British troops get nifty techno-gunsights
Limited outbreak of common sense at the MoD?
DSEi The Ministry of Defence has announced a new £150m purchase of hi-tech weapon sights and optics, saying that the new kit will "improve soldier lethality" and "support the British defence industrial base". Serving soldiers have disparaged only a little of the new kit - and much of the money will in fact be spent overseas.
Here's looking at you.
The new purchase was announced earlier this week at the DSEi arms fair in London, with prime contractor Thales UK keen to show off the new gadgetry for use by British troops fighting in Afghanistan. The £150m will come from funds earmarked for the UK's Future Integrated Soldier Technology (FIST) programme. Troops will receive the following new bits of kit, which the Reg has since discussed with serving infantrymen:
• Underslung 40mm grenade launchers, which have been fitted beneath the rifle of one man in each fire-team of four since 2003, will now get new sights - and also new "fire-control systems". The 40mm launcher is a low-velocity weapon and has to be pointed high above the target in order to lob its grenades any distance, a process which calls for range to be estimated accurately.
The new fire-control gadget to be mounted alongside the launcher will use a laser rangefinder to work out the correct elevation angle automatically - but our military sources say it makes the rifle/launcher combo unrealistically heavy for combat use, and that troops will find ways to get rid of it.
• Thermal sights will be provided for rifles, marksman's weapons and light machineguns. These can be used to detect hidden enemies and bombs while on patrol, and function even in total darkness - when the regular light-amplifying night vision gear now in use doesn't work. This stuff is already in use by some units, and is considered good by our sources.
• New Lightweight Day Sights will be provided, replacing the SUSAT* sights which came in when the SA80 weapons were introduced during the 1980s. SUSAT was very popular in its day (unlike the SA80s, which were only sorted out twenty years later in a German factory), but according to our sources the new sights are much better, offering improved field of view and a clearer picture. "A gleaming bit of kit," we're told.
• The new thermal scopes, in a popular bit of good sense, have open Close Quarter Battle Sights mounted on top of them. This means that a soldier in a close-up gunfight doesn't need to peer through a scope as he shoots, and lose track of what's happening around him. This gets the thumbs up as well.
• Fire-team commanders will get new "Target Locating System" binoculars containing laser rangefinders and digital compasses, allowing them to mark things they see accurately on a map. This is actually quite basic stuff nowadays, and even in the British army forward artillery spotters and similar specialists have had such kit for some time. It's new for ordinary infantrymen to have it, however.
There is the option to hook up the binos to a sat nav and a data net, so calculating the coordinates of a target and sending them to other units automatically, but it wasn't clear at DSEi how much of this capability will be delivered to British infantry and our informants were also unsure. One does note that the only current option for infantry data transmission, the Bowman section-leader's radio, has a very poor reputation.
• There will also be some ruggedised digital cameras and simple periscopes for peering over walls and round corners without getting shot. The FIST project was originally expected to include on-gun cameras feeding an image to a helmet display for this sort of purpose (those ignorant of shooting realities also thought the weapon might be fired usefully in such a position). It seems that an outbreak of realism has occurred in the MoD.
Supporting British industry, eh? Not so much, actually
Overall, then, most of the gear is necessary and popular. Refreshingly, the MoD seems also to be breaking with tradition and simply purchasing stuff from the firms best able to supply it rather than trying to use the buy to subsidise UK industry. Despite minister Quentin Davies' assertion at DSEi that the FIST cash will "support the British defence industrial base", actually it seems that at least half the money will go to overseas firms.
The grenade fire-control gadgets and the commanders' target-marking binos (two of the most expensive systems) are to come from Switzerland, for example. Swiss provider Vectronix say they'll be making 92 million francs on the deal, about £53m - more than a third of the total spend, and that's without allowing for prime contractor Thales' cut off the top. The new day-sights, another pricy piece of kit, will come from Canada and the periscopes from Israel. The only substantial UK buy is the thermal sights, from Qioptiq.
There are really only a few criticisms one could offer here. One is the too-heavy grenade firecontrol system, and even that, we're told, would be useful for training grenadiers until they learn to shoot without it. Another is the fact that none of the new gear will actually reach the field until 2011. The MoD says that this is to allow time for training, but given that a lot of the gear is either in-service already in limited numbers or is very simple to use, this still seems slow.
Finally, only a quite limited amount of gear is being bought - enough to kit out 95 companies of troops. The army, marines and RAF "rock ape" ground units together have at least 125 rifle companies or equivalent and can generate 30 or 40 more in some circumstances**.
All the same, it seems like a welcome change from the usual realities of British kit procurement, and all the more impressive in that this is core-budget funding rather than special war supplements.
Apparently there's to be another buy of similar magnitude for comms gear within a few months. Let's hope there isn't a sudden return to business as usual. ®
*Sighting Unit Small Arms Trilux
**As when a battalion converts its Support (heavy weapons) company into a rifle company for counter-insurgency duties, for instance. Admittedly this is much less common nowadays with the shift from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan.