Military identities, conventional capability and the politics of NATO standardisation at the beginning of the Second Cold War, 1970-1980


The need to standardise equipment, weapons and doctrine in NATO was recognized as a strategic imperative from the onset of the Cold War. As Eliot Cohen noted in an article published in Foreign Policy in 1978, ‘non-standardised armies require unique and separate supply lines, making wide-ranging manoeuvres difficult…neighbouring troops of different nationalities cannot supply each other with spare parts’. One 1979 MoD letter compared the coherence of NATO’s conventional capability unfavourably to that of the Warsaw Pact, which enjoyed ‘total uniformity of doctrine, training, and equipment’. There were also economic implications of the failure to standardise, with one American official estimating that duplicative R&D and logistics systems and inefficient production cost NATO around $10bn annually. From the beginning, however, NATO powers disagreed on which technologies should be standardised across the alliance; some thought that the only real prospects for standardisation lay in cooperation initiatives between two or three NATO member states, where there could be reasonable expectations of doctrinal homogeneity.

Although most scholarly interest in alliance politics has concentrated on the management of the NATO’s nuclear forces, an article recently published in International History Review switches attention to this problem of creating conventional capability from the armed forces of 15 different nations at the start of the second Cold War. Focusing in particular on efforts to standardize small arms systems, this article uses Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to show how points of ostensibly mundane technical disagreement constructed and reflected power relations across NATO during the late 1970s. It argues that small arms RSI illustrated not only the diversity and volatility of strategic interests within the alliance, but also the longstanding layering of technological development (in an alliance-wide socio-technical network) in between national identity and the broader economic considerations of materiel standardisation. In line with much Social Shaping of Technology (SST) literature, this article reminds us that technical goals are never neutral, and the process by which technical priorities are established is itself a social and political one. Standardisation in NATO was not a value-free technical ideal, but rather a means by which an Alliance partner or network could establish hegemonic control through political and strategic cohesion. This analysis focuses primarily on the patterns of thought and interactions between the three dominant NATO actors who were proposing their own technical solutions – the United States, the FRG and the United Kingdom – as they geared up to trial new ammunition and weapons in the late 1970s. The article explores how debates over small arms development in each of these states were constructed in unique ways, and fed into an alliance-wide socio-technical network that was largely adversarial in character.

 National Military Requirements

In the US, for example, small arms preferences were consistently anchored in the marksmanship tradition that was embodied by the Springfield Rifle and latterly the M-1 Garand from the First and Second World Wars. Committed to the 7.62mm calibre, US officers flatly refused to consider alternatives during standardisation debates in the 1950s. While the US Army had adopted the 5.56mm calibre with the M16, this had hinged on the construction of new myths relating to lethality. These myths were sustained by an active marketing campaign engineered by Eugene Stoner, the lead designer of the M16, and Colt Industries, the new owner of the production license after ArmaLite sold its rights to the weapon. Though the US had done more than any other power to integrate the standardisation imperative into its domestic defence policy process, the M16 represented a historic tradition of American soldiering, and in light of the political, financial and social capital that had been committed to it, standardisation of any other system would been extremely painful for the US small arms community.

While the FRG, conversely, had very much bought into the RSI benefits of adopting the 7.62mm cartridge when it adopted the FN FAL (designated the G1 rifle) in 1956, the FRG was the only major arms producer in the Alliance to reject the SS109 cartridge in favour of their own prototype weapon and ammunition after the 1976 MOU. Instead of adopting the American 5.56mm round, the FRG decided to hold off making changes in the hope that they could re-equip with the far lighter, caseless 4.7mm G11 rifle upon its (planned) completion in the 1980s.

Rather than a commitment to a particular image of soldiering, however, the FRG’s view had been shaped by both scepticism of the utility of large-calibre ammunition in modern combat and a commitment to mechanized infantry. The nature of the FRG battlespace, marked by limited lines of exposure (under 600m across 70% of the country’s area), had led to the development of the Marder Infantry Fighting Vehicle, whose value lay in its allowing infantry to be able to engage the enemy on the way to an objective. Amid the strengthening of Soviet mechanized infantry capability in the 1970s, the Bundeswehr increasingly sought a small arms system smaller and lighter than that in use by NATO powers at the time. As far back as 1969, one British officer observed that the Bundeswehrwas ‘already replacing G3 rifles with SMGs [sub-machine guns] in some of their mechanised infantry battalions’. Moreover, unlike their counterparts in the US, FRG officers had long thought that riflemen were ‘not very effective at hitting targets beyond about 300m’, and that a ‘low-performance, light, small-calibre weapon should enable quick and accurate aiming’.

 Despite its long-held opposition to intermediate calibres following the decision to abandon the 7mm EM-2 rifle in 1954, the UK submitted an even smaller round (the 4.85x49mm) to the NATO trials in 1976. Rather than reflecting a resurgent desire to standardise small arms, however, these decisions resulted more from the technical imperatives arising out of operations in Northern Ireland. One MOD working paper stated that there was a requirement for equipment that would allow commanders to ‘produce a graduated response and to ensure better protection for troops’ while soldiers were ‘in the full glare of publicity and detailed press comment and within the bounds of very tight political restrictions’; the tendency of large cartridges to inflict dramatic injuries was identified as being a particular problem. Testing during the 1970s found that ‘the SLR lacks the degree of selectivity necessary to ensure that only the person at which it is aimed will be damaged’ and that ‘the ideal is a round with the same accuracy as afforded by the rifle but which does not penetrate nor make a wound of dreadful appearance’. In all, the British approach to NATO small arms RSI was shaped by a socio-technical backdrop no less intricate than that of the USA or FRG. The increasing involvement of British forces in a ‘civil power’ operation in Northern Ireland, in particular, shaped priorities on range and lethality away from the US position.

The Evolution of the Socio-Technical Network

Crucially, while the differences between these sets of socially constructed ‘national military requirements’ were significant, it was just as much their layering into NATO’s broader relational socio-technical network that created an (initial) impasse at the NATO trials in 1979-80. As the article concludes, efforts to achieve RSI in NATO had become increasingly overshadowed by each country’s wish not just for standardisation to serve its own doctrinal requirements, but to achieve consensus around a small arms system of its own making. Historic animosities relating to prior humiliations and economic imperatives were layered in between national military utility calculations, and made the achievement of a consensus all but impossible. Inthe US, in particular, commitment to larger cartridges had always been linked to ‘national, institutional and personal biases’ against small arms technology developed overseas.

The impasse ultimately allowed an entirely different kind of actor, the Belgian arms manufacturer Fabrique Nationale, to achieve a degree of consensus around a new cartridge, the SS109. As a commercial actor, FN took advantage of the different challenges facing the big three powers to redefine the problem in terms that were less ambitious but acceptable to all; the FRG accepted 5.56 as a standard but did not itself adopt the SS109 for service, while both the UK and US were able to re-tool their own service rifles to fire the new cartridge. This case study thus reveals the extent to which national defence priorities deviated from those of the NATO alliance during the Cold War. Only the FRG’s strategic agenda was aligned with the defence of Europe; the attitudes of the British and Americans to defence cooperation were conditioned by their participation in other conflicts, their national biases, and even their economic interests. In this way, the sociology of small arms development is indicative of the incoherence and volatility of collective strategic thinking generally, and of the vast networks of countervailing interests on which it is based.

Featured image: Irish Guards on exercise in Germany, 1975. The section, led by a lance corporal, all carry SLR rifles except for the radio operator (third from front ) who is armed with a Sterling sub machine gun. Note the different types of DPM (disruptive pattern material ) uniform worn by the section, via the Imperial War Museum.

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