Featured image: Austrian Armed Forces Photograph / Pusch
On March 29, a range of small arms and new personal equipment for Bundesheer soldiers were announced: new assault and sniper rifles, protective equipment, CRC gear, NVGs and uniform items, to name but a few. This article lays out the details and prods the figures.
Minister of Defence Doskozil together with GenLt Gehart (head of the Assets Provision Support Division) introduced a range of new personal weaponry and gear in a press conference on March 29 (video). The recent acquisitions have been portrayed as part of an ongoing modernisation drive and are grouped into the following categories:
- Individual protective equipment
- Personal attire & uniform items
- Personal equipment
- Small arms & related equipment
- Night vision goggles (NVGs)
MoD representatives stressed that the current “procurement offensive” is the largest in several decades and that at least half of the gross value added is supposed to be domestic.
Raw figures however suggest that few of the items will see ubiquitous introduction. Indeed, some are intended for use by a a limited number of units only. It should also be noted that some of the items are still in the tendering process while others have already seen introduction.
Individual protective equipment
- Combat helmets: 20,000 copies of American manufacturer Ops Core’s SENTRY XP Mid Cut helmet as well as accessories and spare parts have been ordered in April 2016. The gross sum of €19.7m is not part of the above mentioned investments. Introduction of the new helmets started in late 2016 and is largely complete as of March 2017. Bundesheer video: New combat uniform (German)
- Crowd and riot control (CRC) gear: a large number of various types of CRC equipment has been put up for order:
- 1,240 “Soldat 2018” CRC kits for general issue, to be introduced in 2017
- 35 CRC kits (as well as 36 dedicated helmets) for military police, to be introduced in 2017
- 1,240 CRC kits for overseas deployments, to be introduced in 2017
- 3,000 “Soldat 2018” CRC kits to be introduced until 2020
Totaling 5,515 new CRC kits on top of the existing equipment, the sheer number on order has raised eyebrows. The minister was quickly confronted with questions regarding a possible shift in the Bundesheer’s task portfolio towards domestic operations, but repeatedly reaffirmed that,nomenclature notwithstanding, all items were intended for use on foreign missions. (As of March 2017, 1,107 Austrian military personnel are deployed to 17 mission outside the nation’s borders.)
A detailed breakdown is available only for the 1,240 foreign deployment kits, consisting of vests made by Mehler, helmets manufactured by Schuberth and Bonowi protectors. The kits come at a price of around €5,000 each.
- Protective Goggles: 42.000 pairs of protective goggles are scheduled to be introduced in 2017. At an estimated cost of €400 per pair however, the overall price of €8m hints at a multi-year procurement (or very basic levels of numeracy). Furthermore, while a type of protective eyewear was on display during the event, press material describes the tender as still outstanding. A partly corresponding tender over 21,010 pairs of goggles (with options for further 4,202 pairs for 2019 and 2020, respectively) and € 12,606,000 net volume expired in January 2017 without results having been made publicly available.
Personal attire & uniform items
- Summer shirt: Polo shirts like these have already been issued in the past, mainly for foreign deployments in hot climates. Greatly appreciated by the troops, some soldiers took to purchase them privately and wear them for garrison duty, not always in accordance with uniform regulations. The introduction of an unspecified number of such shirts is an expressed reaction to requests from troops.
- New light combat boot: 42,000 copies of the new light combat boot are to be purchased in 2017. Manufactured by German firm Stumpp & Baier, the boots will be issued to all personnel. Unlike before, the boots will pass into conscripts’ ownership even after conclusion of their service. (18,500 conscripts entered service in 2016.)
- Mess kit: the current aluminum mess kit is replaced with a stainless steel one for health reasons after abrasions have found to be harmful.
- Hydration tube: Described as an in-house development, the hydration tube is compatible with PET bottles rather than hydration bladders. An adapter for the standard issue canteen was announced and introduction of 86,000 (!) copies is planned.
- “Soldier’s kit”: A half-practical, half-droll concept, new conscripts are scheduled to receive a sort of starters’ kit beginning this year. Estimated at €40-50 each, 32,800 kits are scheduled for procurement in 2017, and 16,800 on a yearly basis thereafter. Consisting of a shoulder bag, a pocket knife, a headlamp (white light only), camouflage cream, writing utensils, some string, a wrist watch, five small bags, a key ring and a lighter, the set is touted a “kit to master a soldier’s everyday life”.
Small arms & related equipment
- Steyr AUG A2 assault rifles: An upgrade to rather than a replacement of the existing AUG A1, 4,200 AUG A2 bodies are to be issued in 2017, introducing Picatinny rails to the venerable Bullpup design. The upgraded rifles will be used by Bundesheer special purpose units, with the Jagdkommando and the airborne Jägerbataillon 25 going first. It is these units however who already have advanced AUG variants in service, so it is unclear whether the figure of 4,200 purchases includes those copies as well. When asked for planes for a wider introduction, it was stated that “batches of 5,000 to 10,000 copies each” would be introduced depending on future budgetary scope and according to requirements priorities. There seem to be slight differences between variants for special purpose units (dubbed “A2”) and those for rapidly deployable units, typically line infantry composed of professional soldiers (“KPE” variant) – the latter consisted of about 2,300 personnel in 2016.
- Sniper rifles & related equipment: No fewer than three rifle systems of varying calibers as well as night vision and thermal attachments were announced.
- Heavy sniper system: 102 copies of the .50 calibre Barret M82 have supposedly been ordered. The anti-materiel rifle’s introduction is “planned for 2018”. A limited number of heavy rifles of the same caliber are already in service with special purpose units. Bundesheer Video: Barret M82 (German)
- Medium sniper system: Similarly, 120 copies of Steyr’s SSG 08 bolt-action rifle have been acquired and are going to be introduced to special purpose and line infantry units next year. The weapon is chambered in .338 Lapua Magnum and comes scoped with a Kahles K624i. Bundesheer video: SSG 08 (German)
- Light sniper system: press material lists 72 copies of a semiautomatic light sniper system, chambered in .308 Winchester, as the subject of an ongoing tender, and scheduled for introduction in 2017. However, a corresponding tender expired in December 2016 without results having been made public. A system of said specifications would cater to the requirements of military police and other special purpose units in urban environments.
In line with current force structure, the provided figures for scoped rifles are roughly equal to full equipment 10 infantry battalions’ sniper elements. It can be expected that the remaining SSG69, a largely outdated .308 bolt-action rifle, will be phased out of active units and made available for the reserves in greater numbers.
In a rather curious notion, the acquisition of sniper systems at the March 29 event was portrayed as a sort-of-substitute for indirect fire weapons. Artillery, associated with high levels of collateral damage, was described as “out of step with time” and of limited use in light of recent conflicts. (Tell that to the Germans.)
Bundesheer video: Small arms roundup
NVGs & related equipment
- Thales MINIE: With Thales’ LUCIE no longer in production, the Bundesheer is taking the step towards a new model of NVGs, the MINIE. A one-tube device like its predecessor, the MINIE offers the same field of view – 51° – at a lower weight, 340g compared to the older model’s 435g. The goggles can be mounted on the new combat helmet without the need for an adapter. 400 are supposedly on order, with some already in service. (For comparison: The four-tubed GPNVG-18, made famous in the 2011 Bin Laden raid, boasts a 97° field of view, at a staggering $42,500 per copy. Multi-tubed devices also help mitigate issues of spatial disorientation caused by distortions in perspective.)
- Thales LUCIE helmet mounts: To render the remaining LUCIE NVGs compatible with the new combat helmets, 2,000 mounts have been ordered.
So what to make of it all?
The ongoing series of announcements have been greeted with unusually positive media attention in recent months. The Bundesheer, long subject to public contempt, might unaccustomed to the current affection, but the Minister has moved quickly to ride the wave in the name of the Austrian soldier. And indeed there will be few to deny that the Armed Forces have long been starved out financially – indeed, up until recently, many a reservist was clad in attire more than 40 years old! A longstanding shortage economy has given rise to improvisation as the widely accepted way of coping on all levels of the armed forces.
Experience teaches that grand promises of new soldierly equipment should be taken with a large grain of salt. Keeping in line with this tradition, the current acquisition plans aren’t without irks, either. Figures don’t always add up and introduction dates lie in the somewhat unspecified future – save for those pieces that are already in service, but have been presented once more nonetheless: Helmets, Steyr AUG A2 assault rifles and Glock 26 subcompact pistols come to mind. Some items are still subject to tenders whereas other tenders have expired without results being publicized.
The ongoing procurement has another common theme: everybody gets something, so no one gets to complain. Strikingly though, some of the items on the Minister’s grocery list are quite few in number and so it can be assumed that, say, advanced AUG variants will not become a common sight among the troops in the near future.
Seen through a political lens, this could prove a shrewd hedging move: should the tide of public opinion turn again, one will always be able to point at the relative modesty in those times of plenty.