The Australian Army fields a diverse range of infantry weaponry, which will be progressively refreshed, enhanced or replaced and new capability acquired under a pair of new projects, Land 159 and Land 4108.
Some of the systems under consideration would be brand new. For example, the ADF has never fielded loitering munitions, an emerging capability. It’s not that any of the current systems are in any way deficient. But the technology continues to advance and the ADF wants to retain a capability advantage for all of its weapons.
Projects Land 159 and Land 4108 present an opportunity to acquire and integrate new and improved soldier systems, progressively rolled out from 2023 to 2028. Both projects are seeking to provide optimised systems to ensure lethality and capability advantage for the ADF, rather than simply providing stand-alone weapon replacements.
Land 159 covers small arms – assault rifles, handguns, shotguns, sniper weapons and light medium and heavy machine guns and even fighting knives. Land 4108 takes in direct fire support weapons – short medium and long range weapons, lightweight mortar, grenades, command detonated munitions, unmanned weapon systems and loitering munitions.
The Defence Integrated Investment Program (IIP) cites a nominal cost of $2-3 billion for these projects over the period 2016-29. This represents a lot of capability for a lot of personnel at fraction of the cost of Future Submarines or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
In all, the projects cover 21 different weapon systems. Also being considered are the enabling capabilities such as the full suite of integration requirements including; platform, digital and ancillary, training and training simulation and munitions.
The Soldier Combat System Program in Army Headquarters owns the two projects. Lieutenant Colonel Adam Gower, who runs the two projects out of Army headquarters, said the projects have been grouped together as they represented an opportunity to refresh all of the ADF small arms and direct fire support weapons fleets.
“That’s not just the assault rifle but everything from pistols to machine guns to sniper weapon systems,” LTCOL Gower said.
Lieutenant Colonel Byron Cocksedge, integrated project manager for the two projects within the Soldier Combat System Program is working closely with their counterparts in the Defence Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG). LTCOL Cocksedge said they were taking a systems of systems approach, with the soldier at the centre.
“For the soldier combat system there are six pillars – lethality, mobility, survivability, situational awareness, sustainability and , training and doctrine,” he said. “Land 159 and Land 4108 sit in the lethality pillar. Rather than trying to think in traditional terms of pure projects, we are looking at and integrated and optimised system of systems of capabilities for the soldiers.
“In other areas it may be there is new and emerging technology that means we can deliver more precise lethal effects much more easily and in a way that means our soldiers expose themselves less to danger.”
The two projects kicked off last year, with Gate Zero achieved in the third quarter. Gate Two is not until 2022 followed by the rollout of the capability in due course. LTCOL Cocksedge said the first industry engagement was held in November, followed by the first request for information.
“We are seeking information from industry on how they may be able to approach both projects in an innovative way, to be either a managing contractor, a prime systems integrator or a prime vendor and be able to provide all the capability or several capability streams,” he said. “We had 34 responses to the Request for Information, which was pretty encouraging.”
The second industry engagement event was held at the end of July this year to provide an update on developments since November and outline some of the emerging user requirements.
The ADF fields a wide range of small arms and infantry weapons, many acquired over the last two decades to meet particular operational requirements.
Where once the Army operated a single precision rifle system, it now has five – the Heckler and Koch HK417 designated marksman rifle in 7.62 NATO, AW50F anti-materiel rifle in 50BMG, Blaser Tactical 2 in .338 Lapua Magnum, Knight Armaments SR-25 in 7.62 NATO and Accuracy International SR-98, also in 7.62 NATO.
The standard infantry rifle is the recently introduced into service enhanced F88 (EF-88). It is progressively replacing the Steyr F88, originally acquired in the late 1980s to replace the L1A1 SLR rifle, which was adopted in the late 1950s. The original rifles were a licence-produced version of the Austrian Steyr AUG, manufactured by ADI, now Thales, at Lithgow, NSW and rolled out across the ADF in late 1980s and early 1990s.
Under project Land 125 Phase 3C, the F88 was upgraded to what is now termed the Enhanced F-88 (EF-88), with second pass approval in 2015. This is a very different rifle to that which soldiers carried in Somalia and East Timor, with its fixed optical sight and limited ability to attach accessories.
The operating mechanism remains the same but EF-88 features a range of improvements, most obviously the long top rail for easy attachment of optical sights, image intensifiers or thermal sights and the under barrel mount for a grenade launcher.
LTCOL Gower explained that Army is about to start the third tranche of EF-88 deliveries. Tranche one delivered the EF-88 to units in North Queensland, including the 3rd Brigade and its supporting elements and other local units.
Tranche two delivered to south-east Queensland, including 7th and 17th Brigades and some of their reinforcing Army Reserve units, along with the RAAF and Navy. Tranche three will equip the 1st Brigade in Darwin and Army training institutions, most notably the Army Recruit Training Centre and the Royal Military College-Duntroon. Tranche four will equip remaining units and provide repair and attrition stocks. The project will reach final operating capability in 2022.
So, having adopted an updated version of a proven capability, is the Army now looking at replacing the EF-88 in favour of something new but as yet undecided? The answer is probably not in the short term, but the ADF will keep looking at the development of the threats small arms capability to ensure that a capability advantage is maintained for the close combatant
LTCOL Gower stated that both Army and CASG are now evaluating the performance of existing weapons systems to establish a baseline to ensure a systems of systems approach is taken to provide a capability advantage and lethality.
“We are going through a process to identify and evaluate what effects we want to be able to generate on the battlefield,” he said. “We are weapons agnostic to some degree. One option may be that we will look at the current weapons systems we have and decide that some weapons are performing pretty well and maybe look at a few small enhancements or the next version of that weapon.”
The original F-88’s low-powered optical sight was regarded as a significant improvement over the iron sights of its predecessor. The current core optic, the Raytheon ELCAN Specter DR, is better still – it was even chosen by the US Special Operations Command.
The Soldier Combat Systems Program has highlighted that the sights provide a real advantage, substantially increasing effective range. Retailing for more than $2,000 in the US, these precision items cost more than the weapon to which they attach.
Optics have advanced significantly in the last couple of decades, with potential to improve even further. The ideal would be a single lightweight unit incorporating optical and thermal sights, an image intensifier, laser rangefinder and datalink into the Army battle management system.
While the EF-88 is early in its life, that can’t be said for the issue handgun, the venerable Browning 9mm self-loading pistol, a design dating from 1935 and which entered Australian service in the 1960s. The current Australian variant, not that different to the original, dates from 1988.
But production ended earlier this year and the Original Equipment Manufacturer, FN Herstal of Belgium, will cease providing ongoing support. So Australia will need a replacement and there’s plenty to choose from.
Last year the US Army chose a new handgun, the SIG P320, to replace the Beretta M9, itself selected in 1985 to replace the Colt 1911. The US Army is on its third handgun in the period the Browning has remained in Australian service. So why not piggy-back on the US, which on one report was paying around US$200 per new handgun?
LTCOL Gower confirmed that the Soldier Combat System Program is certainly examining what our allies are doing but that isn’t a determining factor.
“We have to go through our own processes to make sure that our needs, which may be different to those of the US or others, are met first and foremost,” he said.
This early in Land 159 and Land 4108, no-one is yet nominating any particular capabilities as preferred kit. Army is in the requirements setting phase of the Capability Life Cycle – this involves capturing ADF combatant needs and articulating them as battlefield effects.
LTCOL Cocksedge CASG spokesman re-emphasised that this wasn’t just about procuring weapons.
“We are looking at all the ancillary pieces that contribute to realising the full capability advantage. We are also aiming to ensure fully optimised systems that enable full integration of platforms, training, better ammunition, new ammunition types, simulation, and targets that better replicate battlefield actors,” he said. “All of these things are really important. We have learned over the last 10 years or so that we have to take a holistic approach to replacing these capabilities and ensuring that they are fully integrated.”
Loitering munitions would be a new capability, though the concept has been around for decades. Most fielded systems such as the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Harop, are anti-radiation weapons, designed to fly in the vicinity of hostile radars, then attack the instant radar emissions are detected. These are large systems – Harop has a three metre wingspan with six hours of endurance – but smaller tactical systems are increasingly available for use down to platoon or section level.
The US AeroVironment Switchblade is a 2.5 kilogram single use fixed wing UAV with a tactical precision strike capability against land and maritime targets and even other UAVs. These have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Another is the IAI Rotem, a 4.5-kilogram quadcopter which feeds imagery from its sensors to a tablet computer. Should tactical circumstances dictate Rotem can be weaponised in the field with the addition of one or two standard Mark 26 hand grenades, turning it into a suicide drone. If not used in that role, the aircraft can safely return to its operator for use another day.
The ADF has used shotguns in various roles. Navy boarding parties routinely carry shotguns, as do special forces breaching teams – with suitable ammunition, a shotgun makes short work of door locks and hinges.
US forces have long employed shotguns as a devastating weapon for close quarter fighting. The ADF hasn’t indicated just what it has in mind.
In June Victorian firm DefendTex was awarded a $1.04 million contract to explore the development of a lightweight modular shotgun system, building on their presentation of technologies from the Army Innovation Day series.
One possibility is an under-barrel shotgun akin to the SL-40 grenade launcher which can be attached to the EF-88.
The long list of weapons systems under review contains some other interesting capabilities, such as remote weapons systems (RWS) and command detonated munitions. RWS, made by Kongsberg of Norway and EOS of Canberra, have seen active service in Iraq and Afghanistan aboard Australian Army ASLAV and Bushmaster vehicles. This versatile capability would appear to have a broader range of applications.
When it comes to command detonated munitions, the Army is familiar with one in particular, the US M18A1 Claymore mine. This dates from the Vietnam war and remains in inventory as a proven means of initiating an ambush or defending a position against massed attack. The US Army is now trialling a smaller version called the Mini-Multi-Purpose Infantry Munition which is not much bigger than a smartphone.
The Army is also familiar with mortars. The current F2 81mm mortar system can deliver a heavy weight of fire but at almost 40-kilograms, it’s not readily man portable.
Under consideration in Land 4108 is a lightweight mortar. Around the world, various systems are in service, such as the US M224, a 60mm mortar and the British M6-895 60mm mortar.
While most Australian infantry soldiers carry a Steyr, special forces, members of the Special Air Service and Commando Regiments, have long carried the US M4. That’s because the M4 design makes it more readily configurable with different sighting systems. It’s also more interoperable with weapons carried by partner special forces units.
The Soldier Combat Systems Program works with SOCOMD was part of the bigger capability development process employed within defence.
“We work very closely with them to make sure their specific requirements if possible, can be catered for in these projects,” LTCOL Gower said. “They do have some specific requirements that the conventional forces don’t but there are other mechanisms for them to acquire niche capabilities as required.”
This article first appeared in the September edition of ADM.