Monday, 6 August 2012

Lessons from Operation Iraqi Freedom

So a while back I sort of stumbled on an online document from the US Army, evaluating some of the personal equipment used in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) (I'll include a link at the end). There's nothing especially ground breaking in it but I thought it would be interesting to look at briefly because - if nothing else - it reminds us that sometimes fancy gadgets and things that look impressive on paper don't stand up as well as was expected to the foibles of war.

The study was conducted in July '03 by the United States Army Infantry Center's Directorate for Combat Developments - Small Arms Division, and interviewed over 1000 US soldiers from a broad range of units.
General findings were that most of the equipment worked as expected, but soldiers continued to privately purchase equipment, much of which was actually already available through the US supply system. Overall reliability and durability were ranked as the most important features of any weapon, something that tallies with the previous 100 years or so of study.

Perhaps most interesting is the mindset of those soldiers. They reportedly (and understandably) described their weapons not in terms of the overall load that they had to carry, but as an essential tool that was considered separately from any other weight considerations and were willing to carry the extra weight of a weapon or piece of equipment if they felt it improved their lethality. Heavy, high quality optics, as well as sidearms were given as examples.
Load Carrying Aids
A multitude of vests and pouches were offered to soldiers in OIF, some of which had more success than others when combined with the Interceptor Body Armour (IBA). The Load Bearing Vest (LBV) was criticised for being bulky and cumbersome, and not interfacing well with the IBA. Many components from the All-purpose, Lightweight, Individual Carrying Equipment (ALICE) found favour when taken separately and attached to the IBA.

The most successful system was the Modular Lightweight Load carrying Equipment (MOLLE) which had been designed specifically for integration with the IBA. Units issued with this equipment reported less problems. Still, a number of soldiers reported purchasing commercial load carrying equipment and modifications, in order to achieve better results.
The M-16 and M4
The majority of soldiers deployed for OIF appear to have been issued with the M-16. Light infantryman, special forces and tank crews had access to the carbine derivative of the M-16 - the M4 - which drew a lot of praise. By comparison the M-16 drew a lot of criticism, especially from armoured infantry and those who were required to conduct clearing operations in confined spaces.
This harks back to criticism of previous long weapons such as the M-14 and British SLR when used in environment where space was tight. The length issue seems to have particularly hampered support personnel who were often vehicle borne and required to perform a range of complex tasks which the M-16 interfered with.

Speaking of the clearing operations above, many of these appear to have been conducted at night, which caused problems as most soldiers interviewed lacked laser aiming devices or flashlights for such work, or did not have the necessary attachment points on their weapons, leading to many field expedient solutions (i.e. masking/electrical tape).

As for the hot button issue of the killing power of the standard 5.56x45mm NATO rounds (M855), the report confirms previous studies and studies conducted since, that most issues with the lethality of the round are more about perception than any basis in fact. Of all those interviewed, the ones that complained about the knock down power of the round or suggested adopting a larger bullet had actually not been involved in any close engagement.

Those who had found themselves close to the enemy, where the fabled "stopping power" is of most concern, had little issue with the round. By applying the lessons they had been taught in training for Close Quarters Battle (CQB) - that of firing pairs into critical areas such as the chest and head - they managed to engage and defeat targets without issue. Those that reported having to engage a target multiple times explained that their first shots often hit non vital areas such as the limbs.
This once again backs up the old assertion that has been acquired by study over time in relation to "stopping power"; shot placement is without question the critical factor. Multiple rounds, even of a calibre deemed too small by many experts, will, if aimed correctly, bring the target down with a high level of consistency.  

Finally, the standard magazines came in for criticism. Aside from some issues with seating the magazines and spreading of the lips, many failed to feed rounds into the weapons. These problems appear to have been attributed to worn out magazines, or simply poor maintenance. Some soldiers reported under loading their magazines to rectify the issue.
The first generation M68 close combat optic drew heavy criticism, mirroring the experience of soldiers in Afghanistan, but most of this had already been addressed by the second generation device which received much praise. In general, magnified optics saw widespread use and were considered a vital piece of equipment by many.
In particular the Trijicon, 4x Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (the infamous ACOG) seems to have drawn a lot of praise. Officers and NCO's found use for the sight in acquiring and identifying targets for their men, while soldiers reported increased confidence in their ability to engage longer ranger targets with precision.
One issue that did come up appears to have been the lack of a combined day/night sight. Soldiers had to switch between carrying one or the other, which then required the weapon to be re-zeroed with each change. The recommendation put forward was for a combined day/night sight, with integrated laser aiming device and capable of being used for both close range and long range engagements. So no challenge there then!
M249 SAW
The M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), a derivative of the Belgian FN Minimi, drew a fair amount of flak. Predominantly this was centred on reliability and maintenance, with the weapon being criticised for its complexity. Apparently the high number of small components made stripping the weapon and cleaning it time consuming and difficult, and occasionally resulted in components being lost.
Even the plastic 200 round box magazine was heavily criticised, often being found to fall off the weapon during movement, break apart around the weapon/box interface, and also create significant noise issues when moving as the rounds rattled against the inner wall. The softer, 100 round Combat Ammunition Pack (CAP) received praise by comparison, with gunners being willing to repack their entire ammunition allotment into 100 round belts rather than use the plastic box!
M203 Grenade Launcher
A 40mm grenade launcher designed to be under slung beneath the M-16 and M-4, the M203 GL appears to have not stood up well to the desert environment. Issues reported were clogging of the trigger housing by sand and dirt (an issue compounded by excessive lubrication) as well as the hand guards slipping off, believed to be caused by the glue melting.
Non-Lethal Weapons
As the US army shifted from combat operations to security operations, one issue that came up was the lack of non-lethal weapons for dealing with situations that did not require deadly force. In retrospect it was discovered that certain non-lethal kits were available in the theatre, but were allocated to the Provost Marshal. The problem was therefore one of knowledge, not so much a lack of equipment.
So, I hope that was of some interest to some people. It certainly was to me. I have always been interested in the small details of warfare, the little problems that occur and the solutions that service personnel come up with to get around them. The issue of the 200 round magazines for the M249 SAW also serve as a perfect example of how a seemingly superior piece of equipment on paper actually turns out under combat conditions to be inferior, and in some cases a down right hindrance.

Here is the original document for those interested;


  1. Argh, lost a long'un.

    Short answer.
    Maybe the army should stop buying boots and tactical holsters, or webbing, give soldiers a tax free sum to buy personal gear like that.

    On stopping power
    My tiny mind cant get past hit, penetrate, repeat.
    The more holes you put in a dude, the more chance you hit something vital and kill outright, the quicker he bleeds to death and the more human systems you knock out.
    A man with a leg blown off by a 30mm cannon could, in theory, be patched up and fight, immobile, but fight.
    Can a man with both biceps penetrated with a 9mm hold a rifle?

  2. Very interesting Chris.

    Though I agree about placement of the round being the most important factor for making sure they don't get back up,so to speak. Although a bigger round is going to do more damage ceteris paribus. It is also more accurate over longer distances and has better chance of going through whatever the guy is hiding behind. My opinion on the matter is having the right gun for the job and not expecting one gun to do all jobs. While having multi-role purposes has its advantages, being good at many things, its makes you a specialist at nothing.

    Definitely highlights how any equipment needs to be vigorously tested by troops in all conditions and circumstances before is implemented across the army, cause it can be the smallest of things that can mean the difference.

  3. Hello Mick,

    Accuracy at range and penetration can be affected a lot by velocity. I'd agree that it's more about horses for courses. What will be interesting after Afghanistan is to see how snipers are treated. After most major wars snipers in most armies seem to always to fall out of favour, only to be reconstituted at a later date.

  4. "
    As for the hot button issue of the killing power of the standard 5.56x45mm NATO rounds (M855), the report confirms previous studies and studies conducted since, that most issues with the lethality of the round are more about perception than any basis in fact. Of all those interviewed, the ones that complained about the knock down power of the round or suggested adopting a larger bullet had actually not been involved in any close engagement.

    Those who had found themselves close to the enemy, where the fabled "stopping power" is of most concern, had little issue with the round."

    Actualy thats a lot less clear xcut than it sounds.
    I've never heard anyone complain (well, once) that Terry Taliban didnt die when you emptied a clip into his chest from ten yards away.

    Problems start to appear when you cant hit him at 600 yards, either because you miss, or because the tree he's hiding behind blocks the bullet.

  5. Assault rifles are not really designed for accurate use out to 600 yards, not least because that range is uncommon. Often you'll hear about section fire out to that distance, as in an entire section firing at one target, or light machine gun fire.

    Look on the bright side; ballistics work both ways.

  6. Chris
    But thats been the general complaint about 5.56 in Afghanistan
    Lots of firefights (most even, cant find a breakdown at the moment) take place over that range.

    Not totaly relevent to studies in Iraq, but not entirely off base either.

  7. You'd have to produce some figures TrT. Haven't heard much about those complaints.