by senior correspondent Rod Pascoe
In mid 2015, the Federal Government signed a contract with Thales Australia to produce new rifles for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The contract, worth around $100 million, is to supply 30,000 rifles and 2500 SL40 grenade launchers. Along with spare parts and various ancillaries, the contract is to be phased in over six years. Two versions of the rifle will be delivered: the F90M standard rifle with a 20" barrel and the F90 carbine with a 16" barrel. Adding the grenade launcher to each makes them the F90M(G) and F90(G).
The New South Wales town of Lithgow has been supplying rifles to Australian soldiers for more than 100 years. The Lithgow Small Arms Factory was established in 1912 to build the SMLE No.1 Mk III .303-calibre rifle. Since then, the factory has gone from fully government owned to being corporatised in 1989 under the control of Australian Defence Industries Pty Ltd (ADI). Today, it is totally owned by the Australian subsidiary of the French-based multinational, the Thales Group.
Building a new rifle
When Thales looked at the current military hardware markets around the world, it found there were no significant breakthrough technologies that would take infantry assault rifles in a new direction. There was still the same tried and trusted technology using NATO-standard 5.56mm ammunition. “We’ve had a long experience with the Austeyr AUG F88 platform since the late 1980s when it was chosen by the Commonwealth to replace the old 7.62mm SLR,” said Graham Evenden, Thales Australia’s director of Integrated Weapons and Sensors. “After close consultation, we understood that a significantly enhanced F88 for the ADF was important; taking advantage of new insights into the arm and what we could do with it.
“Enhancing the F88 allowed our customer to minimise the costs associated with replacing a rifle with a completely new type. These [costs] include training, maintenance, storage, technical documentation and all kinds of other things. ADF personnel were already familiar with the Steyr platform,” said Graham.
The Commonwealth set some demanding performance requirements to come up with a worthy enhancement and Thales had an interesting way of approaching it. “We took some of our best and brightest designers and engineers and basically locked them in a room for a few weeks so they could focus on going back to basics with the F88 and working out how it could be improved to meet the new requirements,” said Graham. “And you know what? We didn’t just meet them, we exceeded them through a fairly radical redesign of the arm that crucially removed half a kilo in weight while boosting performance and reliability.”
This activity was unusual for Lithgow. For more than a century the factory had been a place where they built other people’s designs, including the .303 SMLE, Vickers machine-gun and the SLR from the UK, as well as the Minimi from Belgium and the Steyr from Austria. “We took a decision as a company to invest in new design, engineering and testing skills so we could do a proper job with this and design what was basically a new arm based on the F88 foundation. And the result has paid dividends, not just for the F90 but also for the CrossOver for the sporting shooter market,” said Graham.
“Along with the new skills, we bought new software and testing equipment so we could provide a greater level of capability than had ever been done at Lithgow. We took this seriously and went through the usual process of continually refining the design, testing it, talking to the customer, then refining and testing again until we were positive we had an arm that would exceed the customer’s specifications. This involved all kinds of reliability testing, including extreme temperature tests, sandstorm tests, giving it a mud bath and firing it, and in total firing over a million rounds down the range.
“After we finalised the core design and testing, the customer took some prototypes for various testing within Defence. This included trials with soldiers, first of the non-firing kind - ergonomics and so on - and then later on with actual firing. From the start the feedback was really good from the soldiers,” said Graham.
“All in all, we’ve been really pleased by the customer’s reactions to the F90. When the feedback from the trials was so positive, we knew we had a very good weapon that would serve the ADF well for years to come,” said Graham.
“The big winners from our customer’s point of view were the rifle’s weight and the grenade launcher. We did something really interesting with this and it’s a key feature. The in-service F88 SA2 had a grenade launcher that needed to be attached by an armourer. By contrast, the F90 includes a side-loading 40mm grenade launcher that attaches quickly on a rail so any soldier can do it in a couple of seconds. “The launcher’s trigger goes through the rifle’s triggerguard and is placed just in front of the rifle’s trigger. This means the soldier does not have to move his hands or change the grip to fire the grenade, which is so much easier. The grenade launcher itself is equipped with a lightweight robust quadrant sight that ensures rapid target acquisition, can be used at night, and is compatible with night vision goggles.”
The new rifle and grenade launcher is 1.5kg lighter than the previous version on the F88, which is a significant benefit. And that’s despite the new SL40 grenade launcher being made of forged steel rather than aluminium. In ADF service, the rifle will be known as the Enhanced F88 or EF88, marking a significant enhancement of the original Austeyr F88. Thales continues to work closely with Steyr, but the intellectual property in the F90 all belongs to Thales Australia. Steyr designed the SL40 grenade launcher for the F90.
Where to from here?
Lithgow has a distinct place in Australian history, having supported Australia’s soldiers from the First World War to today. It was also the first mass-production manufacturing facility in Australia, in any industry. These two things give it a unique claim to fame and because of this, people take a great interest in what goes on there. At the site, there is so much history and so many stories, not only about the arms and technology, but of the people who worked there in the past.
Graham said that Thales has invested significant amounts of money into Lithgow over the past few years and he genuinely believes it has brought a breath of fresh air to the place. “We want it to have a future, a successful future, and that means putting the time and effort into developing new products and selling them,” he said.
“The F90 project has gone well and we are currently exploring export opportunities for it. Additionally, and as your readers are well aware, over the past couple of years we’re branched into the non-defence market, relaunching the manufacturing of sporting rifles in Lithgow. The sales of the CrossOver have been good and we’ve been pleased with the feedback from local shooters about our work. We’re now close to launching the centrefire versions and once again will be eager to hear the feedback from the community.
“We’re working on a few other ideas on the defence and civil side and you’ll be hearing about those in the near future,” Graham concluded.
Look for the April 2016 edition of Australian Shooter for the full story.