Weapon Of Mass Destruction

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By Larry Kahaner
Sunday, November 26, 2006

In the grand narrative of World War II, the Battle of Bryansk is a minor conflict, barely deserving of a footnote. But Bryansk has another place in history. It was there that a then-unknown tank commander named Mikhail Kalashnikov decided that his Russian comrades would never again be defeated. In the years following the Great Patriotic War, as Soviet propagandists dubbed it, he was to conceive and fabricate a weapon so simple, and yet so revolutionary, that it would change the way wars were fought and won. It was the AK-47 assault rifle.

The AK-47 has become the world's most prolific and effective combat weapon, a device so cheap and simple that it can be bought in many countries for less than the cost of a live chicken. Depicted on the flag and currency of several countries, waved by guerrillas and rebels everywhere, the AK is responsible for about a quarter-million deaths every year. It is the firearm of choice for at least 50 legitimate standing armies and countless fighting forces from Africa and the Middle East to Central America and Los Angeles. It has become a cultural icon, its signature form -- that banana-shaped magazine -- defining in our consciousness the contours of a deadly weapon.

This week, the U.S. military's presence in Iraq will surpass the length of time that American forces were engaged in World War II. And the AK-47 will forever link the two conflicts. The story of the gun itself, from inspiration in Bryansk to bloody insurgency in Iraq, is also the story of the transformation of modern warfare. The AK blew away old battlefield calculations of military superiority, of tactics and strategy, of who could be a soldier, of whose technology would triumph.

Ironically, the weapon that helped end World War II, the atomic bomb, paved the way for the rise of the lower-tech but deadlier AK-47. The A-bomb's guarantee of mass destruction compelled the two Cold War superpowers to wage proxy wars in poor countries, with ill-trained combatants exchanging fire -- usually with cheap, lightweight and durable AKs.

When one war ended, arms brokers gathered up the AKs and sold them to fighters in the next hot spot. The weapon's spread helps explain why, since World War II, so many "small wars" have lingered far beyond the months and years one might expect. Indeed, for all of the billions of dollars Washington has spent on space-age weapons and military technology, the AK still remains the most devastating weapon on the planet, transforming conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq. With these assault rifles, well-armed fighters can dominate a country, terrorize citizens, grab the spoils -- and even keep superpowers at bay.

When German forces employed the lightning war, or blitzkrieg, in World War II, it was a marked change from how wars had been fought. Instead of static fighting -- hunkering down in trenches for weeks or months at a time as in World War I -- the blitzkrieg concentrated forces at one point in an enemy's defensive line, broke a hole and then thrust deep into enemy territory, catching opponents off guard and subjecting them to waves of brutally efficient invaders.

In late September 1941, the German juggernaut reached the outskirts of Bryansk, hard against the Desna River southwest of Moscow. In the battle, the Nazis destroyed about 80 percent of the town and killed more than 80,000 people. Kalashnikov, who was 21, was wounded in his left shoulder when his tank came under artillery fire. He eventually made it to a hospital on foot after a harrowing two-day trip. He suffered nightmares about the Germans slaughtering his comrades.

Kalashnikov became obsessed with creating a submachine gun that would drive the Germans from his homeland. In his hospital bed, he sketched out the simplest automatic weapon possible. His obsession would later lead him to a metal shop, where he developed a prototype submachine gun; later to a technical school, where he invented a carbine; and finally, to the creation of the Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947 (AK-47) , approved for production that year. It combined the best characteristics of a submachine gun (light weight and durability) and a machine gun (killing power). By the end of 1949, arms plants had turned out about 80,000 AKs.

Although the AK came too late to see action in World War II, the Soviets knew their assault rifle could become the most important weapon of the modern era, and they worked hard to keep it hidden from the West. Soviet soldiers carried their AKs in special pouches that disguised their shape; they picked up spent cartridges to keep the newly sized ammunition a secret.

The 1956 uprising in Hungary compelled Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to dispatch the Red Army to Budapest. The episode required the first large-scale public use of the AK, and it performed well in an urban environment where tanks became bogged down in narrow streets against crowds wielding Molotov cocktails. The protests were squelched, and as many as 50,000 Hungarians were killed compared with about 7,000 Soviet soldiers.

By the late 1950s, the Soviet Union had begun using the AK to spread communism. In the early years of the Cold War, both Moscow and Washington tried to curry favor with uncommitted countries through sales and gifts of arms. Compared with the United States's offering of the M-1 and later the M-14, the AK proved vastly superior; its ruggedness was well suited to severe environmental conditions and the lack of gun repair facilities in poorer countries. The Soviets also distributed free licenses to produce the AK-47 to "fraternal countries," including Bulgaria, China, East Germany, Hungary, North Korea, Poland and Yugoslavia.

U.S. weapons experts did not embrace the superiority of the AK, clinging instead to old notions of warfare embodied in the M-1. The rifle had performed flawlessly during World War II, prompting Gen. George S. Patton to call it "the greatest battle implement ever devised." But it was heavy, clunky and held only eight rounds in its magazine, and was not an automatic weapon. Warfare was changing, and the M-1 was falling behind.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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