First of all, Airborne Combat Engineer has expanded his earlier post about the Army Times review of the XM8. He points out a time/datestamp recorder for every shot fired from the weapon. (If only Lee Harvey’s Mannlicher-Carcano had been built with such a gadget!) Go check out ACE’s post for more info and links.
Even more inpressively, ACE left a long, insightful comment on the XM8 piece I posted yesterday. Go check out the post for the full comment (lots of good stuff in there) but here are some highlights:
The question we have to ask ourselves, when we think of adopting this as our service rifle, is: Do we want most of our troops to carry a weapon which is optimized for close quarter battle? (Yes, I realize a slightly longer barrel can be attached for sharpshooting, but how many of those will be issued?)
Most of the reliability problems of the M16/4 AR family have been ironed out over the past four decades. (Only support troops who don’t clean their weapons experience jams.) The problem we’re hearing more often now (beginning in Somalia) is related to the cartridge, not the rifle. Urban assault troops prefer at least a .308 round, and troops in Afghanistan what something with at least the same effective range as the AK-47 the enemy uses.
The weapon does look good in general, and can accomodate field interchangeable barrels, so perhaps the slightly better 6.8mm round will be adopted later.
I’m still not convinced that a full service conversion from the M16 to another weapon which still fires the 5.56 is worth the cost (as the round, not the rifle, is our problem at this point). If our goal is to equip our troops with CQB [close quarters battle] assault-type weapons which can spray bullets without careful aiming, this looks like a good choice. But sometimes, our soldiers need to take careful aim and accurately place a shot in a guy’s chest or head. As the M4 has demonstrated, very short barrels reduce accuracy and terminal punch, as some of the powder is burning outside the barrel.
Personally, since I don’t have to lug lots of ammo around, I’d would love to have one of these weapons which could fire a 7.62-39mm short Russian round. A non-fragmenting FMJ 7.62 round will put more than an ice-pick hole in an enemy, so he’ll have a bleeding problem even if you miss a major organ.
ACE hits a major issue here. There seems to be almost no doubt that the XM8 system is superior to the M4/M16 system, in terms of weight, cost, reliability, and future upgrades. But the superiority isn’t significant, and in some cases is very slight. As ACE points out, this is a lot of excitement over a weapon that throws the same 5.56 round that so many troops are upset about right now.
Please forgive me for quoting myself, but I believe that this is central to the issue of a new assault rifle. In August I wrote
There is a lot of debate over the 5.56mm round. Many troops question its stopping power, especially when fired from shorter barrels like the M4 or the proposed standard barrel of the XM8. While perhaps not as much of an issue in the narrow streets and alleys of Baghdad and Tikrit, it could become an major issue in a more open setting, like the hills and mountains of North Korea. In fact, a number of reports from Afghanistan indicate that special forces units using M4 carbines were unable to effectively engage forces at times due to the range and power limitations of the shorter barrels. Perhaps an option would be to include a fourth barrel length, longer than standard but not “machinegun weight”. Another option would be to just keep one or two men in each squad with M16s as “sharpshooters”. This would dilute the advantage of using a universal infantry weapon, however. Maybe some M8s could be modified to fire the 7.62mm round, as some M16s have been. This would increase the firepower of the weapon, but, again, it would negate the commonality that the XM8 hopes to bring to our ground forces.
I’m concerned that a lot of work is going into a weapon that is only a slight improvement over our current systems. Instead of throwing out over 40 years of experience with the M16 for incremental improvements in an entirely new gun system, maybe we should work to make those improvements to our current guns. I’m certainly no expert, but it seems to me that we’re investing an awful lot of time and money into this and not getting a lot of bang for the buck. At the same time, I see good value in some of the ideas the XM8 brings to the table, and am quite interested to see how it performs in tests and with the troops.
If it sounds like I’m waffling, it’s because I’m waffling. This new rifle appears to be awesome. But once you start building millions of them and putting them into the hands of troops in the field, we are going to begin finding out things that the testing missed. I’m just not convinced that all the expense and trouble is worth it if we’re still going to be using the 5.56 round. ACE points out that the XM8, with it’s modular design, could probably be easily modified to fire the 6.8mm round, but so could the M4/M16 with the new 6.8 SPC uppers (mentioned here on MO and also tracked extensively at ACE).
On the other hand, unless the XM8 has a ton of problems that we don’t know about (and the testing closed to the media won’t help matters there) I’m not exactly sure what the risk is. Over time, the M8 will be slightly less expensive than the M4/M16, and cleaning-time savings, reduced weight, and other small improvements will be welcomed by the troops. There doesn’t really seem to be a downside with the XM8, just a missed opportunity.
As for front-line units not having real issues with jamming, I’d suggest that the M8’s reduced cleaning time would make support personnel more likely to clean their weapons regularly, and the M8’s supposed reliability would lessen the chance of failure even if not cleaned as often as called for. Still, every soldier should be a rifleman, and riflemen know that their lives depend on that rifle. To expect a weapon to make up for lack of care or training is barking up the wrong tree.
I still cautiously approve of the move to adopt the XM8, but I suspect that, instead of the long-barreled sharpshooter XM8, squad sharpshooters may end up using the M14, like the squads in the Stryker Brigade. The fact that units currently equipped with the M16 are using M14s (which fire the 7.62mm round) for their sharpshooters indicates to me that it’s the round, not the barrel length, that’s the limiting factor here.
Check back here for more info and opinion as it becomes available, and by all means, even if you don’t return to MO, do not forget to keep an eye on Airborne Combat Engineer.
UPDATE: One of the most common complaints I’ve heard about the XM8 is that it looks like it’s made of plastic. I’ve pretty much dismissed these criticisms, but this afternoon when my 6-year-old girl saw it, the first thing she said was “It looks like plastic.” Not good.