Wednesday, May 07, 2003

The End of Marksmanship?

The Esteemed Col. Cooper recently wrote:

Having been involved with marksmanship all my life, I am made uneasy by the idea that personal marksmanship may no longer be relevant to modern war. Today the rocket propelled grenade bids to replace the rifle, and with an RPG you do not have to hit an enemy, you just have to plant a bomb in his close vicinity. At present these gadgets are too cumbersome to replace the infantry rifle, but miniaturization may eventually alter that. This is very bad news from several directions, but because of this 21st century Age of the Wimp, it may be indeed the wave of the future.
(It's in Vol. 11 No. 2)

Now, I tremble to disagree with a man whose experience on these matters dwarfs my own. And I'm not saying he is wrong. But here are a couple of points that I think argue in favor of the continued maybe even the growing importance of marksmanship for the US military.

Admittedly, in a short-range slugfest between poorly trained conscripts or militia members, the RPG is more effective than an AK-47 or AR-15. At night, in a city, the RPG does give a larger margin of error when the shooters aren't very skilled or have no time to aim. (Those were the same conditions that prompted the Germans to invent the assault rifle in WWII.)

But the US doesn't relish short-range slugfests. It negates our technological advantages and increases casualties. The American Way of War is embodied by the M-1 Abrams tank which can see, hit and destroy targets at long range and on the move.

A battle rifle will always have an advantage over RPGs in terms of range, weight, accuracy, rate of fire, and speed into action. The RPG wins in terms of terminal effectiveness and margin of error.

If the world is moving to RPGs (which i do not doubt), that could be an argument for dropping our current AR-15 with its .223 poodle shooter cartridge. This is a great assault rifle but it seems that a good RPG may be better than a great assault rifle. If we were to focus more on longer-range aimed fire, a larger caliber round would do a better job.

Chuck Taylor-- who once worked with Col. Cooper-- has long argued that a battle rifle in 6.5mm is a better choice for an expert than the .223. It provides superior long-range performance in terms of accuracy and terminal effects. (The commercial .260 Remington would seem to fit the bill, although Kim du Toit might argue for the .243 Winchester).

One of the reasons that the US Army adopted the assault rifle was the research of S. L. A. Marshall which argued (based on WWII and Korean War battles) that only a small proportion of infantrymen fired their weapons in combat. Training was changed to promote area fire ("spray and pray") instead of aimed fire in order to get more soldiers involved in firefights. This in turn argued for a round which was smaller than the 30-06 of the Garand so that the soldiers carry more ammo and could fire their rifles at full-auto.

Later researchers have raised questions about SLA Marshall's research and the lessons drawn from it. Further, whatever the facts were in 1944 or 1951, it is hard to argue that they are applicable to the modern American infantry soldier. He is a volunteer with intensive training at state of the art facilities, not one of a million draftees nine months out of civilian life.