DONT BLAME THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE

My first experience of the SA80 rifle came a quarter of a century ago when I was young and it was new. Since then we have grown old together, though both of us have changed in many ways over the years.

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SA80 1985

Our initial encounter took place when, as a Junior Non Commissioned Officer. I attended the very first Section Commanders’ Battle Course along with 79 other men. The weapon was the replacement to the much heavier SLR. Because the magazine was behind the pistol grip, the SA80 was a much shorter rifle than its predecessor but its barrel length remained roughly the same ensuring accuracy. Its fully automatic capability was a direct result of experience from the Falklands war where the Argentinians use of the FN version of the SLR – complete with auto fire function – often left the British floundering in engagements.

On paper the SA80 seemed to mark a major advancement for the ‘poor bloody infantry’, but as I and my colleagues soon discovered the reality was rather less impressive. The fielding of the new weapon was done without adequate equipment checks, field trials and thought as to how it might integrate with other technological developments in fighting systems. In the jargon of this age it was a weapon not fit for purpose.

The SA80’s flaws were extensive. The magazine wouldn’t stay on the weapon – as you patrolled, should your body brush against the magazine release catch the magazine would fall off and rounds would be sent spinning all over the floor. The low-tech solution was to tie the magazine in place with a bit of string and a small locally purchased clip. If you wore mosquito repellent the rubber cheek-piece on the weapon would melt. The bayonet didn’t attached correctly. The bolt and recoil spring assembly were under-engineered and not strong enough to do the robust job they needed to. This led to major stoppages and soon it became known as an unreliable weapon in the heat of battle.

It was common for the strength of the spring to be insufficient to force the bolt carrier rearwards and so a new round was not picked up and fed into the breach after the previous one had been fired. This was assuming the spent cartridge case had been ejected at all, as it was also common for the extractor to rip off the base of the round so preventing its successful disposal.

Add in the fact that the weapon could only be fired by a right-handed soldier – if a ‘southpaw’ pulled the trigger he could expect a face-full of brass or at least the man beside him could – and it was unsurprising that the answer to all the British Army’s problems soon gained a questionable reputation, one that has proved hard to shake off. Even with the subsequent arrival of the new improved model, the SA80A2 that came without the faults which bedevilled its earlier namesake.

What the SA80A2 does retain is the accuracy of the original version, something that has only been enhanced by the ACOG sight.  Add to this the development of an under slung Grenade Launcher allowing it to fire 40mm HE grenades. A picatinny rail so the weapon can now except a down grip for close quarter battle, laser light module for night engagements and various other gadgets and gismos that would embarrass the US military, then you can see that the weapon has been developed into a seriously versatile fighting system.

Yet despite the changes the stigma remains. Performance might have improved but the new version looks like the old and essentially has the same name. It is all about confidence and that is something that is still missing after all these years. Many of my colleagues look longingly at the American M4 as an alternative to what they believe they are burdened with. In fact UK Special Forces already use the M4 or the C8 rather than the SA80A2 but then they always tend to have something other than standard issue kit regardless if it is better or not. It sets them apart from the average ‘green troops’ and underlines their elevated status by being different.

But to pine after the M4 ignores the facts. In side-by-side trials the UK weapon comes out on top almost every time. It has better accuracy; better penetration; better resilience to the harsh conditions found in both the desert and the jungle. Stoppages are low and it now does what it should always have done – combine a reliable, fast-rate of fire with the characteristics to make it a formidable weapon in the closest proximity to the enemy.

During the six months I spent in Afghanistan in 2010-11 I fired over 900 rounds without any stoppages. In 2008 I fired thousands of rounds, again without a single stoppage, not one. It was the same back in 2006 on my first tour of Helmand.

I am happy to fight with whatever I am given, as are most soldiers because that is what we do – dare I say it the Irish more than most. We like to fight – we find excuses allowing us to engage the enemy, rather than excuses not to. But still we are soldiers and as such we will always moan about something or other. And if there is one thing that has been moaned about more than others over the past 25 years it is the SA80. My fighting life if probably over. Perhaps it is time now for the SA80 to also leave the battlefield quietly after 27 years.

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SA80A2 with ACOG sight, picatinny rail and down grip.

FROM TUMBLEDOWN TO THE TALIBAN – THIRTY YEARS OF THE INFANTRYMAN

Things were different in my day“, say the old soldiers and they would be right. For while the veterans of the Falklands share the same courage and tenacity as those who have come in the thirty years since, there are a million things that would be unrecognisable to the infantrymen who shed blood, sweat and tears on Tumbledown, Goose Green and Wireless Ridge.

Yet it is what happened on those rocky outcrops in the southern Atlantic that lead to much of what has changed, not all of it for the better. Even as the UK’s armed forces – and the nation with them – celebrated the raising once more of the Union Flag over Port Stanley it was clear to many senior military figures that victory had been secured despite significant operational and technical weaknesses: hence the review which took place in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.

It is true to say life would never be the same again for the ‘poor bloody infantry‘.

An early casualty of the review was the SLR, a rifle that had been in service for the best part of 35 years. The rifle was heavy, inaccurate, had no automatic capability and couldn’t utilise the NATO standard ammunition of the time. The SLR was replaced by the SA80, which, though itself was not immune to problems, is now a seriously good weapon to go into battle with.

The old DMS boots – complete with cloth ankle wraps known as putties – were also put out to pasture in an attempt to finally eradicate immersion foot (or to give it its more common name, trench foot) a miserable affliction suffered by generations of soldiers over hundreds of years.

For the infantryman it seemed as if everything was going in the right direction. The transformation of mechanised infantry to armoured infantry with the introduction of the Warrior IFV and the change from British standard equipment to NATO standard both had positive effects and by the end of the 1980s the tri-services were regarded as amongst the best in the world, a product of their military successes and increasingly good equipment.

But as the last decade of the 20th Century opened soldiers started to suffer a crisis of confidence. No longer was their mission simply to ‘close with and kill the enemy‘. ‘Our boys‘ were increasingly being parachuted into volatile and complicated intra-national conflicts, not to wage war but to keep the peace. Despite valiant efforts from all concerned it was often a sure-fire way of generating confusion, engendering frustration and fostering a sense of impotence. Across the Balkans there was more than one British soldier who felt guilt in the face of ethnic atrocities, not because of what they had done to help, but what they weren’t allowed to do.

Yet for your average serviceman there would be little time to dwell on these perceived failings. Early in the new millennium everything changed again with the attack on the Twin Towers. The War on Terror quickly followed and if things weren’t busy enough, in 2003 we decided to invade Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

What defined these conflicts as much as anything was the scrutiny they received amongst the general public? Armchair generals came into their own. Sitting back in their seats they were bombarded with a fusillade of rolling news, comment and uncensored footage appearing on outlets such as Live Leak. The military struggled to stem the flow with seemingly as much time being spent on the media plan as the battle plan. One consequence of the unrelenting spotlight and the horrors it too often portrayed was a growing sense of risk aversion amongst the political class. Soldiers have always known that in war ‘shit happens‘, only now that shit is on view to one and all and not everyone is comfortable with what they see.

One of the other things the unblinking eye of the camera also picked up was the sheer number of skills your ‘ordinary‘ soldier now needed to function adequately in the face of the enemy.

More than cannon fodder, troops might better be described as technicians, familiar as they are with 6 to 8 weapons systems and numerous types of signals equipment including satellite communications. They are also trained to near-paramedic standard in field medicine and can drive various complicated vehicles. On top of that they need to be master tacticians, great diplomats and able to display excellent cultural sensitivity, not just to the population of the nation they are campaigning in, but also to the cohorts of international forces they will invariably now be fighting alongside.

They do all of this encumbered by body armour akin to the protection a knight of the fifteen hundreds might wear. Sacrificing mobility as a method of force protection with cumbersome equipment, which was far easier for politicians to explain to a nervous public.

Yet for all the advances over the past three decades there are some things which would be depressingly familiar to the infantryman of the 1980s, most of them welfare related.

In some cases, rather than mark time, things have taken a step backward. The introduction of Pay as You Dine a simple example. If nothing else the Falklands veteran could be sure of getting three square meals a day, essential for the rigorous travails regularly endured. In 2012 there is many a young soldier who is foregoing meals either because they have failed to budget correctly and have no cash, or else consciously decide to spend their earnings on things other than sustenance. It could easily be argued that soldiers have no more right to a free lunch than anyone else yet if we expect our soldiers risk their lives at the whim of politicians the least wean do is ensure they are adequately prepared for the hardships and dangers they must face.

Throw in sub-standard accommodation, an issue the MOD are making massive efforts to address, and it is easy to see why some men actually relish the prospect of going on operation because they know that the housing and the grub will both be as least as good as back home and more importantly it will free. On top of this an extra ‘battle bounty’ or ‘operational allowance’ allows him to save for things he couldn’t normally afford.

Is this the way we should be encouraging our men to fight: through financial inducements? When I joined the army, one month before the start of the Falklands War, I knew my pay would be poor, conditions harsh and I might die cold and lonely in a country I knew little about.  But in the good old days it was all about the moral component, a reason to fight, a country and people worth fighting for. Today it seems money is the motivation. And that is something no one who served in the Falklands would regard as progress.