Monday, July 2, 2012

Who wants a new 5.56 assault rifle...?

The MOD has asked industry to come up with their offers, by no later than midnight on 20 July, for a Modular Assault Rifle System (MARS) with an anticipated initial operational life of 10 years (only...???) "for deployment with certain military units from 2014".
In addition,

Further quantities of rifles and certain ancillaries may be required for testing by Police and Home Office. These may be required to be in a different configuration to take account of Police-specific requirements, especially ammunition differences and no fully-automatic capability.

[...] The Invitation to Tender and any resulting contract(s) will therefore facilitate the direct exercise of any Options to supply additional weapons, ancillaries, spare parts and/or support services by any of the following bodies and by their statutory successors and organisations created as a result of legal or organisational changes:

— The Metropolitan Police Authority and Service as established under s5B of the Police Act 1996,
— A Police Authority or Force established under s3 of the Police Act 1996,
— A Police Authority or Force established under s2 of the Police (Scotland) Act 1967,
— The Northern Ireland Policing Board and Police Service of Northern Ireland,
— Future Police Commissioners,
— Future Police and Crime Panels,
— The Civil Nuclear Constabulary and Police Authority as established under the Energy Act 2004,
— The Ministry of Defence Police and Police Committee as established under the Ministry of Defence Police Act 1987,
— British Transport Police and Police Authority as established under the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003,
— MOD Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas Police and Gibraltar Defence Police forces,
— The Home Office, including its Agencies,
— The National Policing Improvement Agency,
— The Serious Organised Crime Agency,
— The future National Crime Agency,
— The Foreign and Commonwealth Office,
— A Security Service as established and defined under the Security Service Act 1989,
— An Intelligence Service as established and defined under the Intelligence Services Act 1994,
— Police Forces of all Crown Dependencies,
— Police and Military Forces of all British Overseas Territories as defined in the British Overseas Territories Act 2002.

The idea that the Police might be interested in the same rifle the Army has already enticed the Daily Mail's interest. The real question, to me, is what this new assault rifle is for, especially considering that there are a lot of SA80 unused that could be considered before throwing money into a new weapon.
Especially considering that the Key User Requirements listed are so uninpressive to be depressing:

1 – The User shall be provided with a system that is capable of firing all in-service 5.56mm ammunition including special natures. Remarks: The exception is Blank 5.56mm ammo where it must work with only one of the in-service variants. Manufacturers must notify whether their system has been optimised for M400 or UK long nosed type blank ammo which will then be used as appropriate during trials.

2 – The User shall have an inherently accurate system in all configurations. Threshold MOE: Extreme Spread (ES) of a 5 round group at 100m not to exceed 1 Miliradian (Mil) / 3.375MOA (100mm at 100m).

3 – The User shall be provided with a system that is capable of fitting all optical ancillaries in-line without the need for additional zeroing procedures. Remarks: The User shall have the ability to mount devices along the entire length of the top attachment rail for maximum efficiency. Threshold MOE: US Mil Std 1913 Accessory Rail. Objective MOE: STANAG 4694 Ed 1 Accessory Rail

4 – The User shall have a system that he can quickly adjust in order to operate at maximum efficiency when moving in and out of confined spaces. Threshold MOE: Adjustable Stock

5 – The User shall have a system capable of automatic and semi-automatic operation. Threshold MOE: The ability to select single shot or automatic fire. Objective MOE: The ability to select single shot, burst (2-3 rd) and automatic fire.

6 – The User shall be provided with a system that can be fired from any recognised fire position.

7 – The User shall be provided with a weapon (no optic, UGL or other ancillaries fitted) with an empty magazine and iron sight fitted that is light in weight. Threshold MOE: 4.2kg.

8 – The User shall have a system that minimises the potential of giving away his location or disrupting his vision when fired. Threshold MOE: No worse audible and visible signature than current flash hider and suppressor system. Impact on POA / POI no worse than the current system. Suppressive system to be attachable and removable within 10 Secs.

9 – The User shall have a modular system that allows him to change configurations and then operate safely. Threshold MOE: With armourer support. Objective MOE: Without armourer support. Remarks: The maximum overall length with buttstock fully extended (excluding suppressor) in its longest configuration is not to exceed 960mm. The maximum overall length with buttstock fully extended (excluding suppressor) in its shortest configuration is not to exceed 810mm.

10 – The User shall have a system that is capable of operating in the following climatic conditions A2, A3, B1, B2, B3, C0, C1, M1 and M2 as per DEFSTAN 00-35 Part 4.

11 – The User shall be provided with a system that has a very high probability of achieving the BFMs and Tasks without any stoppages or failures. Threshold MOE: Probability of 98 % without suppressor fitted.

12 – The User shall have a system that is supportable in accordance with the Support requirements to be defined in the Invitation to Tender.
UK MOD has selected Simunition® man-marking ammunition for certain training activities. All weapons proposed to meet the MARS requirement must offer Simunition® compatibility, which may be accomplished using third-party products. Any proposal that is dependent on introducing a different man-marking training solution will not be considered.

Obviously the rifle will be required to be compatible with a range of designated in-service items that interface with the rifle, including underslung grenade launcher, day sight, flash and sound suppressors.
Delivery is desired from April 2014 at the earliest, and should be completed by February 2016 at the latest. The contract is for as many as 30.000 rifles.

Now, some observations.

4.2 Kg empty and without optic...? You call that light? Sure, it is the threshold requirement and the tender document specifies

"These KURs will be evolved into a more detailed System Requirement Document (SRD) which will be issued in due course. There may be supplementary or additional System Requirements taking account of UK Police and Home Office requirements for firearms."

but still, it is depressing to say the least. What is this rifle meant to achieve that weapons already available cannot offer? The SA80, which is notoriously not a light weapon, weights 4.13 kg empty but with a SUSAT optic installed and 4.98 kg loaded and with optic installed. And it is just 785 mm long, one of its best features, making it very agile.

The weight figures above are for the L85A2 in its standard incarnation. However, thousands of SA80 were further modified with a new forward handguard provided by Daniel Defense incorporating a quadruple Picatinny rail adaptor system, conforming to Military Standard 1913, fitted to the 12, three, six and nine o'clock positions. A downgrip has been provided attached to the bottom rail, and this incorporates a foldable bipod. At the time, Jane's said that the first order would be for around 8000, with options for a further 15.000, but i don't know how many were effectively ordered. The systems works well, and has been well received for what i know: one of those things that would be very desirable to bring into Core budget and roll out on the wider SA80 family.
In 2011, the Magpul Industries polymer-made EMAG magazine was introduced to replace the previous, heavier steel one, achieving a weight saving considerable (from 249 grams to 130), with a million magazines on order over a 4-year period. On a typical load of 12 magazines, a soldier ends up carrying 1.56 kg less than before: definitely not bad.

It would be interesting to know how the weight of the SA80 changed with all the latest changes: SUSAT replaced by ELCAN Spectre 4x, new handguard, downgrip and new magazine.
The Specter weights 640 grams, more than the old SUSAT at around 417 gs, but of course the biggest factor is the new handguard and downgrip, of which i unfortunately do not know the weight.

These two images show the L85A2 in its latest, modernized form. In the bottom picture the downgrip-bipod can be seen. In both images, the SA80 is fitted with an ACOG sight, a number of which were also procured as UOR. As part of the Future Integrated Soldier Technology (FIST) the Army has selected the Elcan Specter as standard day sight. Around 11.000 have already been ordered and are replacing the SUSAT in Afghanistan.

Anyway, a 4.2 kg empty and without optic is a ridiculously high threshold weight, on that i have no doubts.
Lenght of 960 mm max is enough to exclude the M16, but it is not a particularly impressive requirement either. It is easily met by many rifles available on the market, such as the HK416, Beretta ARX160, XM8 and others.

In practice, at least for now, the requirements for this new rifle are as relaxed and unambitious as they can be.  There is nothing at all innovative or ambitious in any way about the KURs.

This order is not about a SA80 replacement, at least for now, but nonetheless the compatibility with grenade launchers, suppressors and other devices aim to fighting units which need a lot of firepower. So, who needs the new weapon?

Thinking about it, the only "certain military units" that could be interested are the SAS, SBS, the Pathfinder platoon and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment. These units are all known to have never really fallen in love with the SA80, and are normally seen working with M16 and M4 variants and derivates, mainly Diemaco C7 and C8, procured from Canada. These rifles are aging, and the M4/C8, which is a favorite due to its small sizes, has proven very, very vulnerable to dusty environments. The US army and Marines have been in some real trouble with their weapons, and the results of their tests are incredibly worrisome. In extreme dust tests, the M4 jammed on average once every 68 rounds fired, and the 10 barrels used during the trial had all to be replaced as they were worn out.
The canadian variants might be doing better (hopefully), but being essentially the same weapons they are likely to be in trouble as well, more than justifying the hunt for a suitable replacement.
I always find it weird that these units continue to hesitate in approaching the bullpup rifle design: surely a more compact weapon with the same barrel and firepower should be very attractive, not just for urban warfare and agility in general, but because it would help when launching with parachute too, but we have to trust their experience and judgement, i guess.
On the matter of weight, instead, i just cannot see why they'd put the threshold requirement so high up the scale. Surely reduction of weight carried by the soldier is a priority: perhaps they trust industry for putting forwards suitable weapon systems among which they can make a selection.

The number of 30.000 rifles mentioned in the tender document obviously is much higher than required for re-equipping these relatively small elite formations, but the number could be reached easily depending on how many of the potential customers in the long list provided are effectively serious about acquiring a new weapon. 

Many weapon-makers are likely to be interested: XM8, SCAR, HK416, Beretta ARX160, even the Israeli TAVOR, are all likely to be proposed, as a request of the UK MOD does always generate a lot of interest. Besides, 30.000, albeit not a great number in this field, is an interesting quantity, especially in times of crisis. 

We will see if the MOD actually finances this procurement, or if its ends up delayed/cancelled or changes in some way. It will be interesting to see where this new MARS goes.


  1. Gabriele

    I think thast you have probably hit the nail on the head when you say:

    "The only "certain military units" that could be interested are the SAS, SBS, the Pathfinder platoon and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment. These units are all known to have never really fallen in love with the SA80."

    That and the rest of the paragrpah that follows are probably very relevant, I think.

    1. It's the only explanation i can think of. The SA80A2 has overcome its historical problems. It took money, but the rifle is now at its best, and arguably is under many aspects the best weapon around. For example, it is said to be extremely accurate.
      There is no need, no appetite and, moreover, no money for replacing it for the moment.

      Instead, the M16s and M4s that are around in the special units present good reasons for thinking about a replacement.
      So this is my interpretation of the facts, based on what we know at the moment.

      What i would personally like to see in the coming years is orders for some more L129A1 sharpshooters, more Minimi in the 7.62 mm variant (a number has already been acquired, but more are needed), and definitive adoption of the lighter polymer magazines.
      These are the urgencies i see in the Small Arms voice for the general Army.

      If around 600 L115A3 have effectively been acquired, the sniper requirement is pretty much covered.
      I'd like to see some more investment in .50 sniper rifles, though, for anti-material duty: in the british army they haven't yet gained as much of a foothold as in other armies in NATO.

  2. SA80 OSD was 2020 in 2007 and then slipped to 2025. There could be a number of things going on: procurement of a new platform from 2014 could allow all the SA80s to be replaced by 2020. It could also be that SA80s in Afghanistan have expended so many rounds that they are actually wearing out and are in need of replacement. Alternatively it could be a case that someone has just discovered that the Army has a collection of SA80s in various states of modernisation and wear that are also notoriously heavy and not very well balanced and is wondering whether a wholesale replacement may offer a solution. Someone might be looking at some sort of UOR or this could be an SAS/SBS/SRS/SFSG requirement.

    Alternatively its an exercise in someone justifying their office in DE&S.

  3. Personally, I think we should have a bullpup rifle chambered in 6.8mm cartridge. It should also be fully ambidextrous and with the fire selector by the pistol grip and trigger. Also, plenty of rails for sights and whatever. I guess it is way to early for a rail gun rifle!

    1. Yeah because 6.8mm is a widely used NATO round isn't it! :|

    2. And we should care because...?

  4. The accuracy threshold requirement is pretty lamentable.

  5. My guess is they are running out of L85A2 Chassis due to the intensity of use in Afghanistan. By moving certain units over to a new platform early allows the remaining L85A2 to be husbanded to OSD. I can see the most deployable units like the Paras and Commandos along with various specialised pathfinder units getting a new rifle whilst the best remaining L85A2 remain with the less deployable units. That model has advantages in that it avoids the problems with how the L85A1 was introduced. It means the entire army will still have a combat capable rifle rather then have a big bang of a new type being introduced all at once with the associated issues entailed. The new rifle can be purchased in rolling batches until you reach a point there are no L85A2 are left.

    1. That might also be an explanation, by the Special Forces and SOF units remain a possibility. The Telegraph has just reported that the SAS is trialing a series of rifles to replace their current weaponry.
      It also says that they are aiming for a 7.62mm weapon, while this contract notice is for 5.56mm rifles, but it is not necessarily a conflict: requirement changes during contract definition aren't a new thing. And many, if not all of the weapons likely to be trialed and considered are offered in multiple calibres.

      The initial gate for SA80 replacement is tentatively indicated in 2014, but we'll see how things evolve.

  6. Another thing to consider is the UK no-longer has a capability to volume produce infantry small arms with the closure of the RO factories and Sterling.

    Anything procured will have to be off the shelf and from a foreign supplier.

    What is going on in France could well influence matters, the French are having to urgently replace their FAMAS due to them

    A) Being even older the the L85
    b) Lack of availability of Steel case M193 rounds that the gun eats.

    The French army had to to a UOR of HK416 for Afghanistan recently and that rifle is a favoured replacement by their army. Not that it will win out in my opinion, my money would be on the Thales F90 which is an Australian redesign of the Stey AUG. It would no doubt be built in the French state armament factories and would offer an interesting opportunity for the UK. Once the French finish servicing orders for their own army the factories would be fully set up for a large UK procurement of the same rifle with the added advantage that the French have swallowed the production set up costs. It would also perfectly fit in with the spirit of our recent defence agreement with France making our armed force more interoperable.

  7. If they really have to replace the L85, I would like the HK G36 series, possibly the 'Kurz' variant.

  8. "And it is just 785 mm long, one of its best features, making it very agile. "

    I think I'll have to disagree with you on the SA80 there, as a side-ejecting bullpup it's inherently non-ambidextrous.

    If the new rifle is for special forces, maybe they'd do well to use a long-stroke gas piston, reliability being a greater concern in smaller units.


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