3 times the US military brought back ‘obsolete’ weapons to take on new enemies

USS New Jersey battleship navy
The USS New Jersey with all guns blazing.

  • The US military regularly sends old hardware to its storage depots and boneyards.
  • But the Pentagon has also brought back old gear and designs to counter new and emerging threats.
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1. Battleships

Once thought to be the cornerstone of naval power, the advent of naval aviation and the rise of the aircraft carrier in WWII was the beginning of the end for the large-gunned ships of the line.

Though battleships saw continuous combat in WWII and Korea, the US Navy was left without an active battleship upon the decommissioning of the USS Wisconsin in March 1958; the first time since 1895.

Most military enthusiasts are familiar with the Reagan administration’s 600-ship Navy and the reactivation of the battleships USS Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey and Wisconsin.

USS New Jersey would be the first to fire her massive 16-inch guns at enemy targets again during the Lebanese Civil War from 1983-1984. USS Missouri and Wisconsin would return to combat in 1991 during the Gulf War. However, USS New Jersey was brought back into active service once before.

USS Wisconsin
USS Wisconsin firing its 16-inch guns during the Korean War.

Following the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, the loss of US aircraft over Vietnam increased exponentially.

The planes that took part in the sustained aerial bombardment campaign were exceptionally vulnerable to sophisticated Soviet-made surface-to-air weapon systems provided to the North Vietnamese.

In an effort to alleviate these air losses while still delivering ordnance payloads, USS New Jersey was brought out of mothballs in April 1968 and modernized for active service in Southeast Asia. The only active battleship in the world, New Jersey joined the gun line off the Vietnamese coast on September 25.

Five days later, she fired her first shots in over 16 years during an engagement against PAVN targets near the DMZ at the 17th parallel. She would go on to fire 14,891 5-inch shells and 5,688 16-inch shells during the war in support of ARVN, US and even Korean troops.

2. M14 rifle

M14 Enhanced Battle Rifle
Troops with the M14 Enhanced Battle Rifle.

An evolution of the famed M1 Garand of WWII and Korea, the M14 battle rifle became the standard-issue rifle for the US military in 1959.

Firing the 7.62 x 51 mm NATO round, the M14 was meant to streamline logistics efforts by replacing the M1 Garand, M1903 Springfield, M1917 Enfield, M1 carbine, M3 submachine gun, M1928/M1 Thompson submachine gun, and M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle.

While the M14 exhibited outstanding accuracy and stopping power in its semi-automatic setting, its full-power cartridge was deemed too powerful for the submachine gun role and its light weight made it difficult to control during automatic fire as a light machine gun.

m14
An infantry marksman provides security in the district of Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, July 30, 2012.

Though the M14 was replaced by the M16 as the standard-issue rifle in 1968, it found a new role as a precision rifle platform. It served as the basis of the M21 Sniper Weapon System introduced in 1968 and M25 Sniper Weapon System introduced in 1991.

Though both weapon systems have been largely replaced by the M24 Sniper Weapon System, the M14 lives on as the Mk14 Enhanced Battle Rifle. Introduced in 2002, the Mk14 is a truer reincarnation of the M14.

Where the M21 and M25 were restricted to semi-automatic fire, designated as Sniper Weapon Systems and saw more restricted issuance as a result, the Mk14 sees the return of selective fire, the designation as a battle rifle for both designated marksman and close combat roles, and issuance by the Army to two riflemen per infantry platoon deploying to Afghanistan.

3. Guns on fighter planes

Air Force F-35 cannon gun
An F-35A’s 25 mm cannon on a strafing run during training at the Utah Test and Training range, August 13, 2018.

With the advent of radar-guided and heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, like the AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder, and the new threat of high-altitude, long-range Soviet bombers, US air combat doctrine called for the elimination of gun armament on fighter-interceptor aircraft.

Though dedicated attack and fighter aircraft like the A-4 Skyhawk, A-7 Corsair II and the F-8 Crusader retained 20mm cannons for ground attack and close-range aerial combat, interceptors like the F-86D Sabre, F-102 Delta Dagger and the F-4 Phantom II dispensed with any type of gun armament in favor of rockets and missiles.

The idea during the late ’50s and early ’60s was that these types of aircraft would engage in long-range combat without visual contact of their target and, even if they did get close enough to see the enemy that the new Sidewinder missile would be able to dispense with a hostile fighter with ease.

This idea proved to be fatal for pilots over the skies of Vietnam. For Phantom II pilots in particular, who escorted bomber flights over North Vietnam, the lack of a gun often left them without offensive options during a dogfight. Marine Corps general recalled, “Everyone in RF-4s wished we had a gun on the aircraft.”

As any “Top Gun” fan can tell you, the American air-to-air kill ratio in Korea was 12:1. According to the US Naval Institute, the Navy’s kill ratio in Vietnam was just 2.5:1. The drop in kill ratio was attributed to poor missile accuracy at just 10% and lack of dogfighting skills.

The latter resulted in the creation of TOPGUN while the former resulted in the addition of an external gun pod to the Phantom II. An internally mounted gun was incorporated on the later F-4E models.

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The 6 deadliest rifles in the US military’s arsenal

Marine Corps M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle
A Marine engages targets with the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle during a field exercise at Camp Lejeune, December 3, 2014.

Assault rifles, battle rifles, they’re all here.

Though some of the rifle platforms originally entered service during the Cold War, some have been updated and upgraded for the 21st century – and they’re part of the reason why the United States military is so lethal.

M4A1

Army soldier M4A1 carbine rifle
A soldier fires an M4A1 carbine rifle during a stress-shoot exercise, April 23, 2018.

No conversation concerning US military rifles is complete without mentioning the M4 carbine, the smaller, more compact version of the iconic M16 rifle.

Though the M16 and M4 are quite similar, the M4 is lighter and shorter overall, a design that optimizes the platform for situations where a smaller, more compact weapon would be an advantage, such as in close quarters urban spaces, or for soldiers riding in and dismounting from cramped armored vehicles.

Like the M16, it fires the NATO-standard 5.56 x 45 mm cartridge, though thanks to the M4’s shorter 14.5-inch barrel, has a slightly lower effective firing range. The M4 design has proven popular and is used by a wide variety of countries throughout Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere.

FN SCAR

Army Green Beret FN SCAR
A Green Beret shoots a FN SCAR during training in Lomo Nord, Côte d’Ivoire, November 14, 2019.

The SCAR family of rifles came to life in order to fulfill a request by the United States Special Operations Command for a modular family of rifles chambered in 5.56 x 45 mm and 7.62 x 51 mm NATO-standard cartridges.

The FN SCAR is therefore actually two different rifles, SCAR-L for light, and SCAR-H for heavy.

Both rifles can be used as designated marksman rifles, or for close-quarters weapons thanks to three available barrel lengths: Close-Quarters Combat, Standard, and Long Barrel.

Though the rifles are outwardly quite similar, the SCAR-L uses NATO-standard STANAG box magazines, whereas the larger SCAR-H is fed from FN-designed magazines.

M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle

Marine Norway Arctic M27 rifle
A US Marine fires an M27 during cold-weather live-fire training in Setermoen, Norway, November 20, 2020.

The Marine Corps’ new M27 is perhaps one of the most accurate standard-issue rifles in the United States military, giving new meaning to the Marine’s mantra “every Marine a rifleman.”

The IAR benefits from a 16.5-inch free-floating barrel and a short-stroke piston action that give the M27 accuracy, range, and reliability improvements over both the legacy M16 rifle and M4 carbine

The M27’s parent rifle is a German-designed Heckler & Koch 416, which was famously used to take down Osama bin Laden during the famous SEAL Team Six raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The Marine Corps is further enhancing the M27’s lethality by issuing effective flow-through suppressors that allow lower-volume shooting without the possibility of burned powder and bullet detritus flying in the face of the shooter.

M14

M14 US Navy
A sailor fires an M14 rifle during weapons qualification aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.

Though the M14’s reputation suffered during the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, the rifle itself is quite rugged and offers good accuracy and stopping power thanks to its larger 7.62 x 51 mm NATO cartridge.

Although the rifle was not well-suited to the wet jungle warfare of Vietnam – it was too heavy, too long, and its wooden stock prone to warping – these two updates to the platform have given the rifle a new lease on life.

Mk 14 Enhanced Battle Rifle

Mk 14 Enhanced Battle Rifle
A soldier fires the Mk 14 Enhanced Battle Rifle during the Squad Designated Marksman Course on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, July 20, 2017.

The Army and Special Operations Command redesigned the M14 from the ground up, giving the battle rifle a new adjustable stock, pistol-style grip, collapsable bipod, as well as Picatinny accessory rails and a modern optic, to give the old M14 better range as well as lightening the rifle.

M39 Enhanced Marksman Rifle

Marine Corps M39 enhanced marksmanship rifle
A Marine scout sniper fires an M39 enhanced marksmanship rifle during marksmanship training in Kuwait, November 12, 2012.

The Marine Corps had the same idea as the Army, though they decided to modify the M14 a bit differently, resulting in the similar M39 EMR.

This modified rile also sported an adjustable stock and collapsable bipod as well as an accessory rail that could mount optics.

It was, however, an interim measure and has since been mostly replaced in Marine Corps service by newer, group-up designated marksman designs.

Caleb Larson is a defense writer based in Europe. He holds a master of public policy and covers US and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

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