Personnel reveal shortcomings inside Maltese armed forces

Of the numerous concerns raised by those who spoke to this newspaper, the issue of weapons is arguably the most worrying

Personnel reveal shortcomings inside Maltese armed forces
Personnel reveal shortcomings inside Maltese armed forces

Internal sources who spoke to MaltaToday have complained about the Armed Forces of Malta being “combat-ineffective” due to outdated, worn-out kit, as well as a lack of funding.

Of the numerous concerns raised by those who spoke to this newspaper, the issue of weapons is arguably the most worrying. And while the AFM has very good officers and men, including some of the best shots in the world, much of the equipment available is not fit for purpose, according to sources.

Soldiers’ issued personal load carrying equipment (PLCE) is the ’58 pattern webbing designed in 1958 for the British Army and infamous for causing back pain. “The equipment itself is over 30 years old and in a bad state,” said one soldier, who added that Italian post-war model helmets are still being used as the more modern ones are worn out.

While the recently-formed elite Special Operations Unit (SOU) is well-equipped and issued with SIG530 assault rifles, the rest of the AFM makes do with cheap AK clones. The AFM currently uses four versions of the venerable AK-47: German, Romanian, Russian and Korean as well as some Chinese type 56-2 AK clones donated in 2005. The German and Romanian-made assault rifles were bought second hand in the 1990s, but were still better than the Type 56s, said one soldier, as the latter are falling to pieces and are also highly inaccurate. “The Chinese army uses this weapon for its militia and we are using it as a standard weapon,” he said.

The same goes for the Beretta 92FS pistol – a solid, if old, sidearm. “There are more pistols being repaired than serviceable. 1st Regiment has six functional pistols at the moment.”

The Chinese had also donated 12 RPG 7-Ms and 26 82mm mortars. The RPGs were last used eight years ago and no training has been conducted on them since, said the source, adding that the mortars were never used and that there was only one mortar-trained serviceman left in the AFM. The last time mortar training was carried out was 17 years ago, in 2001, he said.

Chinese Type 80 general purpose machine guns (GPMGs) were described as “rubbish”: “The magazine is not compatible, it gets lots of stoppages and sustained fire will result in the barrel having to be discarded as it cannot be rechromed.” It is rarely used.

The air defence battery (ADB) had stopped operating, the source said. Money appears to be the root of this problem, with a cost of €200 per round fired by the AFM’s Bofors cannon. ZPU anti-aircraft machine guns, gifted by North Korea in 1986 together with 900,000 rounds of ammunition, cannot be fired at their full rate of fire for safety reasons “because we have no idea how many rounds have been fired through the barrels.”

Malta also has no surface-to-air missiles. Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi is understood to have plans for reinvigorating the ADB, however, no details were immediately available on this.

Another source reiterated the low morale among officers due in no small part to the new promotions system which doesn’t distinguish between an infantryman non-commissioned officer and a cook or a clerk of the same rank. The recently-introduced automatic promotion to lance bombardier after four years has hit morale badly.

“Before, you needed to have completed many courses for promotions, today they can be overlooked. They give more importance to schooling and ‘O’ or ‘A’ levels, than to military courses. This saps the will to improve your skillset.”

Role changed

The emphasis of the AFM has changed from defence to its ceremonial and humanitarian roles.

One soldier said that the AFM was conducting more training on the 12-pounder saluting guns than on the other artillery pieces. “They tell us we have a higher standard of drill than the British army. Of course – that’s all we do!” he said.

The AFM, as a whole, is overstretched with commitments which are secondary role duties, such as assisting the police. “The priorities are not right in a techno-tactical logistical sense,” one former officer told MaltaToday. “Where is the money going? You’re spending a lot on Gucci kit for one unit and not the others. Where is the training? Compare the current training budget to that of March 2013 and the training overseas budget. It has to be put under the microscope.”

While the training budget was not available at the time of going to print, the total AFM budget in 2013 was €4.5 million and had increased to €7.4 million by 2017, which lends some credence to the officer’s remarks.

Training

The idea of implementing new courses is there but is lacking back-up, said a source. “In the AFM we’ve reached a stage where you’ll be shut down if you come up with a new idea because this creates work.”

The only regiment making progress is 1st Regiment thanks to its dynamic commanding officer but that unit is still at just 45% strength, he said.

All units are experiencing losses to civilian jobs with better pay. Aircraft technicians can earn twice as much in the private sector and the AFM Band is understood to be down to 48 men instead of the 60 it should have.

“The maritime squadron has barely enough men to continuously man offshore patrol vessel P62,” said one dejected soldier.

The AFM has said, however, that the promotion system was changed to address certain abuse in the old system, which was considered “very subjective, and used to result in a lot of complaints with the appropriate officials, including the Office of the Ombudsman.”

It defended the new “objective” system as one that allowed soldiers to reach their goals in a transparent and meritocratic manner. “This also includes courses to prepare the soldiers for the rank they would be about to be promoted to. Results show that with the implementation of this new promotion system, complaints have lowered to a bare minimum, when compared to previous years.”

AFM reactions

An AFM spokesperson gave the following reply to questions sent by MaltaToday:

“The AFM’s strength establishment currently stands at 70% and this is due to a number of retirements by members of the Force after having reached the twenty-five (25) year service milestone, thus rendering them eligible to enjoy the right of a service pension. This does not mean that the Force has rested on its laurels. It kept investing in its equipment with the acquisition of state-of-the-art assets, whilst it also embarked on a recruitment programme, having new intakes of both regular soldiers as well as Officer Cadets on a yearly basis, aimed at reducing the understrength percentage. Amid all this, the AFM has never shunned any of its responsibilities, still performing and meeting all its roles and responsibilities with success, both locally as well as abroad.”

The AFM also said that during these last five years, it had increased substantially its training investment by 54% from 2013, for members in official accredited institutions, locally and abroad. In equipment the AFM said it had invested over €7.5 million during these last five years.

The AFM also said the Special Operations Unit (SOU) had addressed a capability gap that now gives soldiers a number of skills allowing them to intervene at any time in special circumstances. “Their (SOU, along with other sections of the Force) success was quite evident in recent local operations,” the AFM spokesperson said.

The AFM conceded that while parts of the Barracks have been in disrepair, €9 million was invested during the last five years to upgrade the Units’ guardrooms where regular soldiers perform their guard duties, the administrative areas of the Air Wing as well as that of the Maritime Squadron, new hangars, the complete refurbishment of the Training School, Unit canteens, Data Centre, SOU building, amongst many others.

“Priority has always been given to areas used by the lower ranks. The upgrading of the Officers’ Mess is being carried out following a Health and Safety report.”​

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