The M14’s shortcomings led military commanders to consider an older rifle, the M2 Carbine, which offered a higher rate of fire than the M14. However, the M2’s bullets were underpowered. An alternative was needed, and the AK-47, with its intermediate cartridge, pointed the way forward. To stand on an equal footing with the communists during the Cold War, American soldiers needed a rifle that could fire a round that was more powerful than a carbine or submachine gun. However, it also had been lighter than a high-velocity rifle round, whose long-range was seldom needed in most engagements.
The choice was between greater killing or stopping power with a more accurate and longer range powerful weapon, or more bullets to keep an enemy’s head down at shorter range, with a higher chance of hitting and at least slowing him down. The debate led military authorities to rethink a rifle they had rejected in the 1950s: the Armalite AR-15. Developed in response to a US Army request, the AR-15 weighed 6 pounds with a 20-round magazine. It fired .223 inch caliber (5.56 mm) rounds that could penetrate an American helmet at 500 yards and matched or exceeded the wounding capacity of a .30 round.
18. Initial Rejection of the AR-15 Rifle, Followed by Its Speedy Adoption
The US Army turned down the AR-15 rifle and decided to stick with the M14. However, the war in Vietnam forced a reconsideration. Early in 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara decided that the AR-15 was the superior rifle, and ordered a halt to M14 production. After minor modifications, the AR-15 entered US military service as the Rifle, Caliber 5.56 mm, M16. Composed of hard-anodized aluminum alloys, fiberglass, and steel, the new rifle was significantly lighter than the M14, and the lighter weight of M16 and of its cartridges allowed soldiers to carry more ammunition.
However, although superior on paper and during the tests that led to its adoption, the new rifle demonstrated some serious drawbacks when it first went into combat. The M16 was ordered into production in March of 1964, and by the end of that year, the first models had been shipped to Vietnam and distributed to front-line troops. The new rifles were widely panned. The M16’s lighter weight when compared to its predecessor was a huge advantage. However, many troops reported that it jammed a lot, especially at the most inopportune moment, when firing at the enemy – as inopportune a moment as it gets.
Before long, dramatic tales about the new M16 rifle began to make the rounds among US forces in Vietnam. Entire patrols were said to have been wiped out, their bodies discovered next to their jammed rifles. To heighten the drama, the dead GIs or Marines’ hands were clutching cleaning rods, testimony to the fact that their last harrowing moments on Earth had been spent in feverish but futile attempts to clear stuck cartridges. Whether such tales were actually true or were greatly exaggerated over dramatizations, it was clear that the new rifles had some problems. Chief among them was a tendency to jam – far more often than did its predecessors.
M16s were – and their progeny to this day still are – meant to be well maintained and cared for. Unlike their Cold War opposites, the AK-47s which use a piston to extract empty rounds and chamber new ones, M16s run on a direct gas impingement system. When an M16 is fired, some of the expanding gas from the exploding cartridge goes into a small hole drilled into the barrel. From there, the gas is redirected via a tube back to the firing chamber. There, it hits (impinges) the bolt, forces it back, extracts the now empty cartridge, and chambers a new round. That required new rifle maintenance measures that American soldiers had not known before.
A key drawback of the M16’s direct gas impingement system which blows the fired cartridges’ gas directly into the firing chamber, is that it also blows those cartridges’ residue in there as well. That residue fouls the chamber, which means that it has to be cleaned frequently. More so than earlier US military rifles. To make things worse, the M16 was designed to fire a cartridge that used a specific powder to minimize that problem. In 1964, however, the US Army discovered that the special powder could not be readily mass-produced, so it replaced it with an alternate that produced significantly more fouling.
To make matters worse, the Army billed the M16 as a self-cleaning rifle, when no such weapon has ever existed, nor likely ever will. The military then further exacerbated the problem with its failure to supply the troops with cleaning kits, or to instruct them on how to clean their new rifles. On top of that, the firing chambers lacked chrome plating, which made them corrode easily. When the inevitable jams resulted, the original M16s lacked a forward assist – a device to manually push the bolt fully forward if it failed to do so on its own. It was a perfect storm of screwups.
15. Remedial Measures and a Redesign Were Needed to Address the US Military’s Main Cold War Rifle
The growing intensity of the war in Vietnam was accompanied by a growth in the notoriety of the M16 as an unreliable weapon. The first step to address the problem was to walk back the claims that the new rifle did not have to be cleaned, let alone the bonkers notion that it was a self-cleaning firearm. Along with cleaning kits, which were belatedly issued to the troops, the Pentagon saw to it that manuals were hurriedly printed and distributed.
They instructed the rifle’s users on how to clean, maintain, and when necessary, troubleshoot common problems that cropped up with their M16s. Design defects with the rifle and its ammunition were also addressed. Cartridges that used cleaner firing powder – for which the M16 had been designed in the first place – replaced the dirtier ones that had been initially issued to the troops. The rifle itself was redesigned, and an improved model, the M16A1, addressed some of the original mode’s shortcomings.
The improved M16A1 rifle featured a firing chamber that was coated with chrome. That drastically cut down on the corrosion problems that had plagued the original version. The redesigned rifle also featured a forward assist, that allowed troops to manually tap the bolt forward when necessary. Between the new emphasis on training and instructing the troops on the proper cleaning and maintenance of their rifles, the cleaner firing cartridges, and the redesigned M16A1, the problems that had plagued the original M16 were largely gone by 1968.
For many front-line combat troops, the very fact that they were in Vietnam might have still sucked. However, being stuck in a war with an unreliable rifle was no longer among the reasons that made Vietnam an especially unpleasant experience. As it is, the M16 is a great rifle in the hands of professionals who are trained to maintain and get the most out of it. It is not as forgiving a weapon as the AK-47, but it is a great one for those who know how to take care of it.
When well taken care of, the M16 rifle was a significantly better and higher performing firearm than its Soviet Cold War counterpart. Unlike the AK-47, the M16 is not well suited for irregulars, peasant insurgents, and poorly trained guerrillas. It can not be buried in a swamp, then taken out and be expected to fire without mishap. M16 users are expected to maintain their weapon by cleaning and inspecting it on a daily basis, which makes it a, literally, higher maintenance weapon than the AK.
However, that higher maintenance is counterbalanced by higher performance. Professional soldiers – and the American military establishment is as highly professional a military organization as exists anywhere – are trained to maintain and clean their weapons as a matter of daily routine. It is not an onerous chore, but simply part of the job. In exchange, they can expect – and have gotten for decades now – higher performance from their M16 rifle family than their opponents who wield the AK-47 and its derivatives.
In 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Pentagon urged President Kennedy to invade Cuba in order to remove Soviet nuclear missiles from the island. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that a full-scale invasion was the only solution. They presented JFK with two versions: Oplan 316 for a full invasion, and Oplan 312 for aerial strikes to take out the missiles, followed by an invasion if necessary. The hawks, led by Air Force General Curtis LeMay, had a clear preference for Oplan 316, as they contended that there was no guarantee that air strikes alone would take out all the missiles, or that one or more of the missiles would not be fired at the US.
Planners expected 18,500 US casualties in the first ten days of the invasion, provided that there were no nuclear explosions. However, unbeknownst to Pentagon planners, Soviet forces in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had authorized the Soviet commander in the island to use them at his discretion if he deemed it necessary. The planned invasion of Cuba thus threatened to turn the Cold War very hot, indeed. As the crisis intensified, Khrushchev withdrew release authority and forbade the use of tactical nukes use without his express permission. However, as seen below, whether the modified orders would have been followed, is debatable.
11. JFK’s Refusal to Let His Military Advisers Jam Him Into an Invasion of Cuba Might Have Saved the World
Tactical nukes were dispersed throughout Cuba to various Soviet units, under the physical control of officers as low down the chain of command as captains. Soviet forces had trained to use those weapons as part of their defensive plan, and in the heat of battle weapons custodians would have been under intense pressure as they were subjected to overwhelming US aerial strikes, naval bombardment, and ground attacks. The Red Army in 1962, with victory in WWII only 17 years in its past, did not lack military pride or an ethos of defiance unto death.
It is thus not difficult to envision a desperate local commander, perhaps cut off from communications with higher authority, using the tactical nukes at hand to save his command, or at least ensure that its demise did not come cheap. If the Soviets had used nukes in Cuba, US plans called for a massive nuclear response. Things could easily have escalated from there to turn the Cold War hot with a full-blown nuclear exchange that would have devastated both countries and Europe, irradiated the Northern Hemisphere, and set humanity back centuries. Luckily, President Kennedy resisted the pressure from his generals and admirals, relied on diplomacy, back channels, and blockade, and successfully diffused the crisis without triggering WWIII.
Early in the Cold War, the forces of communist North Korea triggered the Korean War when it invaded South Korea, overran that US ally and client state, and threatened to seize the entire Korean Peninsula. General Douglas MacArthur turned the tide in September 1950, with a brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon, in the North Koreans’ rear. The result was a swift collapse of the communist invasion, after which MacArthur vigorously pursued the routed enemy northward up the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, he then grew overconfident.
MacArthur blithely dismissed warnings that China would directly intervene in the war if his forces approached the Sino-Korean border, and insisted that the Chinese would do nothing. He turned out to be disastrously wrong. Soon after his forces reached the Yalu River, which marked the border with China, hundreds of thousands of Chinese began to pour into Korea. They evaded detection, suddenly struck in November, 1950, and caught a surprised MacArthur completely off guard. Within weeks, the US general and his forces had been defeated, and pushed out of North Korea back across the border into South Korea.
9. Rather Than Let MacArthur Turn the Cold War Hot, President Truman Fired Him
Douglas MacArthur’s judgment and estimate of Chinese reaction were proven catastrophically wrong. His forces were chased back down the Korean Peninsula by the Chinese even faster than they had raced up in pursuit of the North Koreans. A humiliated MacArthur reacted with histrionics and insisted that atomic bombs be dropped on China. His plan was to drop up to 50 atomic bombs in Manchuria on Chinese cities, military concentrations, and communication centers. His ultimate aim was to seal off the Korean Peninsula from China with a radioactive belt that stretched across Manchuria from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea.
President Truman, whom MacArthur had confidently assured only weeks earlier that China would do nothing if his forces marched up to the Chinese border, balked. He declined to trust MacArthur’s further confident assurances that the Soviets would do nothing if the US dropped dozens of atomic bombs on their Chinese ally. When MacArthur publicly contradicted Truman’s position, he was ordered to clear any further statements on the subject with the State Department first. MacArthur violated those orders, and again challenged Truman publicly on the use of atomic weapons in the Korean war,. So in an early Cold War assertion of civilian control of the military, Truman fired the difficult general.
Another Cold War invasion contemplated by the US military but not carried out was of North Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, plans were drawn to end North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam and support for the insurgency there by taking out North Vietnam with a direct invasion. The plan, as described in On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, by Harry G. Summers, was reminiscent of the Normandy invasion. It called for landing an airborne division to the north and west of Hanoi to block off the approaches to the Hanoi-Haiphong region. It was to be accompanied by a seaborne invasion, with three amphibious divisions landed on beaches in the Haiphong area.
The Haiphong force would then advance to Hanoi and linkup up with the airborne troops there. With the Hanoi-Haiphong area secured, outside support would be drastically curtailed. Two major railroads from China would be severed, the country’s main seaport would be in American hands, and the lines of communications to the south would be interdicted. Starved of Chinese and Soviet arms, munitions, and supplies, and cut off from a steady infusion of North Vietnamese manpower, planners expected that organized armed resistance in South Vietnam would soon wane and collapse.
7. The Risk of Chinese Intervention Led to the Shelving of the Plan to Invade North Vietnam
The plan to invade the Haiphong-Hanoi area stood a high chance of success against the North Vietnamese. However, it was deemed too dangerous because there was no guarantee that the invaders would only have to deal with North Vietnamese forces: the odds that China would join the fray were high. At the time, only 15 years had gone by since the Korean War. In that war, US and allied forces had pursued the routed North Koreans all the way to the Chinese border, based on the mistaken belief that China would do nothing. That led to an unpleasant surprise when the Chinese jumped in and pushed American forces all the way back to South Korea.
If China directly joined the Vietnam War in response to a US invasion of North Vietnam, things could easily escalate from there into WWIII, and drag in the Soviets. Unlike the situation during the Korean conflict and in the early days of the Cold War, the US no longer held an overwhelming nuclear superiority. By the second half of the 1960s, the Soviets possessed thousands of nuclear warheads, as well as the means to deliver them to targets in the US. American interests in Vietnam were simply not worth the risk, and the so the planned invasion of Hanoi-Haiphong was never carried out.
6. A Fifth of US Military Personnel in Vietnam Got Hooked on Heroin
Until 1969, the only drug widely available to American troops in Vietnam was marijuana. But starting in 1969, heroin became widely available. It was cheap, and so pure that servicemen could get high smoking heroin mixed with tobacco. That made it more appealing to those who would have been reluctant to inject the drug in their veins with a needle and syringe. By 1971, almost half of US Army enlistees in Vietnam had tried heroin, and of those, about half exhibited signs of addiction. The addiction epidemic spread from Vietnam to other US military installations around the world, and the American garrison in West Germany was especially hard hit.
In response, President Nixon created the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention. He also ordered further research on military personnel addiction, which revealed that 20% of American servicemen in Vietnam self-identified as heroin addicts. At the time, the US was drawing down its presence in Vietnam, and about 1000 troops were sent back home each day, where most were discharged soon thereafter. It meant that hundreds of active heroin addicts were being released into the US each week. The result was a toxic medley of social problems that rocked 1970s America.
Necessity is often said to be the mother of invention, and fear often triggers the necessity to stop whatever had caused it. The Cold War was one of the most fear-inducing stretches of human history – as in pants-soiling scary at times, with two jittery superpowers glaring at each other while armed with enough nukes to wipe out humanity many times over. So the era saw its fair share – and more – of inventions to address, combat, and foil the causes of that fear.
Thing though is that fear sometimes drives the fearful to not just think outside the box, but to get carried away with their outside-the-box thinking. As in way, way, away in the “creative” ideas department. As with most ideas, some of them turn out to be brilliant brainstorms, but many more turn out to be brain farts. Of the latter, few ideas were crazier than that hatched up to foil Soviet nukes by stopping the Earth’s rotation.
Stopping the Earth’s rotation sounds crazy – and it was. However, there was actually a method to the madness and a kernel of logic involved. To launch an ICBM and get its warhead to accurately nuke a target thousands of miles away involves intricate calculations, not least among them planetary rotation. If one could tinker with Earth’s rotation, one could screw up those intricate calculations, and cause ballistic missiles to miss their targets. Thus was born PROJECT RETRO, an early 1960s research effort into what it would take to pause the planet’s spinning.
The project was worthy of Wile E. Coyote in that, like many of his schemes, the science actually works in theory. Once launched, the Cold War’s early ballistic missiles could not be redirected. Because of Earth’s rotation, to hit something with a ballistic missile is like shooting an arrow at a mobile target. In both cases, the shooter has to aim not at where the target is, but at where the target will be in the time it takes the missile or arrow to get there. PROJECT RETRO hoped to ensure that the ICBMs’ targets would not be there when their warheads detonated.
To illustrate the logic of PROJECT RETRO, picture an ICBM that takes 30 minutes to fly from the Soviet Union to New York City. The Soviets would their missile not at where NYC is at the time of launch, but at where the Big Apple will be, because of the Earth’s rotation, in 30 minutes. However, if a moving target ceases to move after a projectile such as a missile is launched, the result will be a miss. So the United States Air Force floated the idea of using rocket engines to stop the Earth from moving.
Specifically, planners contemplated the use of a “a huge rectangular array of one thousand first-stage Atlas engines” to stop the Earth from moving. In theory, such a crazy Looney Tunes plan could foil Soviet ICBMs. Accordingly, the Air Force set out to test the theory’s feasibility. In 1960, the RAND Corporation with asked to evaluate whether giant stationary rocket engines might be used to pause Earth’s rotation in case of nuclear attack. As seen below, while there was something to the theory, going from theory to practice was… problematic.
The US Air Force’s spitball guesstimate that a thousand rocket engines could pause the Earth’s rotation turned out to be too low. As Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND Corporation planner who crunched the numbers concluded, it required not a thousand Atlas rockets, but “one million billion” of them. The rocket fuel necessary would have been “500 times the mass of Earth’s atmosphere”. That was beyond even the Pentagon’s budget. And even if Pentagon could afford it, to pause the planet’s spin would have produced results far worse than if all the Soviet nukes had hit their targets.
Assume a 30 minute ICBM flight time from Russia to New York City, and a 20 minute warning. For the missile to miss by 10 miles, Earth’s rotation would have to be slowed by about 30 miles for 20 minutes. If that happened, every structure, grain of sand, drop of water, and living thing on the planet would experience that deceleration. The result would be shattering earthquakes, massive tsunamis, and super hurricanes – all beyond anything ever recorded in human history – wreaking havoc across the planet. A nuclear Armageddon would actually be mild compared to that.
1. An Extra-Terrestrial Attack Could Have Stopped the Cold War
President Ronald Reagan was the Happy Cold Warrior. A staunch conservative and anticommunist, he went about with a sunny disposition and demeanor that did little to mask his implacable detestation of communism and opposition of the Soviet Union. His single-minded focus on challenging what he termed “The Evil Empire”, and dragging the USSR into an arms buildup competition that its rickety economy could not sustain, contributed greatly to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. However, there was one field where he was more than happy to cooperate with the Soviets.
As Mikhail Gorbachev recounted, he was strolling around a garden with Reagan during the 1985 Geneva Summit, when the POTUS blurted out of the blue: “What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?” Gorbachev replied that the Soviets would help us out against ET. That greatly pleased the American president – apparently, the threat of alien attack had been gnawing at Reagan, a lifelong sci-fi nerd, for years. So turns out that extraterrestrials might have united humanity to stop the Cold War in order to face a common enemy.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading