The Asia-Pacific comprises a highly-congested and complicated operating environment for nations seeking to assert their authority and control over strategic areas, with armed forces around the region continuing to invest heavily in programmes to enhance the capabilities of their armed forces.
According to the Rand Corporation’s operational summary of the Asia-Pacific region in 2015, published in December 2015, one of the most prevalent threats in the areas is increasing Chinese investment into defence technology to contest the traditional air superiority of the US. One example of this is the People’s Republic of China’s plans to purchase six battalions’ worth of Almaz-Antey S-400 medium- to high-altitude surface-to-air missile systems, reported in November 2015, expected to be delivered from Russia by late 2017. “China’s ability to project power to more distant locations is limited, but its reach is growing. Over the next the years, the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) is likely to concentrate on improving weapon systems and equipment, particularly in high-priority areas such as naval, air, missile and space capabilities. All these developments are likely to improve the PLA’s overall combat capabilities,” the report articulated.
Such sentiments were echoed by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) with Dr. Tobias Feakin, its director of national security programmes, explaining how the past decade has seen the Asia-Pacific region becoming a “global point of strategic interest and competition,” as mentioned in the ASPI’s December 2015 end of year review. Summarising the past twelve months of military manoeuvres, exercises and industrial developments in the region, Dr. Feakin revealed, “While the US has renewed its economic and military focus in the region, China has rapidly modernised and expanded its military forces and tested the boundaries of international ‘norms’ in the South and East China Seas. Both countries seek to influence nations in the region in order to gain greatest access to Asia’s rapidly expanding markets.”
The result is a series of “Show of Force” posturing by major powers in the area, generally focused on disputed island chains, such as the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea (parts or all of which are claimed by Brunei-Darussalam, the People’s Republic of China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam), while nations spread influence across the region with cooperative exercises, memorandums of understanding and industrial agreements designed to optimise strategic interests. Add to this ongoing threat of insurgency across the region, the past year has seen insurgent incidents across the region in Afghanistan, Thailand and Indonesia to name just a few, and militaries and security forces continue to develop technology, Concepts of Operation (CONOPs) and Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) to counter such threats.
Such a focus is now seeing the main powers in the region concentrate on developing and improving Counter-Insurgency (COIN) capabilities with a particular emphasis on offensive action and reconnaissance missions as well as hostage rescue tasks. Areas of interest have ranged from lethality and protection through to mobility, Command and Control (C2) technology and support systems across a wide ranging cross-section of ground, maritime and airborne environments.
Lethality remains one of the top priorities for Asia-Pacific countries seeking to overcome insurgent combatants, who, more often than not, are equipped with powerful assault rifles such as the Kalashnikov AK-47 7.62mm assault rifles as well as homemade bombs. In Australia, the armed forces continue to respond to such threats with that country’s army now one of the first services to be issued with the first tranche of the Thales Enhanced F88 (EF88) Austeyr assault rifles; a direct replacement of the legacy Steyr AUG F88 rifle with enhancements covering increased lethality, accuracy and reliability.
The 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) was the first unit to receive the new rifle, which retains the same North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) standard 5.56mm x 45mm ammunition as its predecessor, in the second half of 2015 with the remainder of the Royal Australian Army set to receive the weapon throughout 2016 as part of the Australian Ministry of Defence’s Project Land 125-3C which works to enhance infantry soldier equipment. With the procurement of 30000 new rifles, worth approximately $100 million, the remainder of this programme includes the procurement of ancillary devices including optical gunsights, laser aiming devices and Steyr Mannlicher SL40 40mm Grenade Launcher Attachment or Underslung Grenade Launcher (UGL), worth a remaining $367 million. Additionally, the EF88 is said to be some 20 percent lighter than the Thales-manufactured F90 SA2 rifle; a variant of the F88 (see above) and the baseline design for the EF88.
Meanwhile, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF, which includes the country’s navy, army and air force), has also responded to requirements in the contemporary operating environment with the selection of a replacement for its legacy Steyr AUG A1 assault rifle (also an F88 variant) with US smalls arms specialist Lewis Machine and Tool (LMT) chosen to supply its CQB16 weapon as part of the NZDF’s Individual Weapon Replacement Programme. A total of more than 8000 weapons, which is based on a traditional LMT AR-15 design as opposed to the bullpup design of the AUG A1, will be delivered to units within the NZDF between 2016 and 2017, according to official sources. The rifle was officially selected in August by the NZDF ahead of competition from Heckler and Koch, Sig Sauer, FN Herstal, Colt Canada and Ceska Zbrojovka (CZ).
Capable of engaging targets at very close quarters out to long range, the NZDF demanded a rifle which could “detect, identify and engage” enemy targets out to a maximum effective range of 500 metres/m (1640 feet/ft), official sources explained to AMR. The procurement falls in line with a wider NZDF strategy to enhance the capability of ground-based units with other areas of interest comprising protection, situation awareness, mobility and support.
Without question, the largest small arms programme in Asia-Pacific, however, remains under the control of the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) which continues to consider future options for the Indian Army and Special Operations Forces (SOF). The MoD is seeking to equip more than 400 infantry battalions with a new assault rifle, although this process has been ongoing for almost ten years now under the nomenclature of the Future Infantry Soldier As A System (F-INSAS) project. Initial iterations of the programme called for a modular weapon system which could allow soldiers to switch between calibres depending upon the type of mission being undertaken as well as supporting C2 equipment.
The two major components of the programme comprise the selection of an assault rifle and carbine for Close Quarter Battle (CQB) scenarios. Following environmental trials in the Rajasthan desert and mountainous regions of Jammu and Kashmir participating entries, including Beretta’s ARX-160, Israel Weapon Industries’ ACE, Colt Defence’s Combat Rifle and CZ’s 805 Bren, failed to satisfy requirements. This has led the MoD to revise requirements for a modular-calibre weapon with the most likely option for the Indian Army now provision of the Ordnance Factory Board’s Excalibur 5.56mm x 45mm assault rifle. Industry sources informed AMR that an evaluation programme is expected to be conducted in 2016 across a variety of environments similar to previous tests. Should the Excalibur get the go-ahead, a deal could see the domestic Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) supplying approximately 600,000 weapons to the army over the next few years.
According to OFB, the Excalibur Mk.1 comprises a variant of the company’s infamous INSAS assault rifle which has already undergone evaluation with the Indian Army over recent years as part of “large scale infantry combat, (COIN) and mob control situations. The reason for calling it Excalibur is that it incorporates the features of a weapon which is rugged for battlefield engagements and at the same time capable of being light and easy to handle during low intensity conflict and CQB situations. It has been ergonomically designed with a folding butt stock and can fire magazines with capacity for anywhere between 20 or 30 rounds. It is also fitted with Picatinny rail adaptor systems for the mounting of electronic devices,” OFB literature explained. Weighing a total of 3.8 kilograms/kgs (8.3 pounds) without a magazine, the Excalibur Mk.1 includes a 400mm (15.7 inches/in) chrome-plated barrel. The gas operated weapon provides semi-automatic and automatic firing modes with a capability to accurately engage targets at ranges out to 400m (1312 feet).
However, the Indian Army does seem to be progressing with its CQB Carbine requirement, following the trial of the ARX-160 and ACE weapons in 2013. An initial tender for nearly 45000 carbines, available in 5.56mm x 45mm calibre, was launched back in 2010 although a larger order up to an additional 350,000 carbines could be made dependent on future options. These weapons are also set to be issued to India’s Special Forces units for COIN operations. The short-barrelled ACE carbine, a conventional design as opposed to retaining a bullpup configuration, comprises a 368mm (14.5in) barrel, which is also available in 7.62mm x 39mm and 7.62mm x 51mm calibres. It features an ambidextrous fire selector switch, polymer lower receiver for reduced weight and foldable or retractable buttstock.
Based on the company’s legacy Galil assault rifle, a former weapon of choice of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), the ACE is designed to incorporate “human engineering and ergonomics to make it suitable for the emerging unstable realities of modern combat,” IWI officials explained to AMR. The company is also in the process of marketing small arms to the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, company officials explained.
Finally, the Singapore Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) looks the most likely element within Singapore’s armed forces to trial ST Kinetics’ (STK) latest series of small arms systems; the Bullpup Multirole Combat Rifle (BMCR) and Conventional Multirole Combat Rifle (CMCR). Both weapons, which feature similar specifications and are both capable of firing NATO-standard 5.56mm x 45mm ammunition, have been designed to provide multirole flexibility for assault, marksman/sharpshooter and suppressive fire support roles. According to Singapore’s Ministry of National Defence, these next-generation small arms systems will put SOTG force elements and the army’s infantry sections ahead of enemy combatants in terms of lethality and in achieving their mission objectives. The rifles were designed in response to Singaporean requirements to provide maximum lethality in urban operations.
An STK spokesperson explained to AMR how both weapon systems fire NATO SS109 5.56mm ammunition as well as STK’s Extended Range 5.56mm ammunition. The rifles also feature integrated Picatinny Rails for the integration of weapon ancillaries. Sources explained to AMR how the BMCR, an internally-funded development within STK, is currently in the midst of qualification tests with a Final Design Review expected later in the year. The rifle was being exhibited by STK at the Singapore Air Show on 15 February, alongside a Light Machine Gun (LMG) variant of the BMCR. An additional variant of the BMCR, equipped with integrated battery hub and powered rail adaptor system was also on show. The latter allows for the integration of C2 technology on board the BMCR without a requirement for standalone batteries. STK is pitching the networked BMCR as part of its Army Individual Eco-Lightweight Equipment (ARIELE) future soldier system.
In addition to the networked BMCR, STK also displayed at the air show a series of future soldier technologies including its Adaptive Real-time Core Temperature Intelligent Cooler or ARCTIC system, Bionic Regenerative Active Energy System (BRACES) energy harvester, and Power and Energy Management System (POEMS). “ARCTIC uses active and passive cooling methods to help the soldier achieve an optimal core temperature during operations,” a company spokesperson explained to AMR while highlighting how the technology could help to reduce the metabolic levels and sweat of soldiers on operations. “The active cooling function makes use of thermal sensors to automatically decrease or increase the temperature, while its passive cooling function is fabric-integrated and sweat-activated. This means that a soldier equipped with ARCTIC wear will be able to perform at their optimum temperature for longer periods, with the fatiguing effects of extreme climates kept to a minimum. The STK ARCTIC wear technology operates in ambient temperatures ranging from minus 30 degrees Celsius to 55 degrees Celsius, keeping the soldier ahead in survivability, in both searing heat and wintry conditions,” the spokesperson added.
The POEMS comprises a smart power management system designed to manage energy from multiple power sources including batteries, fuel cells, solar power and vehicle power, in order to control multiple devices. It also allows for the recharging of batteries while on the move. As STK officials told AMR, “With battlefield network integration and soldier systems becoming standard operating equipment, the present day soldier needs to be constantly plugged in and powered up.” Finally, STK’s BRACES solution provides a soldier with the capability to convert mechanical energy derived from movement during a mission, into power source for wearable C2 technology. Comprising a brace worn around the thighs, the system can also store electric energy as well as supporting a soldier as a pseudo-exoskeleton. Another central element to the ARIELE concept is protection with STK unveiling its latest solutions to the market at the Singapore Air Show, comprising personal protection equipment including body armour and eyewear protection from ballistic and trauma threats.
Finally, in the Philippines, the armed forces continue to undergo a modernisation programme and will soon be equipped with Harris’ Falcon III communications solution. A $12 million contract was awarded to the company on 16th February with elements including the Falcon RF-7800V handheld and tactical vehicle radios, and RF-7800I intercom systems. According to a company spokesperson, this solution for in-vehicle voice and data communications will provide the Philippines armed forces with secure tactical network connectivity. Harris will also provide the Falcon RF-7800V handheld Very High Frequency (30-300 megahertz) Combat Net Radio for general use by the army. President of tactical communications at Harris, Brendan O’Connell explained, “These radios will provide soldiers in the Philippine Army with advanced command and control, and real-time situational awareness capabilities. They also will have secure interoperability with more than 15000 Harris Falcon radios currently fielded within the Philippines armed forces.”
With the exception of insurgency operations, it appears likely that the contemporary operating environment in the Asia-Pacific will continue to witness a type of non-kinetic warfare with nations in the region more interested in shows of force as part of wider psychological and information-based warfare. However, a mature capability at the lowest tactical level will continue to remain a significant deterrent for smaller nations seeking to assure their own security in the region.
by Andrew White