Troops fought in Gulf war with unreliable rifle: Report catalogues 32 defects in weapon

BRITISH troops were sent into action with a new automatic rifle that fired spontaneously if dropped on its muzzle, had a safety catch that broke, a bayonet that fell off, broke at the tip and was difficult to sharpen, and a trigger that had to be adjusted manually after firing.

The catalogue of errors is contained in a report into the Army's new SA80 rifle, published yesterday by the Commons Defence Committee. MPs found the weapon had 32 errors when it was brought into service in 1986. These ranged from minor technical faults to more fundamental design problems like the fact the gun could not be fired from the left shoulder.

Unless precise cleaning procedures were adopted, the rifle was prone to jam in sand - with almost disastrous consequences during the Gulf war.

The SA80 and its sister model, the Light Support Weapon (LSW) - replacements for the infantry standards, the self-loading rifle and sub-machine gun - were delivered three years late and most of the errors took a further four years to correct. More than 300,000 SA80s and LSWs have been issued so far, at a cost of pounds 384m. Putting them right has cost pounds 24m.

Discussions about liability are still taking place between the MoD and the manufacturers, Royal Ordnance, now part of British Aerospace. 'It will be an outrage if the ministry find they are liable,' the committee concluded. 'At a time when important roles such as the defence of Belize are being axed to save relatively small sums, the defence budget simply cannot afford to fund the replacement of inadequate equipment that it should not have accepted into service in the first place.'

MPs accepted that 'the SA80 is a highly accurate weapon which is now sound when properly maintained'. But they were appalled to find the defects only came to light after the guns had been issued and troops started firing them. An internal MoD study revealed that during the Gulf war, the rifle 'did not cope well with the sand. Infantrymen faced the enemy in close combat unsure whether their weapons would fire or stop.'

A colonel said in evidence to the committee that, during field training for the Gulf, bayonets fell off. According to one estimate, 20 per cent of bayonets broke during the war.

In its report, the defence committee expressed astonishment 'that the ministry should accept into service, and pay for, equipment . . . that appears to verge on the shoddy'. The committee was amazed 'that it has taken over 300 years of personal weapon usage by the British Army' for the MoD to realise that weapons are better tested by troops on the ground than in laboratories.

One problem remains unresolved. Because of its design, the rifle cannot be fired from the left shoulder. Most natural left-handers, claim the MoD, can be trained to fire from the right shoulder. One senior officer told the committee of a Royal Marine who managed to fire the SA80 from his right shoulder, using his left eye.

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