What Really Happened At Wanat?

    In discussions about the suitability of the M4 rifle for combat, the Battle of Wanat comes up quite a lot. To some, Wanat represents the continuation of past mistakes; more dead soldiers with jammed rifles, of course of the faulty AR-15 pattern.

    Does Wanat really support this argument? Did soldiers actually die that day with jammed M4 rifles in their hands, brought down by enemy gunfire aided and abetted by government corruption and negligence? The answers to these questions might surprise you, and WeaponsMan has posted an excellent two-parter explaining just what happened at Wanat, and to what degree the rifles themselves were partially to blame:

    The lie is that, “9 American Infantrymen died on 13 July 08 at COP Kahler at Wanat, Afghanistan, in the Waygul Valley of Nuristan province, because their M4 Carbines jammed”. This lie clearly doesn’t hold up if you read the historical papers, professional analyses, and interviews with survivors. What does hold up is a story of incredible devotion, dedication and heroism on the part of the Americans there, and of intelligent, bold and fearless attacks on the part of their enemies. But there are some facts the foreign-firm lobbyists don’t tell you.

    • to start with, that they’re paid lobbyists.
    • Then, that most of the killed were not using M4s at the time they were killed.
    • Then, that those that were did not have jammed rifles.
    • Then, that the survivors who did have jammed rifles, used the rifles far beyond their duty cycle, because (1) they hadn’t been trained on the limits of the weapon and its duty cycle, but mostly, (2) they hadn’t any other option: their crew-served weapons went down due to failure, ammunition exhaustion, or destruction by accurate enemy MG and RPG fire, leaving them with ugly choices: go cyclic for long periods with rifles, or get defeated. Getting defeated was not a survivable option.

    Instead we’re going to address this insidious and false claim:

    • [N]ine infantrymen died fighting off a Taliban attack at a combat outpost near the village of Wanat. So far, so good. (At least he notes that they did fight off the attack; a lot of careless reporters say they were overrun).
    • Some of the soldiers present later reported that in the midst of battle their rifles overheated and jammed. Yes. You see what the author is doing there? He’s making the inferences, without saying in so many words, that their guns killed them. This is one of those things that is “true, but….” Those grunts were not killed by their guns. They were killed by the enemy, and as we’ll see, the malfunction of weapons systems was real, but not decisive. You could argue that bad training, worse officer leadership in the planning phases (the officers provided magnificent leadership under fire), and incredibly-bad site selection were responsible, instead.  (The location selected for COP Kahler was the bottom of a bowl, with mountains about 7,000 feet higher surrounding the outpost 360º. It’s hard to imagine a less defensible position, yet these guys defended it). But in the end, they were infantrymen in a hard fight with a determined enemy, and guys get hurt doing that.

    [T]he 2d Platoon soldiers were firing their weapons “cyclic,” on full automatic at the highest possible rates of fire. As a result, numerous soldiers experienced weapons malfunctions, just as SSG Phillips had faced at the mortar pit. One young SPC fighting at the COP Kahler later complained, “…I ran through my ammo till my SAW would not work anymore despite the ‘Febreze’ bottle of CLP I dumped into it.” (pp. 117-118)

    By condemning the M4 (but for some reason not any other weapons, which also failed) for failing under these conditions, the lobbyist is serving whoever his corporate masters are this week by criticizing a weapon because it cannot do the impossible. The hardest thing to manage in the design of automatic weapons is waste heat. Cyclic rate is something that can be used for a short period, at a cost to the durability of the weapon. The men at the COPs around Wanat were left hanging for very long periods, with no meaningful air or indirect fire support, and had been given so little training in automatic fire that they didn’t know they were hazarding their weapons. There is no weapon on Earth that will hold up to firing thousands of rounds on cyclic rate without a barrel change or water cooling.

    As in most cases, the truth is far more complex than the lie. M4s did fail that day, but no soldier that died then was using an M4 that failed. Further, the M4s that did fail did so because they were pushed beyond the limits of air-cooled weapons. As author Hognose explains, while it is theoretically possible for minor improvements to air-cooled weapons performing under these conditions to be made versus the M4, the fundamental problem is there for all air-cooled closed-bolt weapons, and any gains made in this regard will be decidedly trivial (indeed, in several tests, the barrel is what failed first on the M4).

    Hognose does better than just explain the M4s, he also covers the battle itself: Why it occurred, what went wrong, and the aftermath.

    As Hognose himself would say, this really is one where you have to read the whole thing. Please click through and read Part 1 and Part 2.

    Nathaniel F

    Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at [email protected]