British Soldier Is Ready for 21st Century : Light Rifle, Other New Weapons Part of $3-Billion Upgrading

Times Staff Writer

The British infantry, already considered to be among the most professional in the world, is getting equipment that will take it into the 21st Century.

The equipment was shown to a group of visitors recently at the School of Infantry here in the Wiltshire area of southern England, on the downs of Salisbury Plain. The new weapons, vehicles and clothing will cost about $3 billion over the next 10 years.

Maj. Gen. Colin Shortis, the army's director of infantry, said he was enthusiastic about it all. "We now have the right answers," he said.

New, Light Weapon

Chief among the new armament is the individual soldier's weapon, the new SA80 made by the Royal Ordnance factory. It serves, with slight modifications, as rifle, submachine gun and light machine gun. The SA80 is scheduled to be supplied to infantry units later this year. Eventually, 400,000 of them will be produced.

The new rifle fires a relatively small 5.56-millimeter bullet, not much larger than .22-caliber. A major advantage over the 7.9-millimeter rifle that has been in use since the early 1960s is that a man armed with the SA80 can carry almost twice the amount of ammunition.

"The new rifle is a fine weapon," said Lt. Col. Lalbamadur Pun, the senior Gurkha officer in the British army. Many Gurkhas, renowned fighting men from Nepal, traditionally volunteer for service in the British army.

"It is easy to get the weapon into a firing position in a hurry," Pun went on. "It can save you a second or two and, in combat in the jungles or the desert, that can make the difference between life and death."

15 Inches Shorter

The new rifle is 15 inches shorter than the old one, and has very little recoil. It can be fitted with a four-power scope that greatly increases its accuracy.

"Our tests show that we are getting almost 30% more hits on target," an officer at the rifle range said.

Some of the visitors clambered into the firing pits and tested the SA80 and it seemed to be easy to use, even for amateurs. Some scored hits on targets 200 yards away.

Infantryman involved in developing the SA80 have expressed admiration for the weapon but it has caused a few problems for Her Majesty's Foot Guards. The guardsmen, who patrol Buckingham Palace and other royal residences, take pride in the fact that they use real combat weapons rather than any ceremonial rifles.

Parade-Rest Problem

But because the SA80 is 15 inches shorter than their present rifle, it does not reach the ground when a guardsman is standing at parade rest.

In consequence, the Foot Guards' drill instructors have had to alter the manual for close-order drill. It now includes a new "at ease" position that allows the guardsman to hold his weapon with both hands across the lower part of his body rather than resting the butt of the weapon on the ground.

Along with the new rifle, the army has introduced a new bayonet, the traditional symbol of Britain's infantry. The bayonet serves as short sword, sharpening stone, wire cutter and bottle opener, among other things.

Also included in the new infantry "kit" are the MCV80 armored personnel carrier, a tracked vehicle that can carry 11 men into battle, and a lighter personnel carrier, the Saxon, which the troops call a "battlefield taxi."

Other New Weapons

The army is also introducing a light antitank gun for use by the infantry and an improved 81-millimeter mortar that in effect will be the infantryman's personal artillery.

Moreover, the infantryman is to get a new and lighter uniform, along with a helmet that provides increased protection, and new, all-purpose boots.

Today, with the U.S. experience in Vietnam a decade in the past, the British infantry has the most recent combat experience among the Western Allies' armies. The British were in action less than three years ago against the Argentines in the Falkland Islands, and they are engaged on a continuing basis in Northern Ireland.

The British infantry is an all-volunteer force. Its present strength is 38,259, serving in 56 battalions that make up slightly more than a quarter of the entire army.

From Around the World

Some infantrymen are as far from home as Hong Kong and Belize in Central America, but most are assigned to the British army in West Germany or to the reserve forces in the United Kingdom.

Gen. Shortis said:

"The new small arms and antitank weapons--and mobility--much enhance our effectiveness as troops. The new equipment enables the infantrymen to fight better for longer periods of time.

"But in the end, the role of the infantry doesn't change much. It is the men in the infantry who have to close with the enemy, seize the ground, winkle out the opposition and hold the positions.

"One lesson of the Falklands is that it takes leadership and training to instill aggressive spirit and a thorough knowledge of our trade. So we try to get the very best instructors to instill that kind of leadership here at the School of Infantry.

Firepower and Confidence

"The added firepower gives a man confidence that he can look after himself and his mates. But in the end, it doesn't matter how good his kit, it depends on the man himself. When the time comes to close with the enemy, it is up to the man, and the man alone, (to decide) to get up and go forward or stay behind on the ground.

"We try to create in our training here--in firepower, tactics and physical fitness--the conditions where an infantryman feels confidence in himself and in his leaders, and where he won't let down his mates."

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