National Army swaps AK47s for M16s, pickups for Humvees
By Michelle Tan, Army Times
QALAT, Afghanistan – The Afghan National Army is ditching its AK47s in favor of the M16 rifle as part of a force modernization effort that will change not only how the soldiers handle their weapons but possibly how they fight.
“These guys have been firing the same guns their whole lives, and now we’re asking them to change,” said Maj. Oliver Rose, an operations mentor for the Headquarters Security and Support Brigade’s Delta Kandak, or battalion, in Kabul.
“It’s going to be different for a culture that has been using Warsaw Pact weapons for the last 30-some years to go to more refined NATO weapons,” he said, adding that along with a new weapon, the Afghan soldiers will have to learn precision shooting instead of just laying down as much ammunition as possible with the less-accurate AK47.
They also will have to learn how to clean and maintain the M16, which requires more maintenance than the hardy AK47.
“With the AK47, it’s dump some diesel down the barrel and shake it clean,”
Rose said as he observed one of his noncommissioned officers train a group of Afghan NCOs on the basics of the M16 in Darulaman, southwest of Kabul.
The Afghan leadership asked for the switch to the M16, said Col. Bo Dyess, chief of the force integration division in the CJ-7 for Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan.
CSTC-A is responsible for all training and mentoring of the Afghan army and police, the forces to which the U.S. intends one day to hand over principal responsibility for the country’s security. But even as the training goes on, the U.S. is making plans to send up to three additional Army brigade combat teams to assist the 32,000 troops there trying to quell an increasingly active insurgency.
“The Afghans really want to develop their relationship with NATO and the United States,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Cone, commanding general of CSTC-A.
“The driving factor was a desire for NATO-standard weapons.”
When asked whether the M16 would be too much of a change from the AK47, Cone said commanders first fielded the M16 to the Afghan army’s elite commando units.
“[The M16] is a better weapon in the hands of a better marksman because it takes things like breathing control, trigger control,” he said. “Afghans are more shoot from the waist.”
When the commandos, who are modeled after the U.S. Army’s Rangers, received the M16, they quickly adapted and became proficient with it, Cone said.
“We issued them first to the commandos to see if the Afghans could be better marksmen,” he said. “The commandos were incredible. They’re really good with their weapons.”
In addition to the 75,700 M16s, the U.S. also is outfitting the Afghan army with 1,700 M240Bs, 2,600 M249s, 2,250 M203s and some M9 pistols, Dyess said.
Afghan forces also will receive 2,150 M1151 and 2,000 M1152 up-armored Humvees and 660 tactical ambulances to replace the Ford Ranger pickups they use now, he said.
“Definitely on the battlefield, it [improves] survivability and mobility and the ability to engage the enemy forces of Afghanistan,” said Col. Wade Sokolosky, the logistics officer for CSTC-A.
Training to use the new gear
NCOs from each Afghan unit will be sent to Kabul to learn how to maintain and shoot their new weapons and how to drive and maintain the Humvees. They will then return to their units and train their soldiers.
The train-the-trainer concept involving the NCOs also is a way to start professionalizing the NCO corps in the Afghan army, which traditionally has been officer-heavy.
Weapons training lasts two weeks, and Humvee training includes five weeks of driver’s training and three weeks of unit specific training.
The Afghan units also undergo maintenance training and will be given spare parts with their weapons and vehicles.
“We want to field a system in the way we field a system in the United States, and that is in a package way,” Dyess said. “You wouldn’t just bring a truckload of weapons to the [Afghan army's] 203rd Corps and say, ‘Have a nice day.’ It has to be more than that. It has to be a program that’s sustainable.”
Humvees, fuel and weapons
Fielding of the weapons and the vehicles began over the summer, but because of transportation difficulties and the training soldiers must complete before they receive their equipment, fielding is expected to continue until at least summer 2009.
About 200 Humvees have been issued, Sokolosky said. All the Humvees the Afghan army will receive are new and paid for by the U.S. government, and most of them will go to the infantry battalions, he said. All 4,710 vehicles cost almost $760 million.
Someday, the Afghan National Police, which is not as advanced as the army, also will receive Humvees, Sokolosky said.
One of the challenges the Afghan army may face with the Humvees is getting enough fuel, said Maj. A.J. Noonan, senior mentor for Delta Kandak, Headquarters Security and Support Brigade.
The Ford Rangers get an estimated 22 miles per gallon of gas, while the Humvees get about 5 miles per gallon, so each unit equipped with Humvees will have to work the logistics system and plan for its additional fuel needs, Noonan said.
“They’re great at rolling out the gate and fighting,” he said, but the Afghan army struggles with logistics and supply.
Most of the M16s being issued to the Afghans are Marine Corps weapons that were refurbished after the Marines switched to the M4, Sokolosky said. About 2,200 were donated by the Canadian government and others are being contracted from various places. The former Marine Corps weapons cost about $728 each, and in all, the M16s will cost almost $60 million.
About 5,000 have been issued to the 205th Corps in southeast Afghanistan, he said.
The move to the M16 and other NATO weapons streamlines the Afghan army’s inventory, Sokolosky said.
“When you have a pure fleet of NATO weapons, then everything’s standardized in regards to ammunition, everyone’s pretty much carrying the same thing, the repair parts are pretty much the same,” he said. “Logistically, you don’t want to have two types of weapons out there.”
M16 still unproven to Afghans
Soldiers in the 205th Corps were among the first to get the M16.
“The 205th was in the fight, so essentially that’s why we had them up as our first priority,” Dyess said.
Pvt. Mohamad Adil, of 5th Kandak, 2nd Brigade, 205th Corps, in Qalat, northeast of Kandahar, received his M16 about four months ago.
He said through an interpreter that he has fired the weapon on the range but not in combat.
“When I start fighting, I’ll know [whether I am confident in it],” said Adil, who had pink tissue stuffed in the muzzle of his rifle.
When asked about the tissue, Adil said it was there to keep out the dust.
“The AK was good to clean,” he said. “This one is difficult.”
Sgt. Faizullrahman, also from 5th Kandak, agreed with Adil.
“Before, with the Russian weapon, the AK47, it was very good on the battlefield, even if there was dirt,” he said. “With this, I don’t know if it’ll work with the dirt.”
Fellow soldier Pvt. Mirwayes said sometimes the kandak will go on days-long missions.
“The only problem we have with this weapon is you’re supposed to keep it clean,” he said. “Sometimes we go on missions where we don’t have time to keep it clean.”
Capt. Ernest Harrell, the S-2 and S-3 mentor for 5th Kandak, said the soldiers generally are proud of their M16s because they feel like they had to earn the right to carry it.
But they have not tested the M16 for themselves on the battlefield, he said.
“That’s the biggest thing about the AK that they like,” Harrell said. “They know it will work in combat, so they’re very suspicious of the M16.”
Growing the Afghan army
When the Afghan army grows from its current authorized end-strength of 80,000 to 122,000 between 2009 and 2013, Dyess and his staff will determine the requirements for more weapons and vehicles.
“This is going to be a great addition to the Afghan army,” he said, “The Humvees will make them more survivable. That will be a big assist to them.”
As for the M16, those who have not received them are eager to have them, Dyess said.
“The Afghans, they asked for it, and the ones who don’t have them want to know when they’re going to get them,” he said.
The modernization program, both weapons and vehicles, is great for the Afghan army, Sokolosky said.
“It shows how the force modernization of the Afghan army is going to significantly increase the Afghan army,” he said. “They’re a great force now. They’re only going to get better.”