Utusan Malaysia, Friday 21, 2009 featured a report 'SME Ordnance to invest RM36 million to develop weapons'. The report states that the investment is planned for 2010 and 2011 for the procurement of new machinery and production of the Colt M4 Carbine, that is planned to be in service with the army, and hopefully with other government security agencies as well. It was also reported that the first lot of 14,000 pieces of the weapon (fully assembled from the US) have been supplied to the Malaysian army last year (2009). The Malaysian army is presently equipped with the Austrian designed Steyr assault rifle (produced under license to SME Ordnance) that came into service in 1991, replacing the popular Colt M16 A1 assault rifle.
Questions have been raised as to why is there a need to replace the Steyr assault rifle, whose design is not declared obsolescence and can be used for many more years. Why go back to the same weapon system that was use by the army before? How was the decision to change reached? Was it made out of a professional imperative or was it a business imperative? I personally think it was the latter.
The M4 Carbine shares almost the same mechanical features as the M16 A1 assault rifle; the only difference being that the former uses a much shorter barrel, built with a retractable butt, and is lighter in weight. These differences does not in any way make the M4 Carbine a much superior weapon than the M16 A1 assault rifle. On the contrary, the M16 A1 assault rifle is said to outmatch the M4 Carbine in terms of accuracy and range. Logic has it that the length of barrel and weight are key factors that contributes towards better accuracy and range.
The Australian army was equipped with a similar Steyr assault rifle a few years earlier than did the Malaysian army. But the Australian through its Australian Defence Industries (DSI), were intelligent enough to undertake research and development and came up with the F88 Austeyr assault rifle; a modified version of the Steyr assault rifle, that subsequently became the Australian army's standard rifle.
The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) had used the Colt M16 and Armalite AR 15 since the 1970s (about the same period as the Malaysian army), and in 1976, Chartered Industries of Singapore (CIS) undertook the development of its first indigenously designed SAR 80 assault rifle; both for export and domestic use. The SAR 80 closely resembled the Armalite AR 15.
In 1996, CIS began developing the SAR 21 as a replacement to the locally licensed-built M16S1. After four years of R&D, the newly designed SAR 21 (a bullpup version) was subsequently adopted as a standard assault rifle for the SAF, as well as by the Royal Brunei Armed Forces and Sri Lanka Air Force Regiment.
Further to the questions that I'd raised above, where have we gone wrong in not being able to develop our own indigenous assault rifle? After more than 15 years of producing the Steyr assault rifle, why is SME Ordnance unable to produce its very own version of an assault rifle, in a way similar to that of CIS and ADI. And by favouring the M4, supposedly as a replacement for the Steyr, are we sure that the lessons of the Steyr will not be repeated? Are we so confident that the US State Department and Colt will allow SME Ordnance to produce the M4 for export sale at a later date?
Personally, I do not believe the US State Department or Colt will ever allow us to produce for export sale; and where does that lead us, except to go for another weapon system, and not another Steyr hopefully. This was plainly the reason why Singapore had rightly, and wisely so, decided to produce its own weapons. And are we not going to learn from the Singapore experience?
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