All change as ADF affects major upgrade

John Maxwell

The Australian Defence Force is set to acquire a group of modern weapons including a pair of sniper systems, a new shotgun along with a new handgun to replace the venerable Browning self-loading pistol which entered Australian service in 1964. The handgun is a variant of the SIG Sauer P320 which, following extensive trials, was the sidearm chosen by the US military and more recently by Canada.

In Australian service the new SIG Sauer P320 XCarry Pro will feature a SIG Romeo 2 reflex sight, giving users a substantially improved hit capability and a SIG Foxtrot 2 white-light torch for improved ability in night operation, the pistol selected after a trials program which saw it pitted against such contenders as the familiar and widely-used Glock 17. Defence pondered whether it could live without the traditional safety catch a la Glock before deciding it couldn’t so the new handgun comes with a safety. Colour of the new gun is Flat Dark Earth (brown) and in 9mm the SIG P320 magazine holds 17 rounds.

The Browning is one of the world’s most widely-used handguns and is renowned for its reliability and effectiveness. Initially adopted by the Belgian military in 1935 it was named the Browning Hi-Power (or High Power) not because its 9mm cartridge was more powerful than any other 9mm but because its 13-round magazine capacity was almost double that of rivals such as the Luger and Colt 1911.

But technology doesn’t stand still. Issue Browning iron sights are minimal, it has no ability to accept accessories such as lights or better sights while modern polymer handguns are lighter with substantially greater magazine capacity but Defence’s main problem was that in 2017, FN announced the end of production which meant no more factory support. Other nations had moved on with the British and New Zealand armies adopting the Glock while in 2017 the US Army chose the SIG P320 to replace the Beretta M9, itself selected in 1985 to replace the Colt 1911. So in the period the Browning endured in Australian service, the US Army was on its third handgun.

Traditionally the ADF hasn’t regarded the handgun as an important weapon but that changed during operations in Iraq and then Afghanistan with the rise of so-called ‘insider attacks’. This was mostly a problem in Afghanistan as in such attacks, which claimed Australian soldiers’ lives, trusted local insiders turned on their allies. That underlined the utility of sidearms as in an insider attack in an office or base setting, a handgun on the hip may be brought to action much quicker than a rifle on a rack in the corner.

With any new defence weapon system comes additional requirements for training and the selection of a reflex sight over traditional iron sights indicates Defence has opted for the capability that’ll give soldiers the greatest opportunity to use their new sidearms effectively. Defence will ultimately acquire around 10,000 handguns and while no price has yet been announced, civilian versions typically sell for upwards of $1000 though with such a large order, Defence can expect to pay much less.

The handgun is just one in a series of new weapons set to enter service through defence project LAND 159 which will be delivered in three tranches until around the end of the decade. The standard issue Steyr EF88 (F90) will be here a while longer though as it has just undergone an extensive refresh and is regarded as good until well into the next decade.

However Tranche 2 does consider a new infantry weapon. With the US recently adopting a new service cartridge (the 6.8 x 51mm), new rifle and light machinegun, Australia will have to think hard about whether to continue with the 5.56 NATO cartridge or move promptly to the new round which will necessitate a suite of new firearms.

It so happens one of the new inclusions in L159 T1 is what the ADF terms a Personal Defence Weapon System, intended to replace the long-serving Heckler and Koch MP5 sub-machinegun. This is mostly a special forces weapon though they’re also used by other troops such as naval boarding parties and airfield defence guards. What was sought was a compact firearm for use when a full-sized assault rifle was inappropriate and they opted for the SIG Sauer MCX chambered in the .300 Blackout, a special forces preference as it’s more lethal than 9mm with longer range and well suited to use with suppressors. Furthermore, the MCX is more akin to the SF rifle of choice the M4 than is the MP5 and notably the MCX is a relative of the SIG MCX Spear, the arm chosen by the US as its next generation infantry rifle.

Australian soldiers will also receive a new combat shotgun with the Italian Benelli M3A1 selected to replace the venerable Remington 870. The Benelli is widely used overseas including by Canada and New Zealand and can be operated in semi-automatic or pump-action mode and  fitted with a red-dot sight and white-light illuminator. In the ADF, shotguns are carried by special forces, naval boarding parties and airfield defence guards as in that latter role a shotgun is considered less likely than an assault rifle to make damaging holes in expensive aircraft.

Defence is acquiring two new precision rifle systems, the British Accuracy International AX-SR for long-range sniper capability and the US Barrett M107A1 for anti-materiel. Though an anti-materiel rifle can be used against personnel, their primary role is against expensive enemy equipment such as radar systems, aircraft and vehicles. The AX-SR is essentially the rifle AI developed for the Advanced Sniper Rifle Program for the US Special Operations Command which lost out to the US Barrett Multi-role Adaptive Design (MRAD) but apparently not by much. The AX-SR is a multi-calibre system which can be readily adapted to fire cartridges such as 7.62 NATO, .338 Lapua Magnum and .300 Norma Magnum, the former used primarily for training and the other two for service, depending on operational requirements.

Standard optic is a Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 scope with add-on Leonardo Improved Night Vision Objective for nocturnal activities with the standard suppressor for this rifle being the US Thunderbeast Arms. The M107A1 fires the 50 BMG cartridge and is a lighter and modernised version of the legacy anti-materiel weapons the Barrett M82 and Accuracy International AW50.

In July 2020 Defence initially contracted Brisbane-based defence company NIOA  to conduct market assessment of Tranche 1 items, inviting bids, assessing proposals and making recommendations. In trials, NIOA’s weapons and munitions specialists along with Defence experts evaluated 649 products across weapons, ancillaries and munitions for 11 mission systems, the final recommendations contained in a 600-page report. Now NIOA has been contracted to acquire the Tranche 1 items, deliver supporting services for verification and validation, certification and introduction into service and through-life support.

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