US weapons failed in Afghan battle that killed 9

By Richard Lardner
Associated Press / October 12, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

WASHINGTON - It was chaos during the early-morning assault last year on a remote US outpost in Afghanistan, and Staff Sergeant Erich Phillips’s M4 carbine had quit firing as militant forces surrounded the base. The machine gun he grabbed after tossing the rifle aside didn’t work either.

When the battle in the small village of Wanat ended, nine US soldiers lay dead, and 27 more were wounded.

A study of the attack by a military historian found that weapons failed repeatedly at a “critical moment’’ during the firefight on July 13, 2008, putting the outnumbered American troops at risk of being overrun by nearly 200 insurgents.

The study by Douglas Cubbison of the Army Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., has not been publicly released, but copies have been leaked to news organizations and are circulating on the Internet

Eight years into the Afghanistan war, the findings are raising questions about whether US armed forces have the best guns money can buy.

Despite the military’s insistence that they do, a small but vocal number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has complained that the standard-issue M4 rifles need too much maintenance and jam at the worst possible times.

A week ago, eight US troops were killed at a base near Kamdesh, a town near Wanat. There was no immediate evidence of weapons failures at Kamdesh, but the circumstances were eerily similar to the Wanat battle: Insurgents stormed an isolated stronghold manned by American forces stretched thin by the demands of war.

Army Colonel Wayne Shanks, a military spokesman in Afghanistan, said a review of the battle at Kamdesh is underway.

“It is too early to make any assumptions regarding what did or didn’t work correctly,’’ Shanks said.

Complaints about the weapons the troops carry, especially the M4, are not new. Army officials say that when properly cleaned and maintained, the M4 is a quality weapon that can pump out more than 3,000 rounds before any failures occur.

The M4 is a shorter, lighter version of the M16, which made its debut during the Vietnam war. Roughly 500,000 M4s are in service, making it the rifle troops on the front lines trust with their lives.

Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, a leading critic of the M4, said Thursday the Army needs to move quickly to acquire a combat rifle suited for the extreme conditions US troops are fighting in.

“The M4 has served us well, but it’s not as good as it needs to be,’’ Coburn said.

Battlefield surveys show that nearly 90 percent of soldiers are satisfied with their M4s, according to Brigadier General Peter Fuller, head of the Army office that buys soldier gear.