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RAHUL BEDI | 29 APRIL, 2016

Six Years Down the Line, And the Infantry Still Waits for Basic Assault Rifles


NEW DELHI: The Indian Army’s six-year long wait for an assault rifle is nowhere near fruition.

Neither is the debate over whether the army wants to eventually induct a 5.56x5mm or a 7.62x39mm calibre rifle into service, after inept attempts to import a multi-calibre rifle were scrapped last June.

Efforts to acquire such a weapon system were initiated in 2010, after the army declared that the Defence Research and development Organisation (DRDO)- designed Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) 5.56x45mm assault rifle, was ‘operationally unsound’.

In 2012 former Defence Minister A K Antony told parliament that the INSAS rifle had been overtaken by ‘technological development’- a euphemism for a poorly designed weapon system, which the army had grudgingly inducted into service in the late 1990’s, amidst a myriad problems.

The INSAS rifles magazine was known to often crack in extreme hot and cold climates in Rajasthan and Siachen, whilst the weapon was prone to jamming during firefights.

Consequently, global tenders were floated in 2011 for 66,000 multi-calibre rifles weighing no more than 3.6kg, alongside the ability to switch from 5.56x45mm cal to 7.72x39 cal just by changing their barrel and magazine.

The shortlisted model was to have been licence built by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), to meet the army’s immediate requirement for 220,000 assault rifles and eventually an equal, if not larger number for the paramilitaries and provincial police forces.

Trials, which concluded in late 2014, featured four weapons- Italy’s Beretta’s ARX 160 rifle, Czech Republic’s BREN 805, Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) ACE model and US’ Colt Combat Rifle.

None of these met with the army’s unrealistic general staff qualitative requirements (GSQRs), leaving the Infantry, the army’s largest and operationally most active arm, clamouring for a basic rifle for its 359 units and some 100 Rashtriya Rifles and Assam Rifles battalions.

For years, over ambitious GSQR’s have been bane of the Indian military’s modernisation efforts, particularly the army.

Even Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar recently knocked this propensity for overreach, admitting that some GSQR’s seemed to be sourced from ‘Marvel comic books’.

Speaking at the India Today conclave in March 2015 in New Delhi, Parrikar aimed his remarks at former army chief General Bikram Singh sitting beside him, by terming some of the technologies listed in the forces GSQRs as ‘absurd and unrealistic’.

Successive defence parliamentary reports too revealed that numerous army tenders for diverse equipment were withdrawn or terminated because of exaggerated GSQR’s, which in several instances appear fantastical.

Consequently, over the past decade the army has been unable to spend its annual capital allocation for modernisation, as it was simply unable to finalise procurements for non-existent equipment.

After the multi-calibre rifle tender was terminated, the army re-ignited deliberations over which calibre rifle it needed, but has been unable to resolve the debate.

It’s choice is between a 5.56x45mm assault rifle, normally employed in conventional warfare to wound, but not kill enemy soldiers. The battlefield logic is that such a situation would tie down at least one, if not more, of the injured soldiers colleagues, thereby affecting morale and generating panic.

The alternative calibre is the more powerful 7.62x39mm variant, employed in counter insurgency operations, to kill militants or terrorists outright.

But army chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag, swayed by the governments ‘Make in India’ initiative, appears to favour the Excalibur 5.56x45mm assault rifle that is nothing but an upgraded version of the INSAS model.

The gas-operated, fully automatic Excalibur has a foldable butt, a Picatinny rail for sights, sensors and bipods and a barrel that is 4mm shorter than the INSAS rifle.

Gen Suhag has deputed senior Infantry officers to the Ishapore Rifle Factory (IRF) to assist in Excalibur’s development and some 200 prototypes are likely to be tested in desert and mountainous terrain within the year.

But infantry officers are opposed to the rifle.

“Inducting Excalibur would be a major setback to the war fighting capability of the army” Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (reted), the army’s former Director General Infantry, said.

It will saddle the army with a useless rifle for decades, he cautioned.

The army’s quest for 44,618 5.56mm close quarter battle (CQB) carbines, in the pipeline since 2010-11, too awaits resolution.

Extended CQB carbine trials that concluded in 2013, resulted in Beretta’s ARX160 and IWI’s Galil Ace carbines being shortlisted, but the final choice is mired in the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) bureaucratic red tape.

This delay ignores the urgency of the requirement, as the army has been without a carbine since 2010, after the OFB ceased producing the World War 2 Sterling 9mm sub-machine gun. Ironically, the carbine requirement dates back to the late 1990’s when a replacement was first mooted.

The abiding irony of the enduring inefficiency in acquiring these two basic Infantry weapons, is that the small arms profile of India’s paramilitaries-and in some instances, even the state police forces- is superior to the army’s.

Since 2010-11 the Border Security Force (BSF) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRFP) have acquired some 34,377 ‘Storm’ MX-4 Beretta sub-machine guns with under grenade barrel launchers (UBGLs) and around 68,000 AK-47 variant assault rifles from Bulgaria’s state-owned Arsenal.

A follow-on order by the CRPF for 60,000-odd AK-47’s is currently under acquisition.

Other paramilitary buys include 2,540 Tavor X-95 carbines from Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) and over 12, 000 9mm MP-5 sub-machine guns from Germany’s Heckler & Koch, some of which have been further disbursed to special state police units deployed on counter insurgency (COIN) against Naxalites.

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