Small Arms Mod­erni­sa­tion in South East Asia

Over a pe­riod of time not only have some of the South East Asian na­tions up­graded and mod­i­fied the in­fantry weapons but they have also been suc­cess­ful in de­vel­op­ing in­dige­nously their own small arms in­dus­try

SP's LandForces - - FRONT PAGE - Bri­gadier (Retd) Vinod Anand

Over a pe­riod of time not only have some of the South East Asian na­tions up­graded and mod­i­fied the in­fantry weapons but they have also been suc­cess­ful in de­vel­op­ing in­dige­nously their own small arms in­dus­try.

DRIVEN BY IN­TER­NAL AND ex­ter­nal threats to their se­cu­rity, the mil­i­taries of South East Asia have been modernising and up­grad­ing their small arms arse­nal in a va­ri­ety of ways. Not only they face in­sur­gen­cies which are ei­ther eth­nic or re­li­gion based, the lit­toral coun­tries of the South China Sea and the In­dian Ocean have also to deal with piracy, gun-run­ning and other such ac­tiv­i­ties which chal­lenge the au­thor­ity of the state.

Broadly, the South East Asian na­tions since the colo­nial times had im­ported var­i­ous ver­sions of their in­fantry as­sault ri­fles from the US, Soviet Union, Euro­pean na­tions and in the later pe­riod even from China. Over a pe­riod of time have not only some of the South East Asian na­tions up­graded and mod­i­fied the in­fantry weapons but they have also been suc­cess­ful in de­vel­op­ing in­dige­nously their own small arms in­dus­try.


Sin­ga­pore re­mains in the fore­front with a de­fence in­dus­try and armed forces which can be said to be tech­no­log­i­cally most ad­vanced among the As­so­ci­a­tion of South East Asian Na­tions (ASEAN) states. Aside from its In­te­grated Knowl­edge-based Com­mand and Con­trol project, the Sin­ga­pore armed forces have made nu­mer­ous ac­qui­si­tions over the past decade that in­di­cates a shift to­wards both pre­ci­sion strike ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Im­prov­ing the per­for­mance of in­fantry sol­dier and its equip­ment has been a pri­or­ity mis­sion.

Much like the In­dian Army’s project of fu­ture In­dian sol­dier as a sys­tem (F-IN­SAS), the Sin­ga­pore Army has com­mis­sioned an ad­vanced com­bat man sys­tem (ACMS), with de­liv­ery of the first com­plete unit equip­ment set handed over to the fifth Sin­ga­pore In­fantry Bat­tal­ion for eval­u­a­tion and tri­als. Be­sides a va­ri­ety of elec­tronic gad­getry re­quired for a net­worked sol­dier, the weapon sys­tems is a shorter bar­relled, mod­i­fied ver­sion of the lo­cally as­sem­bled Sin­ga­pore As­sault Ri­fle-21st cen­tury (SAR-21), des­ig­nated the mod­u­lar mount­ing sys­tems as part of the ACMS. Ac­cord­ing to the Sin­ga­pore Army, the ob­jec­tive is to meet the chal­lenges of ur­ban op­er­a­tions and im­prove sur­viv­abil­ity, sit­u­a­tional aware­ness and the avoid­ance of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and col­lat­eral dam­age.

The SAR-21 has a laser sight and tar­get ac­qui­si­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The ri­fle is a re­place­ment for ear­lier M16S1 based on Amer­i­can de­sign and of­fers many im­prove­ments on the same. SK Ki­net­ics, a Sin­ga­pore-based com­pany (well known in In­dia), is also ex­port­ing it be­sides man­u­fac­tur­ing it for do­mes­tic con­sump­tion. In fact, a whole range of small arms arse­nal based on SAR21 has been de­vel­oped, which in­cludes SAR21 light ma­chine gun, SAR-21 light weight car­bine, SAR-21 Sharp­shooter and even a round the cor­ner fir­ing (RCF) mod­ule that has been de­vel­oped for ur­ban op­er­a­tions.


In­done­sia has its small arms fam­ily based on the in­dige­nously man­u­fac­tured Pin­dad se­ries of as­sault ri­fles which are in turn largely based on Bel­gian small arms de­signs. The In­done­sian Se­na­pan Serbu 1 (SS1), As­sault Ri­fle 1 is the stan­dard as­sault ri­fle which is man­u­fac­tured by PT Pin­dad, with a bore of 5.56mm. It is be­ing phased out by Pin­dad SS2 which has many mod­ern fea­tures. How­ever, In­done­sian Army’s Sniper Ri­fle is Pin­dad SPR with 7.62mm bore. Fur­ther this se­ries also has Pin­dad SM2 which is a gen­eral pur­pose ma­chine gun with 7.62mm cal­i­bre. On the other hand it has a light ma­chine gun Pin­dad SM3 which has 5.56mm cal­i­bre. Th­ese weapons are of high per­for­mance and are light in weight. In­done­sian in­fantry and Spe­cial Forces have a va­ri­ety of sniper ri­fles in­clud­ing anti-ma­te­rial ri­fles ob­tained from the UK, US, Ger­many and Aus­tria.


Af­ter Sin­ga­pore and In­done­sia, it is Malaysia that is lo­cated astride the Malacca Straits and has been pay­ing at­ten­tion to mod­erni­sa­tion of its armed forces. Even though it has just about four in­fantry di­vi­sions, it has taken steps to pro­vide max­i­mum punch to the Army. Be­cause of its as­so­ci­a­tion with the US and western ar­mies, its in­fantry weapons are of Amer­i­can/western ori­gin. The stan­dard as­sault ri­fle used is Steyr AUG A1 (5.56mm) which is of Aus­tralian ori­gin and is a stan­dard NATO is­sue. This is be­ing man­u­fac­tured lo­cally un­der li­cence. The other as­sault ri­fle/car­bine that is be­ing used is the Amer­i­can M4 A1 (5.56mm) is also man­u­fac­tured in­dige­nously. Another older ver­sion of the well-known Amer­i­can as­sault ri­fle M16 is be­ing grad­u­ally phased out and be­ing handed over to para­mil­i­tary forces.

Malaysian Army’s sniper ri­fles of Amer­i­can (.50 BMG, Har­ris Gun Works m96) and UK ori­gin 7.62mm is also a stan­dard NATO weapon. The anti-ma­te­rial ri­fle is Denel NTW20, a very po­tent weapon, is of South African ori­gin. Anti-ma­te­rial ri­fles can be used against a va­ri­ety of hard tar­gets like bunkers, com­mu­ni­ca­tion masts or tow­ers, com­mand posts, gun em­place­ments, radar in­stal­la­tions, mis­sile sites and parked air­craft/he­li­copters util­is­ing a va­ri­ety of mu­ni­tions in its in­ven­tory.


Philip­pines, another sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary power in South East Asia, be­cause of its erst­while al­liance with the US, has a small arms fam­ily which is largely of Amer­i­can ori­gin with some weapons hav­ing been im­ported from the western na­tions. How­ever, since 2011, it has started man­u­fac­tur­ing pneu­matic valve and rod ri­fle (PVAR) also known as UDMC PVAR be­cause it is be­ing man­u­fac­tured by the United De­fence man­u­fac­tur­ing Cor­po­ra­tion of Philip­pines. This is a much im­proved ver­sion of the Amer­i­can M16 and Ar­malite AR-15 ri­fles. Be­sides in­tro­duc­ing PVAR, the Army has a va­ri­ety of as­sault ri­fles like M16, M4 car­bine, Ger­man G36C, Aus­tralian Steyr AUG A1 and Is­raeli IMI Galil. Some of th­ese (M4, AR-15 and G36C) are be­ing used by the Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand Units.

The stan­dard sniper ri­fle is the Philip­pines Ma­rine Scout Ri­fle which has been de­vel­oped from Amer­i­can M16A1 and has been is­sued to the Army units also. This has been par­tic­u­larly found use­ful in coun­terin­sur­gency and counter-guer­rilla op­er­a­tions. There are four other va­ri­eties of sniper ri­fles like M14, M21, Bar­rett M82 and TAC50 which are all of Amer­i­can ori­gin and have been in use by the Army for a long time.


The Royal Thai Army of Thai­land (which has never been colonised by any for­eign power) has a fam­ily of small arms which are all of western ori­gin ex­cept that it has re­cently gone in for Sin­ga­pore man­u­fac­tured SAR-21 which ini­tially has been given to Spe­cial Forces. It also has some ri­fles of Chi­nese ori­gin which were pos­si­bly taken from the rebel forces of Thai Com­mu­nist Party (sup­ported ear­lier by China). How­ever, the stan­dard in­fantry ri­fle used by the Royal Thai Armed Forces and Army Re­serve Forces is the Thai ver­sion of the Heck­ler and Koch HK33 (Ger­man ori­gin) be­ing man­u­fac­tured un­der li­cence. Other in­fantry ri­fles in use are IMI Tra­vor 21, Aus­tralian Steyr AUG A1 and Is­raeli IMI Galil. Legacy weapon like M16A1 is be­ing phased out with IMI Tra­vor 21 in an ef­fort to mod­ernise the in­fantry arse­nal. Sniper ri­fles be­ing used are the Swiss Sig Sauer SSG 3000 and SR 25 of Amer­ica. Light ma­chine guns in use are Heck­ler and Koch HK21 and FN Min­imi of Bel­gium. How­ever, IMI Negev LMG from Is­rael is a re­cent ac­qui­si­tion. Gen­eral pur­pose ma­chine guns in ser­vice are Amer­i­can M60 and M2 Brown­ing ma­chine gun. Some old Chi­nese ma­chine guns are also in use.


Viet­nam Peo­ple’s Army in con­trast has largely Rus­sian ori­gin as­sault ri­fles be­cause of his­tor­i­cal rea­sons. Its stan­dard is­sue is AKM as­sault ri­fle which is be­ing lo­cally man­u­fac­tured and is a mod­i­fied and up­graded ver­sion of the much fa­mous AK-47. It is also us­ing the Czech as­sault ri­fle VZ 58 which seems to have been im­ported last year. Some AK-74 and AKS-74 (for Spe­cial Forces) are also in ser­vice. Spe­cial Forces also use XM-177E2 which is an Amer­i­can vari­ant of AR-15. Sniper ri­fle that is a stan­dard is­sue is SVD (Dra­gunov sniper ri­fle) is of Rus­sian ori­gin. Another Rus­sian Sniper ri­fle that is in ser­vice with Spe­cial Forces is SVU. Sub-ma­chine guns in ser­vice are PM 63, MPA4 (Pol­ish ori­gin), Uzi, Mini Uzi and Mi­cro Uzi (all of Is­raeli ori­gin). Stan­dard is­sue LMGs are RPD-44 and RPK of Rus­sian ori­gin and heavy ma­chine guns NSV and DsHKM/DsHK38 are also from the same coun­try. PKM is the gen­eral pur­pose ma­chine gun is­sued by the in­fantry units.


The Myan­mar Army also has a va­ri­ety of small arms which are now be­ing man­u­fac­tured lo­cally by the Myan­mar De­fence In­dus­tries (largely owned by the Tat­madaw). It is man­u­fac­turig au­to­matic ri­fles, sub-ma­chine guns and ma­chine guns along with their am­mu­ni­tion. The small arms in ser­vice are EMER K-1 as­sault ri­fle that is man­u­fac­tured by Myan­mar Heavy In­dus­tries and it has a mod­ern de­sign. Other as­sault ri­fles in use are Heck­ler & Koch G3 (of Ger­man-Span­ish ori­gin) and Bel­gian FNFAL. Ma­chine gun with Myan­mar Army is Rhinemetal MG3 (Ger­man gen­eral pur­pose ma­chine gun) still in ser­vice with even Ger­man Army. Heavy ma­chine gun in ser­vice is the old re­li­able M2 Brown­ing. The Myan­mar Army has been con­sid­ered as the most bat­tle tested ar­mies among the ASEAN as it has been in­volved in fight­ing counter-in­sur­gency and other op­er­a­tions since its in­cep­tion.

Other Ar­mies of ASEAN Re­gion

The other ar­mies of the ASEAN are Cam­bo­dian, Laos and Brunei ar­mies. The Brunei Army’s in­fantry is equipped with mod­ern in­fantry weapons like the search and res­cue (SAR) and has ac­quired Pin­dad 2 of Sin­ga­pore and In­done­sian ori­gin it also has ver­sions of M16; be­ing an oil rich Sul­tanate, pos­si­bly the armed forces have ad­e­quate ac­cess to funds. How­ever, same is not the case with its poorer cousins Cam­bo­dian Army and Laos Peo­ple Army who have a mix of Rus­sian, Chi­nese and even Amer­i­can small arms, and are mov­ing grad­u­ally to­wards mod­erni­sa­tion ef­fort of their in­fantries.

Over­all, in South East Asia, most of the in­fantries have been able to mod­ernise suc­cess­fully and some like Sin­ga­pore are even get­ting ready for the wars in the in­for­ma­tion era. Keep­ing the likely na­ture of in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal threats in mind, it can be said that the ef­forts of the South East Asian coun­tries to­wards up­grad­ing their small arms ar­se­nals have been quite sat­is­fac­tory bar­ring per­haps Laos and Cambodia.

A Sin­ga­porean sol­dier takes aim with the SAR-21

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