Infantry: February 29, 2000

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Sticking It To The Troops: One of the worst things an army can do is give its troops defective weapons. But it happens. In the 1960s American troops were rapidly re-equipped with a new rifle, better suited for the fighting in Vietnam. Haste made for a lot of well publicized, and sometimes fatal, problems with the M-16 rifle. The problems were simple, but the causes were largely political. The idea of giving the infantry a high powered, fully automatic .22 caliber (5.56 mm) weapon first arose in the 1930s. While the troops were enthusiastic about the idea, mainly because they would get their own personal machine-gun and ammunition that weighed a third as much as the usual stuff, their opinions counted for little. But the officials who made such decisions (and did not, one should note, have to go to war with the weapons they built) insisted that the larger .30 caliber (7.62 mm) weapon was the only thing that could do the job. As the evidence piled up in the 1950s that the 5.56 mm weapon was superior, the Army ordnance officials continued to resist. When they were finally forced to give in, they felt compelled to "improve" an existing, and proven design, and that led to the M-16 problems. 

You would have thought the world would have taken notice. Not the Royal Ordnance officials in Britain who were ordered to develop a new rifle for British infantry in the 1970s. The British Ordnance folks, like their American counterparts, had some strongly held ideas about what an infantry rifle should be. Apparently reliability was not among them. With much fanfare, the SA80 was introduced in the 1980s. The SA80 has been a disaster, even compared to the problems the M-16 had. In the last 18 years there have been 83 modifications to the SA80, and it still has reliability problems. Particularly in extreme heat (as during the Gulf War) or cold (more grief this Winter in Kosovo.) For the last two years, the current manufacturer (H&K, the Royal Ordnance operations has since been privatized out of existence) has been working on a final fix. Tests of the new, improved SA80 were held in Kuwait and Alaska and showed a considerable increase in reliability. However, there are some 300,000 SA80s out there that will, well, have to be recalled and modified. Better late than never.

Unfortunately, the SA80 is not an exception. In 1996 it was discovered that a third of the 778,000 chemical warfare suits purchased for U.S. troops were defective. Costing $63 each, they were manufactured by the low bidder, who has since gone bankrupt. No new suits were ordered and the current ones were to be used only for training. This was ironic, what with all the angst over potential use of chemical weapons by likely U.S. adversaries. 

The infantry also get left in the lurch when it comes to other major dangers on the battlefield. Take tanks, for example. For the last sixty years, enormous efforts have been made to provide the infantry with weapons that will give them a fighting chance against tanks. All too often, the weapons were poorly through out and, well, ineffective. The earliest example was the U.S. bazooka (a shoulder fired rocket launcher.) While heralded as a great weapon at the time, it wasn't. At least not for killing tanks. The warhead was too small. The first bazooka used a 60 millimeter rocket, which was only good against armored cars, APCs and the side armor of enemy tanks. The Germans quickly copied the bazooka and used an 88 mm warhead. Much more effective. Rather than take note of the superior (well, just larger, really) German warhead, American troops were left with the 60 mm rocket until Korea. A larger, 88 mm, rocket was "in development" for years and was only rushed into service when the Korean war broke out in 1950. The North Koreans were using Russian World War II T-34 tanks, whose thick armor explained the German preference for an 88 mm warhead. But infantry anti-tank weapons seemed to be cursed. The next wonder weapon, the LAW, was developed in the 1960s. Many experienced infantry officers argued that the LAWs warhead was not powerful enough, but they were overruled by the government engineers. When the LAW got a workout against North Vietnamese tanks (more Russia World War II surplus, plus a few more modern types), the U.S. troops noted with dismay that multiple hits by a LAW (hey, the damn thing was more accurate than the bazooka) had no effect on enemy tanks. Then came the Dragon, a missile that had a disturbing tendency to go out of control at embarrassing moments. The Dragon was modified, fixed, exorcised and apologized for many times. Still didn't work right. It's being replaced by the Javelin, a promising weapon that the troops, based on past experience, are still leery about. And they have good reason to be, for a similar weapon being developed for European armies, the TRIGAT, is already being bad mouthed by users for being too heavy and unreliable. 
And then there's the problems with machine-guns. But enough bad news for today.


 


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