mm bullet for the U.S. M4 carbine, M16 rifle, and M249 machine gun is highly controversial among some troops. One official report said troops “asked for a weapon with a larger round, ‘so it will drop a man with one shot.'” Even the M9 pistol, which shoots a sizeable 9 mm round, impressed few. Soldiers' blogs and e-mails report many of them like the small caliber weapons' lightness and the large amount of ammunition troops can carry, but some say those bullets are “too small and too stabilized” thus making them “woefully inadequate as a man stopper.” The complaints seem widespread, but it is unclear how many are from direct experience or just word of mouth. Deserved or not, there appears to be a real crisis of confidence in these small caliber weapons.

That the large 9mm caliber M9 pistol is collecting similar complaints brings into question just what it is that troops are complaining about. Up to now, neither the Army nor the Marines have performed any service-wide survey of troops' experiences in combat and therefore do not know how widespread is the low confidence or to what extent it is based on experience rather than rumor.

Nonetheless, the Army and Marine Corps seem to have decided what the solution is: Their reports state the rounds are lethal, for example, “as long as the shots were in the head or chest.” But not all troops are, or can be, expert marksmen, and most rarely have the time and presence of mind in combat for minutely aimed shots. Telling soldiers and Marines in the chaos of war to aim better is a bureaucrat's solution, not a real one.

Fortunately, there might be a way to address the problem. The DoD's Inspector General has announced it will study whether U.S. troops in Iraq have the equipment they need, and the Marines have announced an inquiry of returning troops. This research should include a broad, representative survey of troops' direct experiences in combat with their weapons. If the valid complaints about poor lethality are widespread, there should be an immediate, thorough, and independent evaluation of the nature of the problem. Only then, can meaningful solutions be identified.

In the meantime, troops who do not have confidence in their weapons should be permitted to equip themselves with alternate assault rifles and pistols, either from stocks of previous designs currently available in DoD's inventory or weapons, such as AK-47s, which are available, complete with ammunition, in huge numbers in Iraq right now.

In 2004, a furor broke out when reports reached Washington many Humvee vehicles in Iraq lacked armor and Americans were maimed and killed as a result. Congress quickly flooded defense budgets with funding for armor. Any problems in American infantry weapons are far more serious and can mean even more needless American casualties. If the DoD Inspector General and the services do not move out on the needed research immediately, they should be ordered to do so by Congress.