CDR Salamander had a post recently which brings the historical research I’ve been doing on the Military Reform Movement kicking and screaming into the present. He has a quote from Pierre Sprey (a John Boyd acolyte credited with designing the A-10) regarding the claims of ineffectiveness of 5.56mm ammunition used by U.S. forces. According to CBS News, this was Sprey’s response:

Pierre Sprey couldn’t have been less impressed when I told him what we had seen. A former Pentagon weapons expert, he championed the 5.56 to secretaries of state and presidents believing it both lethal and light. During our time together, he shook his head at the online debate sparked, he felt, by those who are far from expert in the field of testing and war. He believes the more bullets the better, and that soldiers carrying 300 rounds and firing on automatic don’t compare to those carrying 100 and firing one big bullet at a time. "There is no such thing as a well-aimed shot in combat," said Sprey. "Combat is fought by scared 18-year-olds who haven’t trained enough and are in places they’ve never seen before." {Keteyian, Inside the Ammo Battle, 2006}

CDR Salamander continues by saying,

There are more bad theories there than you can shake a stick at.

Oh, one of the "5.56mm is great" theories that is always thrown out there is the "..if you wound a man, you make his whole unit less effective by making his fellow soldiers take care of him. If you kill him, you only stop one." I am sorry, when you have a room of 4 Jihadi, or a car coming at you at 50 mph; you need to kill – now.

Indeed, these comments confused me at first. Military reformers, including Sprey, were and still are critical of the DOD procurement culture for a number of reasons, one of which was/is their belief that DOD procures ineffective weapons. That being said, this would seem to be one of those cases. After all, the scandal of the M-16’s ineffectiveness in Vietnam was one of the case studies used in James Fallows’ 1981 book, National Defense, a key text for the movement as a whole. {Fallows, 1981} So, why would Sprey defend the 5.56mm ammo?

Well, in Fallows’ account, the M-16 was not originally a bad weapon, that is, before it was the M-16, when it was still the AR-15. According to Fallows, the 5.56mm ammo was more effective in the original design. It was only after the Army got a hold of the gun, changing the spiral of the rifling and the powder in the ammo, that the weapon became ineffective. In this way, reformers are able to both criticize the M-16 but also support the decision to go with 5.56mm ammo. Now, I’m not a gun expert, so I don’t know to what extent these design changes have been "fixed" in the descendants of the M-16 that U.S. forces use today. If they have not been "fixed", then Sprey’s argument is logically consistent with what reformers, in general, have had to say on the matter all along. If they have been "fixed", and the troops still say the ammo is ineffective, then his comments are more problematic.

Now, as for the theory that the 5.56mm bullet is good precisely because it does not kill, that theory is logically consistent with reformers’ views of what is required for victory in maneuver warfare. Gary Hart and William Lind write, in their 1986 book, America Can Win, that the object of maneuver warfare is not necessarily to kill the enemy, but to "Boyd cycle" the enemy:

The object in maneuver warfare is not to kill enemy soldiers, but to shatter the ability of whole enemy units, divisions, corps, even whole armies to fight in an organized, eflfective way, and to panic and paralyze enemy commanders. The main means is not firepower, but maneuver. In the term "maneuver warfare," the word maneuver means Boyd Cycling the enemy: presenting him with surprising and dangerous situations faster than he can react to them, until he comes apart. {Hart, American Can Win, 1986}, p. 30-31

Agree or not, Sprey’s argument is at least consistent with his colleagues’ explanation of Boyd’s theory of warfare.

So, Sprey’s comments both fit with the reformers’ general sentiments in regards to the original development of the M-16 and the adoption of 5.56mm ammo–i.e. good idea that got screwed up by "milicrats"–as well as Boyd’s theory of warfare, of which he is an adherent. The one area that does not seem to fit with the reformers’ rhetoric, and which is also the most disturbing, is his characterization of 5.56mm critics as "far from expert in the field of testing and war." If it is true that much of the criticism is coming from soldiers themselves, then this comment is both arrogant and betrays the reformers’ rhetoric of looking out for the troops in the field. True, most soldiers in Iraq might not be expert in weapons testing, but they are expert in something ultimately more important, the use of those weapons in combat.

Tags: military reform, M-16, Pierre Sprey, John Boyd, William Lind, Gary Hart, James Fallows, military, military technology