Small Arms Data by Wire (SADW): May 2000

By Nick Steadman

SADW is a monthly electronic publication from Nick Steadman Features. Nick, intrepid world traveling reporter for much of the arms industry, files this 40,000 to 50,000 word report once a month to his loyal subscribers. Those lucky ones pay a mere $50 (US) £32.50 (UK) per year for the privilege of getting the hot tips and insights from one of the industry’s insiders. Nick’s unique perspective is globally based, as is his wit. Each issue is full of insight and information for those with an interest in Small Arms, as well as his observations on world travel.


SA80 ‘TOTAL RECALL’ ANNOUNCED: the Times & others reported towards the end of Feb 2000 that, subject to ministerial agreement, the UK MOD was to ‘recall’ all 300,000 5.56mm SA80 weapons with the British forces for a rolling programme of modifications to rectify the already well-documented functional shortcomings of this system, particularly in adverse operating conditions. SA80 is currently also struck off the NATO list of approved weapons, since it will only operate reliably using British ammunition. Ironically of course, this system was finalised (in 5.56mm) using foreign ammunition loaded with ball powder, since no British SS109 production existed at the time, and changes later had to be made to adjust its rate of fire with the UK-type extruded propellant which delivers different gas port pressures.

The programme will reportedly focus on having 12,000 SA80s upgraded by 2001, though two years or more will apparently be required to modify the complete inventory, at a cost to the taxpayer yet to be established, though reports said it would be substantial, due to the need for retooling, running into ‘tens of millions’. Components to be rectified are said to include the gas & bolt mechanisms plus the magazines. Renewed MOD interest in finally sorting out SA80 appears to stem from recent criticism by the House of Commons Defence Committee of the time it has taken to ponder the upgrade. Tests of updated weapons have reportedly been carried out already in Kuwait & Alaska, delivering respective reliability percentages of 97.7 and 83.6 for the SA80 rifle and LSW.

The ministry is said to be denying this is a ‘recall’ as such, though that would appear to be a matter of official semantics. PA quoted an MOD spokesman as saying a final decision will most likely be taken in Spring 2000. The MOD is meanwhile claiming SA 80 is still ‘an effective weapon’, the Guardian added. A Times follow-up said that troops had been forbidden to discuss SA80 with the press following the MOD announcement, but the paper nevertheless found two lance corporals in Kosovo who did not feel constrained from airing their dissatisfaction with the weapon.

One was quoted as saying “To be honest, it is useless, it falls apart on you”, and other reportedly added “There are terrible malfunctions. Everyone knows it is a weapon that you couldn’t rely on in a real war.” Perhaps it’s just as well we don’t do too much of that stuff nowadays. Troops were apparently bemused about the restrictions on discussing SA80, and were reported as saying: “It’s weird, because in the past they always told us to say to the press what you think is true. This is the first time in Kosovo they have told us not to talk to the press.”

As readers will know from previous issues, a rolling upgrade is only one choice available to the MOD and - it has to be said - hardly the best choice by a long chalk. We still believe the most satisfactory solution is to purchase new 5.56mm weapons for front-line troops....the M16A2, which is already in limited British service, being the obvious choice. Based on around $450 per weapon, a price representative of US DoD contracts for the M16A2, we calculate that for £1m the MOD could buy 3,778 new rifles, so just £10m would deliver a whopping 37,780 weapons. If the SA80 upgrade bill is truly going to be several times £10m, then the economics simply don’t compute, and government auditors should scrutinise the figures.

Putting the cash data another way, with the apparent emphasis on getting an initial 12,000 SA80s modified at an early date, presumably for the rapid reaction forces, the same number of brand-new M16A2s could be bought for just £3.2m. That would solve the immediate problem of meeting the UK’s military & treaty obligations. Also, let’s not forget the new UK requirement for 15,000 new Personal Defence Weapons (PDWs) (see SADW Feb 2000), but what happens about the rest of the SA80 inventory - much of which is assigned to support elements and other formations rarely using rifles - should be a separate matter for more mature consideration.

A total of 382,000 SA80 family weapons were reportedly bought by the MOD, but there have been substantial force reductions since the end of the Cold War, so a lot of the original buy must now be languishing in storehouses.....perhaps we should sell some off to potential enemies? We understand the cultural reasons why the UK felt it appropriate to develop its own 5.56mm system, as opposed to buying off the shelf, but by any international comparisons SA80 has proved itself an absolute dog, with something over 80 modifications already reported. Now someone in the MOD needs the courage to call a halt to all this Band Aid stuff and make some bold decisions, as the Spaniards have already done with their own equally unsatisfactory 5.56mm CETME-L (of much the same vintage as SA80), which is to be replaced.

Footnote: an item in the UK’s Forces Weekly News said that the UK MOD had ‘accused critical national press reports (about SA80) as having an ‘adverse effect’ on Armed Forces personnel’, and that troops might lose confidence in the weapon. Ermm, it may be just a bit late to worry about that...

That said, other systems are evidently not goofproof either - reports from US military sources recently suggested that the SOCOM M4 carbine may not yet be as reliable as users would like, with some issues dating back to Vietnam-era iterations of the M16 design, and that the R&D organisation is not being as responsive as it ought to user feedback on what might be done to redress shortcomings.

AR-7 SPOTTED WITH INDONESIAN CHRISTIANS?: a photo accompanying a Sunday Business report in Jan 2000 showed what looked like a .22 AR-7 survival rifle, plus ‘home-made’ rifles, with Christian youngsters, bolstered by Indonesian marines, allegedly ready to fight off Muslims in Ambon (Indonesia), the recent scene of more sectarian murders. We use the term ‘Christian’ advisedly, of course, since there is nothing remotely spiritual about what’s going on over there; they just hate each other’s guts. However, the continuing prevalence of home-made weapons in Indonesia proves one thing only too well - UN efforts to restrict the availability of small arms only to ‘approved’ combatants (which essentially means government forces) are futile. Anyway, judging by their actions, some governments are not necessarily worth saving. Indonesia’s could just be one of them.

RUSSIAN TRAINING POSTERS AVAILABLE: LEI in London is offering a range of Russian weapon training posters, covering the AKMS, RPG-7, 9mm PB suppressed pistol, Groza 9mm/40mm modular weapon, 7.62mm NRS-2 silenced knife pistol and the 7.62mm SVU sniper rifle (bullpupped Dragunov variant). Posters are full colour, measuring 42 x 60cm, and are surface laminated. Price is £8.99 each (Mastercard, Visa, Switch accepted). Tel (020) 8903-8305, Fax (020) 8903-8302, http://www.gun-s.com/

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V3N8 (May 2000)
and was posted online on May 8, 2015


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