In Defense of BLS
ABOVE: Lcpl. Chandler with 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company 1/9 holds security while on a dismounted patrol inserted via helicopter into Now Zad District. Because this was a pre dawn raid, he still has his PVS14s mounted to his kevlar. His M249 SAW is of typical configuration of a Marine Infantry SAW at this point in the war. He has a PEQ16 and SDO mounted (note the RMR), in addition has the Para short barrel and the telescoping stock. Inadvertently he has clipped his sling to the barrel, thus inhibiting a barrel change. Although the M27 IAR has fully replaced the M249 SAW in most aspects, the SAW was still brought out on occasion due to mission requirements.
Within the period of September 2013 to May 2014, the author was deployed to Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan as a rifleman in 1st Battalion 9th Marines. This article is about observations of the interesting myriad of small arms belonging to the ISAF forces stationed there. In no way will this article compromise operational security by revealing ISAF tactics, techniques, or procedures. This is purely a look at the small arms in use from a firearms enthusiast’s perspective.
Within ISAF, Camp Leatherneck was known as Bastion, Leatherneck, Shrobak, or abbreviated as “BLS”. This formally comprised most of the ISAF contingent countries (7 out of 12 to be exact) within its perimeter fences. Afghan ANA, American (Marines, Army), British (RAF and Army), a Georgian Light Infantry Brigade, Jordanian and Bosnian security forces, Estonian Light Armored Reconnaissance, and Danish armor. An American Private Military Contracting (PMC) company by the name of Triple Canopy helps secure the base and has some armament so for the purposes of this piece will be included. For the duration of a combat deployment, the author lived, worked, and fought alongside some of these ISAF nations. Always ever inquisitive about small arms of any type and kind, the author looked into these other nations as well as what his own military had.
United States of America
The Marine Corps presence aboard BLS is certainly the largest troop concentration among the ISAF nations. At any one time while the author was on BLS, there were two infantry battalions, an air wing contingent with transport and attack aircraft, an engineer/ logistics battalion, MARSOC, and all the support and rear echelon personnel required to maintain a forward deployed force. This compilation of a fighting machine is divided into two operational groups; Task Force Belleau Wood (TF BW) and Regional Command South West (RC SW). The Air Wing with its CH53s, OV22s, Hueys, Cobras, Harriers, and C130s support both groups as needed. Task Force Belleau Wood (named after the iconic WW I Marine battle in France) is more so responsible for security and stability operations in the immediate vicinity of BLS out to several districts and including the actual security of the entire base. RC SW is much more far-reaching and is the ISAF sector of Helmand and Nimroz provinces. Both of these combatant commands report to 1st MEF (Forward) commanded by a Brigadier General who took command from a Major General, a sure sign of the downsizing of our ISAF bases all across Afghanistan.
During the author’s previous deployment in 2011, one of the biggest differences in weapons was with machine guns. In 2011 the war was at a considerably different level than what it is today and civilian casualties were not as large as an issue as in the fragile geopolitical level as today. Because of this, extremely heavy use of optical sights on almost all weapon systems was pushed very heavily by the chain of command. M240Bs all had Trijicon Machine Gun Day Optics (MDO) mounted on them whereas .50 caliber M2s had Leupold Heavy Machine Gun Day Optics (HDOs) mounted using Cantilever mounts that clamped on the receivers. Although these mounts had a separate Picatinny rail to mount an Eotech, these were not used as the priority was making sure a gunner could differentiate between enemy and civilian targets.
Designated Marksman Rifles were also issued out in the guise of 5.56x45mm Mark 12s complete with suppressors and Harris bipods. The Leupold 4×8 scopes were even issued out to some M27 gunners because of that rifle’s capability as an extremely accurate and far-reaching weapon. Scout Snipers had their TO/E M50A5s, M107 SASRs, and M110 SASS’s. The M40A5 and SASR were preferred over the M110 because of the extreme ranges that the Taliban would use to engage patrols and the open terrain. Night optics were also a great upgrade from previous deployments with platoons receiving a full compliment of the “Key Hole” suite consisting of thermal UTMs which could be mounted in front of a zeroed scope to co-witness. An attachment for the M203A1 in the form of an RMR sight with IR lasers was also available.
Some units have begun using the LaRue QD mounts for Trijicon RCOs instead of the current screw knobs on their M16/M4s. The mass issue of Knight’s Armament peep rear sights has also become standard. Bear in mind that since the Marine Corps adopted optical sights on their rifles, Infantrymen went from 2004/05 to 2012 without an issued back up rear sight. The front sight posts were always present but are certainly almost useless for accurate shooting without a rear sighting module. There are the detachable carrying handles of course but these are not issued as a back up sight and cannot be placed on the rifle ready to be used without getting in the way of the RCO. Another issue was with the Harris bipods mounted on the M27. Although a renowned bipod, these bipods are intended for sniper rifles that are gingerly taken care of. Not M27s that get tossed all over the place when a patrol is taking effective fire from 400 meters out. Thus a number of bipods broke over the course of deployment, which although not making M27s ineffective, dampened their use as DMR or automatic rifles.
Relating to preventing civilian casualties, Mk31 survival pen flares were issued out to accompany every rifle that went outside the wire. These were effective in stopping a suspicious vehicle instead of shooting at it with ball rounds as a warning shot. The problem though is that these launchers are intended to be packed away somewhere safely and taken out in case of an emergency signaling. But with them mounted directly on the rifles, some of them became ineffective from being constantly banged around wherever the rifle went. This is normal for a rifle being used in combat but not normal for a delicate pen flare launcher.
Another significant change was in holsters for the M9 pistol. Marines have always had an issue with carrying a pistol without gear but then suddenly having to don gear and a hip holster wouldn’t be sufficient because of how low a plate carrier would ride on a Marine’s hips. And not every Marine uses the Blackhawk! SERPA thigh rig. This being an issue, a lot of Marines opted to use a polymer hip holster that holds the pistol a few inches lower than a traditional hip holster and makes it easily accessible with a plate carrier on.
Two units very different than Infantry companies in regards to weapons issue are MARSOC and the base PMO. The author cannot comment much on MARSOC because of the shroud of secrecy they operate in but what the author can say is that the infamous re-adoption of the Colt 1911A1 by MARSOC is alive and well within that community on BLS. PMO had their usual assortment of M9s and M4s, but a previous PMO unit had Mossberg 500 shotguns whereas the more current one had Joint Service semi-automatic M1014 shotguns at their disposal.
As mentioned earlier, Camp Leatherneck is primarily a Marine base but it is managed by the Army. This means that the day-to-day garrison duties and contracts are mostly controlled by the Army command on post, even though this Army command ultimately reports to RC SW, which is Marine operated. There are some significant Army units aboard BLS, to include an Engineer/ Route Clearance unit, a “Dust Off” medevac outfit that flies Black Hawks, the Ammunition Supply Point (ASP) management, some medical personal that work at the Bastion Role Three hospital and Combined Aid Station (CAS), in addition to soldiers working in other minor capacities.
For small arms the Army rear echelon troops have a mixture of M4s, M16A2/A4s and an odd cobbled rifle. It is an M4 lower receiver mounted to an M16A2 upper receiver, with the original carrying handle that has the handguards replaced with modern picatinny rail A4 handguards, and the stock has been removed and replaced with an M4 carbine buffer tube and telescoping stock. For scopes, soldiers have Aimpoints or the battery powered versions of the Trijicon ACOG. These have been observed both mounted on the upper rail and bolted on traditional carrying handles. Their slings are the Army standard issue Blue Force Tactical two-point sling in multicam, same as what Marines are issued but in a different color. Single Point slings are also in use as the Army didn’t have the restrictions on using them that the Marine Corps sometimes has. Some of the M4s are equipped with the smaller Colt stock with sling slot on top. Pistols remain the same, the M9 and is carried in either a hip or thigh holster, both are popular.
Route Clearance is the only force on BLS with automated turret systems. These are designed around the M2HB and the M240 machine guns. They are controlled through a system inside the truck where the gunner looks at a computer screen and can charge the guns, sight in, and even fix a malfunction with it. Some of the systems are incorporated with the Boomerang gunshot detection system so they can rotate automatically to the direction of the threat.
Route Clearance units use M240Bs equipped with a switch mount magnifier and a holographic sight, in addition to M249 SAWs in various configurations. Short or long barrels, original stocks and the new telescoping ones. Mounted on these M249s are either Elcans or SDOs without the RMR reflex sight that the Marine Corps puts on their SDOs. Some of the soldiers even have Mossberg 500 shotguns, mostly with the pistol grip version for better compactness inside a tactical vehicle.
There is a small Navy outfit within the American ISAF contingent and this a SeaBee battalion that works on base infrastructure and other such construction projects. There are also a number of Navy Corpsmen in every Marine unit but these Sailors are armed along the same lines as Marines. The SeaBees on the other hand, mostly just have M16A4s, which set them apart because they don’t have AN/Q PEQ 16s or optical sights. Their rails are always covered in rail covers and they have the removable carrying handle. For handguns they have issued Beretta M9s but some of them have Sig Saur P226s. These sailors usually don’t go outside the wire as their primary job on Leatherneck is construction and repair of various facilities on the base.
The British ISAF contingent is the second largest ISAF troop presence on BLS. After all, the base did start with British Camp Bastion. This is very evident when overlooking the layout and construction of Bastion with many of the building and streets already several years old and of pavement instead of brand new and dirt as is on Leatherneck. Bastion has almost 3 times the number of Post Exchanges (PXs) and even has a steak house, a Pizza Hut, a KFC and an Italian sit down restaurant.
For personal rifles all British troops are issued the SA80 or L85, the A2 version being most prevalent with the A3 version in limited quantities on Camp Bastion. These are not the SA80s of yore that suffered from horrible reliability problems but have been remanufactured by H&K complete with Picatinny rails, surefire flash suppressors, grip pods, and a full combat load of Magpul window EMags, much to the jealously of Marines (polymer magazines were banned from use in Marine rifles). Laser Aiming Modules (LAMs) are also issued out. These are made by Oerkin and have visible/ IR laser capabilities along with a small flashlight. Slings in use are a simple garrison green two-point sling. But troops that go outside the wire usually have an issued clip that attaches to the rear of the rifle and can be clipped to an Osprey while on patrol. Rifles are painted with a Flat Dark Earth color to better conceal the black finish. Rifles that have been in-theater for a good amount of time are easily recognizable because this paint has worn off in spots.
Scopes for the L85 are actually a good variety in issue. The rear echelon troops have the standard SUSAT with back up iron sights and external adjustment knobs that move the entire scope instead of the internal aiming post. But the troops that go outside the wire can be seen with the Lightweight Day Sight (LDS, Trijicon ACOG), Common Weapons Sight (CWS), Elcan, or the Maxikite scope. Some of these have a miniature reflex sight mounted on top as a back up or for close in ranges.
For a Designated Marksman Rifle, (which the British call “Sharpshooter”) the British certainly do have a very impressive pick. Earlier in 2012, the Ministry of Defense adopted the L129A1 “Sharpshooter” rifle from the small custom company of Lewis Machine & Tool. This is a precision 7.62x51mm NATO rifle with telescoping stock and two kinds of scopes mounted. The more prevalent one is the Trijicon ACOG 648 beefed up for 7.62 with an RMR mounted on top. The second is a Schmidt & Bender 4×12 scope with Accuracy International adjustment turrets. All rifles have Harris bipods, 20 round Pmags, and the much revered SOPMOD stock. They come in a tan finish already so do not chip like the L95s which seem to be mostly spray painted.
Light machine guns used by the British consist mostly of the 5.56x45mm Minimi, always equipped with the soft ammunition pouch containing 100 rounds. Some of these have scopes on them and the rest are iron sights. Minimis are equipped with a two point sling and have the collapsible Para buttstock. The Light Support Weapon (LSW), the light machine gun version of the L95 is in use but it is very sparingly.
Medium and heavy machine guns are similar to Marines in that the FN Herstal GPMG as the L7A2 and .50 caliber M2HB are used as up guns in their Foxhound and Mastiff tactical vehicles. However the Foxhound has two GPMGs mounted on either ends of the vehicle, thus giving the vehicle a true 360 degree security posture whereas all American vehicles only have one gunner turret that can rotate. It should be noted that although the British GPMG and American M240B are the same operating system, the GPMG is smaller and lighter in comparison. Not by barrel length but in the shape of the stock, barrel changing handle, and barrel. In addition, optics are very prevalent on American machine guns but the British have much fewer optics on their medium and heavy machine guns.
The British have 3 types of handguns in use on Bastion by officers and specified enlisted men. In order of amount issued are the Glock 17, the SIG Saur P226, and the Browning Hi Power (all 9x19mm). The Radnor 1957 holster is issued almost exclusively with the Glocks, being able to be thigh mounted, traditional belt mounted, or on the Osprey flak jackets. The SIG P226s are carried in either Blackhawk! holsters in similar holster configurations. The Browning Hi Power, although very low in presence among the forces, is still carried by some rear echelon officers, entirely in traditional hip holsters.
UK Special Forces are present on Camp Bastion, mainly members of the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines. Although not SAS or SBS these men are used in a special operations role. Apart from their missions taking priority and thus them being able to pick most anything they require for a mission, they do have a somewhat standardized small arms setup.
An interesting difference between Marines and British troops is in our weapons handling. One of the SOPs for the British is to always have the hammer forward and firearm on fire, whether it be an LMT L129A1 Sharpshooter or L95, only being put on safe when a round has been chambered. This differs from the Marine Corps SOP of always having a weapon on safe (except for M249s, M240Bs) and hammer cocked. The British method certainly helps with reducing the stress on the hammer spring while the Marine Corps method is looking more at safety. Another tidbit is that the British are much more finicky about their rifles. Weapon maintenance is only performed in the presence of an NCO and at a designated area or armory. Marines are entrusted to safely clean their weapons whenever the time permits, mostly in their rooms which is against regulations in the British garrison rules. It must be noted that there were examples of negligent discharges with both British and American personnel.
Since the UK isn’t a very gun-friendly country, the amount of personalizing a weapon to a soldiers needs is very slim. Different when compared to Marines who go out of their way to purchase different bipods, grips, magazines, slings, and whatever else makes them more comfortable with their weapon system. Marines don’t go so far as to illegally modify the actual weapon but do add some items that make life easier. The British, on the other hand, don’t even have the resource of parts in the UK to purchase from. Some soldiers even buy Airsoft parts to substitute for actual firearm accessories because Airsoft has a heavy presence among hobbyists in the UK.