Key point: The M4 isn't the best weapon out there.
The U.S. Army’s standard infantry weapon repeatedly overheated and jammed during a bloody 2008 battle in Afghanistan. The Washington Times reported last week on the reported failure of the M-4 carbine during the fierce firefight in Wanat, during which the Taliban nearly overran an Army outpost.
A direct descendant of the Vietnam War-era M-16, the more compact M-4 is the Army’s standard-issue weapon. The ground combat branch has half a million of the semi-automatic weapons in service and has signed contracts for 120,000 more.
The Army and manufacturers are improving the M-4 to reflect battlefield lessons, but it’s unclear whether these upgrades will prevent another near-catastrophe like occurred at Wanat.
In the early morning hours of July 13, 2008, a Taliban force of between 100 and 200 fighters attacked an American Forward Operating Base guarded by 48 soldiers of 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company—part of 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment.
The paratroopers had just arrived in the area five days prior. The Taliban had been watching—and attacked before the platoon could finish setting up its defenses, which typically include walls, razor wire and machine guns.
Firing machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, the Taliban swarmed the American position. The U.S. soldiers called in Apache attack helicopters, 155-militmeter howitzers and even a B-1 heavy bomber to pound the attackers.
The Americans held their ground. But nine soldiers died and 27 suffered wounds. Around 50 Taliban died and evidence suggests 40 were wounded.
What went wrong?
In stand-up fights like Wanat, whichever side is able to generate fire superiority—in other words, throw out more lead—has the advantage. This is particularly important for the defenders, as sheer firepower can slow the attackers’ advance until help arrives.
The paratroopers had brought to the outpost two heavy machine guns, two automatic grenade launchers and an anti-tank missile. These were supposed to be the linchpins of Wanat’s defenses, but accurate Taliban fire disabled most of these heavier weapons early in the battle.