In 2015, when the Australian military was discussing its future combat rifle, there was an interesting debate about the merits of the M4/AR15 platform versus its competitors.
More specifically, an Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) warrant officer with over 25 years’ experience in the SOF community offered some interesting remarks about why the M4/AR15 rifle platform isn’t obsolete, despite being a 1950s design, but indeed superior to modern rifles such as the F90 Steyr. His remarks, however, touched upon deeper issues that have to do with political decisions that don’t necessarily benefit the war-fighter.
Also in 2015, Thales Group was awarded a contract by the Australian Ministry of Defense (MoD) worth approximately $74 million for supplying 30,000 F90 rifles and 2,500 SL40 grenade launchers, which can be attached underneath an F90. Noted for its unusual design, the F90 Steyr rifle fires the 5.56×45 NATO .223 Remington cartridge.
Despite the Australian MoD’s decision, the Australian commando highlighted the F90’s shortfalls, focusing on the difficulty to deal with stoppages and the fixed-length butt.
The anonymous SOF operator also made a great point about the connection between the M4/AR15’s market durability and the industry. “To say that the AR platform is reaching its end of service is inaccurate,” he wrote. “The industry surrounding the AR-based platform is a multi-billion dollar giant and the level of innovation and refinement that continues to go into this platform is unprecedented.”
His acute observation provides a possible explanation for why the Steyr has been favored by the Australian military. Thales Group, the Steyr manufacturing company, agreed to make the weapon in Australia, thereby providing jobs for Australians, which is always a good thing for politicians. Consequently, there is already a vested interest in the success of the weapon despite potential shortfalls — there have been some bolt issues recently that have caused serious injuries to Australian soldiers — or the existence of better options for the war-fighter.
The SASR warrant officer went on to highlight that the Steyr weapon system hasn’t been getting much love. On the contrary, if we exclude Australia, which is still working on upgrades for the rifle, the F90 being one of them, most users of the Steyr are replacing it with other rifle platforms. New Zealand and Malaysia are two examples. In 2015, the New Zealand Army decided to replace its Steyr rifles with the Modular Assault Rifle System-Light, an AR15-type rifle manufactured by the American-based Lewis Machine and Tool Company (LMT).
The conventional Australian military continues to have faith in the F90 rifle, which raises an interesting debate: Considering both the accuracy and veracity of the SASR warrant officer’s points about the preponderance of the M4/AR15 platform over the Steyr, why should the conventional military have a sub-par rifle? This debate can often be enlarged to wider equipment, such as personal body armor, helmets, or night vision devices. The most probable answer is money. High-end gear costs more. And arguably, SOF units face tougher tactical situations on a more frequent basis than their conventional brethren.