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Dangerously vulnerable

Posted by Richard Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Just when I thought I had finished my "defence paper", a little niggle invaded my brain. Everything else in the British Army seems to be going "European" – except the uniforms: those are Chinese - but the one thing I had not thought about was the rifle.

Most readers will know – even if they are only dimly aware – that the current "individual weapon" in the British Army is the much-maligned SA80. What I had certainly forgotten was how old it is as a design. It was phased into service between 1986 and 1993 and, although it has since been modified, it is nearly 20 years old and will need replacing in the not too distant future.

However, the rifle was actually manufactured by the then state-owned Royal Ordnance company, and this no longer exists. Royal Ordnance was privatised in 1987 and acquired by BAE Aerospace, later to become BAE Systems. One of the first things BAE did was close down the manufacturing site in Enfield where the SA80 had been made and move the operation to a new, state-of-the-art factory in Nottingham.

Nevertheless, that did not last. The factory was closed in 2002 and what had been the Royal Ordnance business relocated to Glascoed in Wales under the title BAE Systems Land Systems (Munitions and Ordnance) Ltd (UK). At that facility, there appears to be no large scale manufacturing capability for small arms.

Some time before that, though, Royal Ordnance had acquired the German small arms manufacturers, Heckler & Koch, which currently makes the sub-machine guns which the police seem to delight in toting around. I had dimly remembered that and still had the impression that H&K was a British-owned company.

That turns out not to be the case. In the same year that BAE Systems got rid of its own small arms manufacturing capability, it also sold of H&K to Heckler & Koch Beteiligungs GmbH, located in Oberndorf, leaving the UK with no large-scale indigenous small arms manufacturer. (Incidentally, the fore-runner of H&K is the Mauser company.)

By coincidence, in DefenseNews today, there is a seemingly unrelated piece about US concerns that, with the new generation of fighter aircraft coming on-stream, and the next one not needed for a decade or more, there will be no design teams around by the time a new fighter is needed. The Aerospace Industries Association is suggesting an interim project, to keep the design teams together, and keep alive the industry's capability to design new fighter planes.

What applies to aircraft, in its own small way, must apply even to rifles – they are, these days, highly sophisticated pieces of machinery. So, BAE has not only got rid of the production capacity, it has also dispersed the design team. When the Army calls for its next rifle, the likelihood will be that there will not be a British design to enter into the procurement competition.

There seems a high probability, therefore, that in a decade or so, the MoD will be looking to Europe for its next model. The two favourites, it seems, are the H&K G36 and the FN F2000.

The latter weapon is made by the Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale and, if this is bought, it will not be the first time that the British Army has been equipped with a Belgian-designed weapon. The predecessor to the SA80 was in fact the L1A1 SLR, a licence-built version of the FN FAL.

Between then and some time in the future, though, there will be an important difference. Then, Royal Ordnance built the rifle under license. In the near future, there will be no capacity to do so and, whatever is chosen, it will almost certainly be both designed and manufactured in Europe.

Worse still, that will probably apply to the ammunition as well. In fact, it seems already, that we are buying some, if not most of our small arms ammunition from abroad, as we no longer have any large-scale ammunition manufacturing capability either.

The MoD has done its best to disguise this, having in 1999 awarded a ten-year contract for small arms ammunition to BAE Systems, under a "Framework Partnership Agreement". But while BAE might be the final supplier, there is nothing to stop it sourcing the ammunition elsewhere. And that appears to be what it is doing. Last year, when problems were revealed with 7.62mm ammunition, the defence minister inadvertently let slip that it had been made in Belgium by… Fabrique Nationale.

Even for our most basic requirements, it seems, we are reliant on European manufacturers and, in the case of Belgium, this is the government which, in 1991, refused to supply artillery ammunition made on contract to the British Army because it disapproved of the Gulf War.

Whether you like guns or hate them, therefore, this is something everyone should be concerned about. If we must have an Army, it needs to be armed, and to make sure it is able to function, we must have security of supplies. At the moment, and increasingly so, as we rely more and more on European suppliers, we are dangerously vulnerable.