The last 25 years has seen the United Kingdom and its closest allies drawn into a number of conflicts and peacekeeping missions around the world.
Understandably, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have held the attention of the media, the British army is active in a number of different countries in peacekeeping, training or humanitarian capacities including Cyprus, Kenya, Somalia and Sierra Leone.
Whilst army and the armed forces in general, have undergone a great many innovations in that time, the standard issue SA80 has been in service since 1985. The A2 came into service at the turn of the century, it’s still a 31 year old weapon that wasn’t designed with the current theatres in mind.
In fact, the SA80’s transcript reads like a cadet washout rather than exemplar of military might. The original release of the rifle was a disaster that took 15 years to sort out.
Shoddy materials meant the locking pins, if replaced in a hurry, could pierce the thin steel of the body. Magazines had a habit of dropping out, triggers would stick and the original SUSAT optic, if cracked, could poison the firer if they didn’t notice.
Whilst the SA80A2 has seen a number of these problems remedied, there have still been documented instances of overmatch when compared to the venerable AK-47, particularly around overheating issues.
The Russian built rifle was first introduced in 1949 and is one of the most widely used firearms in the world. Approximately 75 million have been built and is in use by 107 countires around the globe including a number of guerrilla and terrorist movements.
The simple reason for this unbridled popularity – and the reason for its 67 years of service – is simple: it’s basic, it’s cheap to manufacture, it’s affordable (comparatively) and it’s incredibly durable.
The AK-47 and its surrogates track record of firing under the most adverse conditions is well documented. It is less acurrate and has a shorter range than its western counterparts – the SA80A2 and M4 specifically – but its rate of fire and larger calibre ammunition tends to more than make up for it, especially in close quarters.
So with the SA80A2 and the M4 being outmatched by a weapon twice their age what does the future hold for our armed forces?
In the short term it seems UK Special Forces have been given access to the Colt Canada C8 Carbine, a lighter, less complex and more reliable weapon but still a 20 year old design.
The apparent plateau in modern assault weapons is causing concern for many not least amongst them the soldiers in the field. In 2008, 8 US Marines lost their lives during a prolonged engagement with Taliban forces.
Weapons failiure was cited as a direct contributing factor as sustained fire had casued barrels to overheat and the weapons to jam.
With the AK and newer AKMs capable of firing comfortably at between 120-150 rounds per minute with 7.76mm cartridges compared to 90 rounds with 5.56mm cartridges, there is a clear and troubling disparity.
This begs the question – what next for our armed forces?
A firm grasp on requirements seems to be the first step. The theatres of modern combat are dramatically different from those of the mid-twentieth century. They are also very different than those imagined during the Cold War.
Also the requirements placed on an individual soldier too have changed over time. Soldiers are required to be more proficient in more areas than they were 50 years ago.
The nature of combat also means sections of infantry can be isolated and required to fight for extended periods of time without support.
The US built FN SCAR and ACR offers possible solutions being light weight and durable. In recent tests the SCAR recorded 75% fewer stoppages than the M4 during prolonged firing in high dust environments.
The modular designs also makes both rifles easier to maintain and also allows for two barrel types which can provide needed versatility in combat environments when 5.56mm ammunition is in short supply.
The plateau could be simply because the current wave of newer assault rifles represent the best balance of form and function available within the bounds of cost and materials afforded to the manufacturers.
However, this does nothing for those being outmatched by, on paper, an inferior weapon. Improvements in materials to make weapons lighter, barrels more durable and mechanisms longer lasting are all things to improve combat effectiveness and save lives.
Smart aummunition designed to maximise armour penetration, stopping power and accuracy, improved optics, stabilisation technology and enhanced magazine performance are all things that could make a tremendous difference to a combat situation.
Perhaps the 21st Century assault rifle won’t be a dramatic leap in design or something out of science fiction but but refinements on a proven, time honoured formula.