In late 2019 Japan revealed that its military (the SDF or Self-Defense Forces) will receive new types of rifles and pistols. The new assault rifle is the Howa 5.56, which will replace the Type 89, a rifle based on the American AR-18 introduced in 1989. The AR-18 was an improved AR-15 design that was cheaper to manufacture and avoided some of the problems the AR-15 suffered from. The M-16 was a military version of the AR-15 that was further developed by the U.S. military and is still in service, mainly as the M-4. The M-16 type weapons are being replaced in the American military by a new design using 6.8mm ammo. The new Howa 5.56 won a competition involving the HK 416 and SCAR-L. These two weapons were also candidates to replace the American M16/M4 rifles.
The Howa 5.56 is a new design introduced in 2016 but the manufacturer has not released specifications, only pictures. It looks a lot like the FN SCAR-L that was introduced in 2009. SCAR-L is a 3.29 kg (7.3 pound) weapon that is 889mm (35 inches) long with the stock extended, and 635mm (25 inches) with the stock folded. The barrel is 355mm (14 inches) long and the weapon is a gas-operated short-stroke piston with a rolling bolt. The SCAR-L, like several similar rifles, was designed with modularity in mind and uses the superior short-stroke gas piston system to automatically extract the cartridge after the bullet has been fired, and load the next round. This is preferred to the M16 gas-tube (direct impingement) system, which results in carbon being blown back into the chamber. That leads to carbon build-up, which results in jams (rounds getting stuck in the chamber, and the weapon unable to fire.). In the short-stroke system, hot gases are trapped in an easy to clean piston rather than the bolt and carrier section. In theory this system is a little less accurate than direct impingement but offers much better reliability. It should be noted that a little less accuracy in assault rifles is an acceptable tradeoff in a real firefight. Even modern M16/M4 (much improved vs early Vietnam era variants) are less reliable than piston-driven competitors. During an M16/M4 vs HK 416 comparison test, the later had 75 percent fewer jams.
The Howa 5.56 also uses the Extruded Aluminum uppers and polymer lowers as seen in the other recent designs. It is a simple and cost-efficient production method. The only available photo shows also a foldable stock similar to SCAR-L or HK 433. The controls look identical to other AR-15 style rifle and it has foldable iron sights mounted on a full length 12 o’clock Picatinny rail. The Japanese have ordered 3,283 Howa assault rifles for $2,800 each. This is probably only the first batch because the SDF currently has around 151,000 active personnel who use assault rifles.
The current SDF pistol, the Minebea 9mm Pistol (a licensed SIG Sauer P220 copy) is being replaced by the German made HK SFP9 which bested Italian Beretta APX and Austrian Glock.
HK SFP9 is a striker-fired polymer frame design with a steel frame and uses magazines that hold 15 standard 9 mm rounds. Thanks to the usage of polymer it weighs only about 703 grams (1.55 pounds) empty. Moreover, it has a very good ergonomic because the grip structure was co-designed by Nill Griffe, who was responsible among others for the iconic HK PSG-1 pistol grip, and all controls are ambidextrous so left-handed users will feel like at home. The initial batch will involve 323 pistols $876 each. That will be followed by more orders in the coming years as the older pistols are retired.
The Japanese are continuing their effort to upgrade SDF amid simmering tensions with China and a still dangerous North Korea. The small arms upgrade is a part of more large scale modernization. Moreover, it should be noted that Japan again tries to procure a new system domestically or via license production. It isn’t the cheapest way to do but it provides better control over new equipment than buying “from the shelf”. --- Przemyslaw Juraszek