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Defense Department Sticks With M-16s Despite Problems

September 24, 2007 at 6:20 PM EST
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PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour Economics Correspondent: The M-16 semiautomatic rifle. With its shorter version, the M-4, it’s the gun of our troops in combat. The hat’s for the sun, by the way; the earmuffs for the noise. Jim Sullivan helped design this rifle during the Eisenhower administration.

JIM SULLIVAN, M-16 Co-Designer: Fifty years ago.

PAUL SOLMAN: Fifty years ago?

JIM SULLIVAN: Well, we started on it 50 years ago this month.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s 1957, the year the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. In the half-century since, computers shrank from houses to handhelds; polio was cured; man made it to the moon and Mars. And what kind of advance was there in our combat rifle?

JIM SULLIVAN: They’re right exactly where they were when we gave them the M-16 in 1960. They haven’t advanced an inch.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, the competition, says Sullivan, the Soviet-designed automatic Kalashnikov AK-47, is in its third generation, as the AK-74.

JIM SULLIVAN: That AK-74 out-hits the M-16 by two to one on full automatic. And the reason that there was 100 million AKs made wasn’t to equip the Russian army. It was to give to our third world opponents so the United States can’t win ground wars anymore. It’s the rifleman and his rifle, that’s what decides ground wars.

PAUL SOLMAN: The rifle Sullivan would have his own son use in Iraq today? The opposition’s.

JIM SULLIVAN: He should have an AK.

PAUL SOLMAN: Really?

JIM SULLIVAN: Yes.

Risk of a jam

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, says Iraq vet Todd Bowers...

TODD BOWERS, Iraq War Veteran: If I'm going to a rifle range with my friends, I'm more than likely going to reach for the AK-47, a, because I know it's not going to jam, and, b, because I know it's going to function in a proper method.

PAUL SOLMAN: The M-16, it turns out, is still plagued with problems it experienced from the outset. A finicky device, it has jammed from the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Iraq, the suburbs of northern Virginia.

TODD BOWERS: Just last month, I was actually on the rifle range to qualify with the Marine Corps, and my weapon jammed twice while I was on the range, and this is in the most simple conditions. This is laying in the prone position on a knee, not violently shaking the weapon, and it still jams under those conditions.

PAUL SOLMAN: Still jams 50 years after its birth. So why hasn't the U.S. stayed on technology's cutting edge in rifles? Well, says Sullivan, the rifle is a low-ticket item -- around $600 -- and big-ticket items get the lion's share of the money and attention. Big contractors, the bulk of the business.

But more important may be the sheer size of our system for procuring weapons, a function of what President Eisenhower dubbed the "military-industrial complex," a system that, said Ike back in 1961, already worked against techie tinkerers like Jim Sullivan.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (R), Former President of the United States: Today, the solitary inventor tinkering in his shop has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.

PAUL SOLMAN: Though he's now 74, Sullivan's intellectual curiosity is still his long suit. In the years since the M-16, he's debuted a new rifle, something called the Ultimax, to rave reviews. He didn't make it in or for the United States, however, but the country of Singapore. He's also invented a 100-round magazine for the Ultimax, the M-16 and M-4. It's being used by England, Germany, even famously neutral Switzerland. But the U.S. Army...

JIM SULLIVAN: Doesn't use this thing.

PAUL SOLMAN: They don't use it now?

JIM SULLIVAN: No. I mean, our soldiers are still limited to 30-shot magazines. That's what they're trying to fight with over there in Iraq. This is emptied in full auto in three seconds. It takes him about five seconds before he can fire the next shot. That's just like a giant malfunction, OK? During that time, the man's helpless.

The military procurement system

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, of course, we asked the Army for a response to all this. But instead of an interview, they sent us what they called their M-4 talking points, which don't address the new Ultimax or 100-shot magazine at all.

What they do say: "In a survey of soldiers who fought in Iraq last year, 89 percent reported satisfaction with the M-4," just a shortened M-16, remember, "and only 3 percent experienced a weapon stoppage that caused an inability to engage the enemy."

I see. Moreover, when we were shown new Army technology at the Pentagon recently, we saw some areas in which change was clearly embraced. The results: quite tasty.

Brigadier General Mark Brown runs the procurement system for what our troops wear and carry. He also cares about what they eat.

BRIG. GEN. MARK BROWN, U.S. Army: This is Hoppin' John. This is bacon and black-eyed peas.

PAUL SOLMAN: Hoppin' John is one of 24 different meals ready-to-eat, MREs, four of them vegetarian, all in packs that heat themselves, with a three-year shelf life.

BRIG. GEN. MARK BROWN: That's pork carnitas. Muy bueno.

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes. Well, this is really good, actually.

BRIG. GEN. MARK BROWN: It is. In the mountains in Afghanistan, it tastes really good.

PAUL SOLMAN: Especially compared to what food in the field used to be, the notorious k-rations. Even M-16 critic Todd Bowers loves this program.

TODD BOWERS: Our country has the most outstanding meals ready-to-eat possible. I won't lie to you. I ate one on Saturday. I had an extra one, and I had it for dinner.

PAUL SOLMAN: So the military procurement system can sometimes work wonders, it seems, for our troops at the front. And the military insists it has made improvements to the M-16 and M-4.

GEN. JAMES MATTIS, U.S. Marine Corps: This is what all infantrymen are equipped with today.

Scrutiny of M-16 add-ons

PAUL SOLMAN: Three-star Marine General James Mattis.

GEN. JAMES MATTIS: You notice the rail here that allows us to put on here various different appliances, whether it be a flashlight. Here's a way of putting a red dot on an enemy and firing based on that. Here is a scope, a four-power scope, that every infantryman has the option of putting on based on what kind of combat he's in. This is a much more capable weapon system.

PAUL SOLMAN: But Winslow Wheeler, who's been a staffer for four senators -- three of them Republican -- says a recent study shows the M-16 add-ons may do more harm than good.

WINSLOW WHEELER, Center for Defense Information: The more you hang extraneous stuff on the gun, the more likely it is to jam.

JIM SULLIVAN: It's reached the point of absurdity, all these sight systems. A walking man can't use sights very well, and so you fire from the hip, full automatic in the assault, and that's where the word "assault rifle" came from.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, says ex-Marine Colonel Jim Magee, who's worked inside the Pentagon and out as a military contractor, the procurement system is interested in sticking with and improving a product it knows and understands.

COL. JIM MAGEE (Ret.), U.S. Marine Corps: Procurement guys, they want a long-term contract.

PAUL SOLMAN: Why?

COL. JIM MAGEE: Because that's their metric for success. The fact that technology changes, that's not their issue. Once it's in procurement, like the M-16 or the M-4, long-term program, been here forever, hell, been here when I came on active duty, the M-16. It's been improved incrementally over time, but it's a 41-year-old weapon. Come on, guys. You know, you're telling me something better is not out there?

Resistance to the M-16

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, back in the '60s, the M-16 itself was considered such an outside-the-box product that the Army resisted it, so stubbornly it actually sabotaged it by using the wrong gunpowder, gunpowder it had been using for years and didn't want to give up. According to a famous House report in 1967, the Army's resistance, quote, "bordered on criminal negligence."

Forty years later, it's the M-16 that represents the status quo: stability. The main drive isn't to come up with something new, says Sullivan. Instead, it's simply...

JIM SULLIVAN: All the thousands of people that are, you know, in there working on these programs and spending hundreds of million on them, all of them don't want their job to be threatened. I think that's it. They want program longevity, to never have a conclusion, to always get, you know, follow-on contracts to keep these programs alive.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, at the end of the day, say Sullivan and others, the military procurement system has become so big and bureaucratic its very nature may be to resist innovation. The result: troops with critical products like the M-16/M-4 rifle that hasn't changed much in 50 years.

JIM LEHRER: Paul Solman's next and final report will look at a vehicle designed to protect troops from IEDs and other attacks.