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War In Iraq Special Report
War In Iraq Transcripts
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Live Online Transcripts

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War In Iraq: Infrantry Weapons
With Charles Cutshaw
Co-editor of Jane's Ammunition Handbook and
Jane's Infantry Weapons

Thursday, April 3, 2003; Noon ET

What are coalition troops carrying into Iraq? How does this compare to the equipment held by the Republican Guards? How have the weapons changed since the last Gulf War and what effect has this had on the role of the infantry?

Charles Cutshaw, co-editor of Jane's Ammunition Handbook and Jane's Infantry Weapons, was online to discuss Iraq and the types of weapons ground troops are using in the field.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Somewhere, USA: What is standard equipment for a soldier outside of the rifles I have seen a lot of? What sort of grenades, sidearms or knives do they normally carry?

Charles Cutshaw: Soldiers and Marines carry a variety of weapons in addition to the standard M16A2. Rangers, special forces and a others carry the M4 Carbine, a 14.5 barreled version of the M16. Pistols include the standard M9, made by Beretta, the M11 produced by SIG. The Army and Marines use different bayonets -- some use the M9 , while others use the M7. The M9 can be used for a variety of purposes, while the M7 is essentially a large knife. There are many grenades -- too many to go into in any depth, but generally they can be classed as fragmentation, concussion, smoke, and a few others. Knives are a personal option. Many soldiers buy their own. Special forces and a few elites also carry tomahawks, which are useful not only as a weapon, but as a tool. The current favorite seems to be the Talon, made by RMJ Forge.

New York, N.Y.: Forgive my ignorance, but do different services carry different weapons? If so, are some groups' equipment much better than others? For instance, how do the machine guns the marines carry differ from those of the 101st? Thanks for taking the time!

Charles Cutshaw: The machine guns are variations on a theme. The Army has the M240B, while the Marines have the M240. The only difference is that the Army's version has a handguard to keep from burning one's hand on the barrel, while the Marine version doesn't. Historical note -- in 1959, the Army tested FN's MAG58 machine gun, now called the M240, said that it wasn't good enough and adopted the M60. 40 years later, it adopted the MAG 58.

Virginia: What are the standard infantry guns that are being used in Iraq? How do they compare to the old M-16s?

Charles Cutshaw: The M16A2 is a modification of the Vietnam era M16A1. It differs primarily in that it has a new flash suppressor, a modified handguard, much improved sights, a different stock and fires a three-round burst, rather than being full auto. Burst fire enhances the probability of hitting the target in combat.

New York, N.Y.: Kalashnikovs have been known for their dependability in adverse circumstances, do the M(whatevers) match this level of reliability? Especially regarding the sand. I have noticed a couple of photographs of soldiers carrying weapons with plastic wrapped around what I assume is the ejection port -- I do not know about weapons per se. I am an old M14 kind of guy -- which I take to be a sign that the guns are jamming too frequently.

Thank you.

Charles Cutshaw: M16 rifles and M4 carbines are indeed sensitive to dust and dirt getting into the operating components. This was something of a problem in Desert Storm and probably continues today in the same environment. "Grunts" usually keep their rifles lightly lubricated or nearly dry in these kinds of environments to prevent dust getting into the system and clean their rifles regularly to ensure that they will work. The rifles will work if properly maintained, but they are more sensitive to dust than the old M1 and M14.

Riverdale Park, Md.: Hello Mr Cutshaw,

The US Marines in Iraq appear to be wearing green uniforms. Why? Isn't Iraq a desert country?

Charles Cutshaw: The Marines are wearing their new camouflage pattern that is supposed to be effective in any environment.

Austin, Tex.: I imagine an airman from WWII would be totally lost in today's Air Force. But I get the impression that a WWII infantryman would find most of today's infantry and its equipment pretty recognizable. Is this true? If so, is there any reason for it other than just the nature of what an infantry is?

Charles Cutshaw: The equipment is similar, but not the same. Improvements in technology have resulted in lighter weapons, for example. The load bearing equipment (LBE) is again similar, but much improved. If a WW II "grunt" were to be translifted into Iraq, he would probably be able to quickly adapt to the new equipment. There are some thing about the infantry that never changes.

Alexandria, Va.: Are the US forces seeing improved hit performance from the 5.56mm round now than they did during the fighting in Somalia where the bullets were zipping through the targeted people without much disabling effect? I recall that the problem stemmed from those rounds being designed for a kill through layers of clothing and/or body armor, and the Somalis just didn't wear enough or have enough body mass for the rounds to tumble.

Charles Cutshaw: There have been similar reports from Afghanistan and the military has responded by adopting a heavier bullet for users of the M4 carbine. The problem is not inherent in the M16, which has a longer barrel. The bullet doesn't "tumble," but becomes less stable and fragments. The reason for this is too complex to explain here, but the problem you mention is basically due to the lower velocity of the bullet from the short-barreled carbine. The new heavier bullet seems to be performing well in the carbine.

Alexandria, Va.: What new technology does the average infantryman have at his or her disposal? Anything we are seeing used for the fist time in Iraq? Thanks.

Charles Cutshaw: The short answer is that there is nothing showing up for the first time in Iraq that I have seen. There is more night vision and improvements that didn't exist in Desert Storm, but nothing really new.

Alexandria, Va.: Have the soldiers been using individual/light anti-armor weapons to any effect or is engaging enemy vehicles being left to our armor and aircraft?

Charles Cutshaw: Yes. The Army and Marines both have such weapons. They appear as large tube-like objects that can be seen on the troops' backs in much of the news footage. These weapons will take out any tank in the Iraqi inventory.

London, UK: What sort of weapons do you think Syria may have supplied the Iraqis? Some talk to night goggles? Some talk to shoulder surface to air missiles? What new weapons have recently being shipped from Moscow to Damascus that could have made there way to Iraq? Thanks

Charles Cutshaw: I, too, have heard talk of night vision optics and SA-9 type surface to air missiles, but it is all rumor as far as I am concerned. I don't believe that Russia has sent anything recently, but probably did sell materials to Iraq prior to the crisis. Unfortunately, I can't be more specific because I haven't seen anything beyond news reports.

Washington, D.C.: Are the weapons used by the Iraqis fully automatic or semiautomatic? I saw on the internet a father handing his daughter some type of AK with a second wooden pistol grip beneath the forward stock. That's different from many other weapons shown on TV? Also, doesn't the AK have a noticably different sound from US weapons, primarily because it's designed to be very, very reliable?

Charles Cutshaw: The AK's are almost certainly fully automatic. The sound is different from our rifles, but that is a function of the cartridge and barrel length. It has nothing to do with reliability, although the AK is inherently reliable. The second pistol grip indicates that the AK was Romanian manufactured.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: How is the M-16 different from the one I handled back during my service days during the Vietnam debacle? Is the 45 and the BAR still used by U.S. forces or have they gone to the museum? I was in the Navy but I did get to handle some of the conventional arms. Thanks much.

Charles Cutshaw: For the M16, see my earlier comment. Some services still use the M1911A1. Marine special ops units use modified M1911's called MEU-SOC (Marine expeditionary Unit-Special Ops Capable).45s. Some other special ops units still use them as well in modified form. The BARs are mostly in museums and haven't been in US service since the late 1950s.

Austin, Tex.: In today's volunteer military, if you asked a group of infantry soldiers why they chose that area, what do you suppose they would say? Sounds like a low-tech, dirty, physically demanding, dangerous, and in a way, thankless position, even when compared to other combat-related roles. The epitome of the "hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror" comment. (Never having been in the military, I'm always curious to understand the "culture" of the environment.)

Charles Cutshaw: I was an infantry volunteer in the early 1960s and so can explain to a degree. Most young men like a physical challenge and the infantry is the one place where you can be challenged to the maximum extent you wish to accept. It's hard to explain how good you feel after overcoming some seemingly impossible challenge, but I believe the challenge is a large part of the motivation. There is also the danger factor. Some guys like the "rush" that comes with physical danger. Hard to understand, perhaps, but it is fact.

Washington, D.C.: The helicopters that are being shot down with small arms fire, what's happening there? The 7.62mm round fired from AKs are smaller than bullets from a deer rifle. Are these $20+ million helicopters getting shot out of the sky with AKs?

Charles Cutshaw: Helicopters aren't being shot down with small arms fire. I am convinced that the one that Iraq claims was shot down by farmers went down due to mechanical failure of some sort. All the others went down due to mechanical failure or crashing into something in night ops.

Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C.: We're no longer using the M60 machine gun? Wow, hadn't heard of that one. Are we still using the M2 .50 cal. heavy MG? What is the short, chunkier looking MG with either .50 cal or 20 mm rounds called? It looks like the barrel is way shorter than the M2 -- what is it? Thanks.

Charles Cutshaw: We are still using the "MaDeuce" .50 caliber and will for the foreseeable future. The short barreled MG you refer to is the Mk 19 40mm grenade launcher.

Bethesda, Md.: I have read a few references to "thermobarics" but no extensive explanation. Could you elaborate?

Charles Cutshaw: Thermobarics are a form of fuel air explosive (FAE). Most FAEs fill the air with a areosol fuel air mix and then ignite it. A thermombaric fills the air with fuel and flame simultaneously. It has a longer duration than a conventional explosive, but less total overpressure. For this reason it is VERY effective in enclosed spaces. The Russians developed thermobarics called RPO-A in the 1980s and I understand that we bought them to use in Afghanistan against the Taliban in their caves.

Herndon, Va.: I have a "question of form." In looking at a lot of the photos of the soldiers and Marines assaulting a position, they seem to have their M-16s resting ON TOP of their shoulders (think I have noticed this too in pictures of SWAT units). Now this was a real "no-o" from what we were taught at Parris Island way back when, where it was painfully drilled home that you brace your weapon INTO your shoulder. What's the deal here, a new method or just overly excited troops? If it's the later, then the pictures I've seen must have been only of Army troops and certainly not any Marines.

Semper Fi...

Charles Cutshaw: They would do this only in very close spaces, based on my knowledge, but I was also taught to keep my rifle in the "pocket" formed by my arm and shoulder. I believe it is because they don't want to "lead with their gun" in confined areas.

Washington, D.C.: As an infantryman in the early 60's, how did the weapons you used compare to those used by the Vietcong? I'm told that the early M16's jammed so easily that it was a major cause of casualties in the early years.

But it had a great sound compared to an AK, which the VC used. Like sportscar to a jalopy.

Charles Cutshaw: The AK was far more reliable than the early M16s. The problem was that the Army changed the powder, which caused excessive fouling. When I processed in as an advisor in Vietnam, as I drew my M16 in the arms room prior to going "up country," the armorer told me, "Don't bet the farm on this." I'd already heard about the M16 and so stuffed it in my walllocker and got a Thompson SMG to carry. As an advisor, I could carry about anything I wanted. Nobody on my team carried M16s. That should tell you something about how we felt about them.

Washington, D.C.: No infantry discussion would be complete without some mention of bayonets. Regardless of whether they have or will get used in this conflict, is a bayonet part of every infantry grunts' basic kit, or are they issued to units on an "as-needed" basis? Also, who gets the standard Baretta 9mm pistols, just officers? Lastly, is there now a standard US combat knife?

Charles Cutshaw: See my earlier reply on bayonets. The army and Marines have different ones. The M9 is issued to some officers and to vehicle crew members, weapons crew members and others who need both hands free to do their mission. I don't know of a "standard" combat knife. I bought my own to take to Vietnam and understand that many troops still buy their own today.

China: What kind of camouflage or anti-camouflage equipment has been used during this period (March 20 to April 3) by United states' troops or Iraq's troops? What is the usage?

Charles Cutshaw: The US Army and most other services use the "new" three color desert camouflage, while the Marines have a new pattern of their own that is supposedly effective in any locale.

Laurel, Md.: Could you perhaps background this chat a little bit? I don't know a lot about weapons never having served in the military, but in this town it's important to have some kind of understanding if for no other reason that they represent a significant part of the federal budget.

Before the fall of European Communism, it was easy for conservatives to bash liberals as being less than patriotic because they opposed the spending of money on some new weapons. And easy for liberals to accuse conservatives of supporting such weapons to make money for defense contractors/donors and to bring jobs to their districts.

So could you tell us in a level of detail appropriate to this forum, what should Joe or Jane Lunchbucket try to understand about military weapons and their associated costs to be an informed voter?

Charles Cutshaw: Can't really comment on things like aircraft and ships, but infantry weapons tend to be on the less expensive side. I'd watch out for multimillion dollar programs stretched out over many years that purport to develop infantry weapons that will achieve seemingly impossible effects. Sorry, No specifics, but there are some and they are pretty easy to pinpoint.

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