Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Forget the small arms! fix the army!

Stuff has reported that the Defence Force is undertaking a review of its collection of small-arms. Apparently this will include looking for a replacement for its FN Minimi light machine-gun and new ammunition for its AusSteyr rifles. It will not, however include a review of its 13,000 Steyrs as many are in pristine condition.

13,000 Steyrs! No wonder they are in pristine condition. That's more than one assault rifle for every man and woman in the employ of the entire New Zealand defence force! I wouldn't be surprised if some of these Steyrs have never been handled. How on earth did the Ministry of Defence ever let the Defence Force get away with such a ridiculous spend-up?

Admittedly in contrast to aircraft or ships, rifles are very cheap items of equipment. But the purchase of such a ridiculously large number demonstrates one again the feast or famine mentality of the Defence Force and why it cannot be trusted to behave sensibly.

The largest NZDF deployment for 50 years was the Interfet mission to Timor. At its height 1200 personnel were deployed in theatre. Many of them worked aboard Navy frigates and didn't need a rifle. Even if every single one of them was issued with an assault rifle, and even if you had two in reserve for every deployed weapon you would still only need a third of the number of weapons the NZDF holds.

Then there is the problem of looking after 1200 assault rifles. They are not exactly handy items of equipment. While they are a tool of the trade for the infantry for non-infantry personnel such as drivers, engineers, storemen, mechanics, cooks etc they are a bloody nuisance. You can't work with them slung on you so you have to put them in a big pile and make sure someone guards them because in unstable nations such weapons are apt to grow legs and wander off somewhere.

When I looked at a counter-factual force I came to the conclusion that the actual need for assault rifles was not enormous. Essentially there were only two battalion sized units that really needed them and rather than buy an average example I concluded we should buy the best. That meant the (US) Special Operations Command Army Rifle from FN Herstal for the special forces ( expanded) and the Singapore Army Rifle 21 (SAR-21) for the territorials (grenadiers). The FN is chosen because it is very reliable and adaptable which is what real gun users want, while the SAR was chosen because it is effective and pretty idiot proof which is what you need for part-timers.

The smallest infantry unit in the counter-factual force is a team of four (two pairs) consisting of two with rifles and 40mm grenade launchers, one with a rifle with a sniper scope and one with a minimi light machine gun. This provides for ample fire-power, precision and non-lethal capability where needed. The minimi is used by SOCOM and the SAS so it has some pretty strong endorsement as a weapon. In some cases other weapons such as AT-rifles, 60mm mortars or 7.62x51 sniper rifles might replace one of these weapons depending on the mission.

But the really important weapon turned out to be the auxiliaries weapon. That is the one used by the drivers, engineers, storemen, mechanics, cooks etc. The NZDF uses the Sig Sauer and Glock pistols but I wasn't happy with the relatively short range and low firepower of these weapons if challenged by hostiles with AK-47/74/Ms. What was needed was a fully automatic weapon with a reasonable range (say to 100-200 metres) but which could be readily holstered so that it needn't get in the way of people who were otherwise busy. It should also be able to fit a laser night-sight and a silencer so that it could be used as a back-up weapon by special-forces troops. Well I looked, and I looked and I looked. And I concluded the only weapon which comes in a range of sizes from small carbine to small pistol that met all these criteria was the Israel Military Industries Uzi.

Yes the Uzi is old, yes the Uzi lifts on firing, yes the open bolt design isn't as safe as more modern technology. But it is field tested and easily holsterable in a way that simply isn't true of later model submachine-guns. It also uses the relatively low cost 9x19 parabellum round used in most pistols and is still in use not only in Israel but around the world.

But the main difference between my counter-factual force and the Defence Force is that the Defence Force still thinks it is a division in waiting. It looks to the glory days of World War Two and keeps alive territorial units which, quite frankly, it shouldn't need.

The object of the counter-factual force was to show that by creating a force with more emphasis on quality over quantity and a more flexible structure for responding to all hazards it was possible to invest in the best equipment for all possible challenges the force might face, rather than simply buying in bulk in case it might be needed some-time which appears to have been the philosophy behind the acquisition of so many army systems from rifles to LAV IIIs.

What is needed is not a review of small-arms but a review of the entire army structure.