DAC clears $ 2b Indian Army proposal for Assault Rifles

Infantry modernisation plans received a major boost when the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), chaired by Mrs N Sitharaman, Defence Minister, accorded approval in principle to several weapons systems for the infantry. These include the procurement of Light Machine Guns for the three Services through the Fast Track Procedure at an estimated cost of Rs 1,819 crore. The balance quantity will be procured under the ‘Buy and Make (Indian)’ category.

The procurement of 7,40,000 Assault Rifles was approved under the ‘Buy and Make (Indian)’ category at an estimated cost of Rs 12,280 crore ($1.9 billion). The DAC also approved the procurement of 5,719 Sniper Rifles for the Indian Army and Indian Air Force at a cost of Rs 982 crore ($150 million) under the ‘Buy Global’ category. However, while the ammunition for these will be initially procured from abroad, subsequently it will be manufactured in India.

According to a Ministry of Defence (MoD) press release, “In the last one month, to equip the soldiers on the border with modern and more effective equipment, the DAC has fast tracked procurement of the three main personal weapons, i.e., Rifles, Carbines and Light Machine Guns.”

As the Indian Army is deployed in large numbers on border management and internal security duties, even as it trains for a two-front war, the inordinate delays in the replacement of the army’s obsolescent weapons and equipment and the inability to undertake qualitative modernisation to meet future threats and challenges are worrisome.

The modernisation plans of India’s cutting edge infantry battalions, which are aimed at enhancing their capability for surveillance and target acquisition at night and boosting their firepower for precise retaliation both in conventional conflict and against infiltrating columns and terrorists holed up in built-up areas, were till now stuck in an acquisition quagmire.

5.56 mm or 7.62 mm Calibre Assault Rifle?

During battle an infantryman is required to close-in with the enemy and his basic weapon for close combat is an assault rifle. Since 1998, the Indian army has been equipped with the 5.56 mm Indian National Small Arms System (INSAS). During and after the Kargil conflict in 1999, many problems were reported while using INSAS rifles. Complaints of frequent jamming, the magazine cracking due to the cold and the rifle going into automatic mode when it was set for three-round bursts have been commonplace. There is also the issue of oil being sprayed into the eye of the soldier and injuries have been reported during firing practice. Though the DRDO has tried to resolve these issues, the user has not been satisfied.

The army’s efforts to replace the malfunctioning 5.56 mm INSAS rifle, with a fault-free modern assault rifle, have been hanging fire for over ten years, partly because the army kept vacillating between 5.56mm and 7.62 mm as the standard calibre for its future assault rifle. One school of thought hypothesised that it is better to injure enemy soldiers during war rather than killing them as an injury means four soldiers will get involved in casualty evacuation. On the other hand, in counter-insurgency operations it is the other way around. A stage came when it was being debated whether both 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm inter-changeable barrels should be issued to infantry battalions.

While the infantry is going back to the 7.62 mm calibre, which is heavier and has a longer range, according to Ajai Shukla, a defence analyst, the second type of weapon, which will arm personnel in infantry battalions other than those in the four rifle companies and the commando platoon plus all non-infantry units, is optimised for counter-insurgency operations, being lighter and with a smaller bullet that a soldier can carry in larger numbers. This implies that the rest of the army will be equipped with an indigenously manufactured 5.56 mm rifle. While the solution may be cost effective, the provisioning, stocking and replenishment of two types of ammunition will certainly be a logistics challenge. Handling two types of ammunition within the same infantry battalion will be a nightmare for the Quarter Master and his staff.

Procurement Plans

The army needs to procure approximately 800,000 assault rifles at a cost of about Rs 16,000 crore ($2.46 billion) for its 450 infantry and Rashtriya Rifles battalions (each battalion has 800 personnel).Till recently It had been believed that the army planned to import 65,678 larger calibre 7.62 mm rifles that are more lethal, with another 120,000 to be made in India. There have been repeated cancellations of ongoing acquisitions in recent years due to various glitches in the procurement process. The salient cancellations include the acquisition of 65,678 assault rifles and 44,600 carbines, in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Lt Gen P C Katoch (Retd) wrote in early 2013: “The assault rifles under consideration were the Heckler & Koch, G 36 modular 5.56mm assault rifle (German), the Beretta 70/90 (Italy), SAR 21 of Singapore Technologies, XM 8 (USA), Steyr A3 (Austria), Tavor TAR 21 5.56mm and IMI Galil 7.62mm from Israel, Arsenal AK-74 (Bulgaria), Herstal F-2000 (Belgium) and SIG SG 551 (Switzerland) among others.”

In an interview with Ajai Shukla, General Bipin Rawat, the COAS, had said in November 2017 that he had decided to import only 250,000 state-of-the-art assault rifles. These rifles of 7.62 mm calibre would be issued to combat infantrymen who are required to close-in with the enemy. The COAS said, “Since a state-of-the-art assault rifle will cost about Rs 200,000 each in the global market, let us issue these only to frontline infantry soldiers who confront the enemy armed only with their rifles… Let us provide a cheaper indigenous option to other soldiers, for whom the rifle is not a primary weapon.” The army is working along these lines.

It was reported in August 2017 that the MoD had retracted the RfP (Request for Proposal) for the acquisition of 44,000 7.62 mm Light Machine Guns (LMGs) on the grounds that “it had become a single-vendor situation with only the Israeli Weapons Industries (IWI) left in the fray after protracted trials from December 2015 to February 2017.” Approximately 4,400 LMGs were to be imported; the rest were to be manufactured in India with ToT. All of these acquisitions were cancelled after a long-drawn tendering process and protracted trials. The projects have been delayed by five to seven years.

As the private sector is being gradually permitted to manufacture arms and ammunition and even export these, Indian companies are coming forward to form joint ventures with MNCs. In the field of small arms, among others, Punj Lloyd is collaborating with Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) to manufacture small arms under a technology transfer arrangement. The first plant will manufacture weapons like the Ace, X95 and Tavor assault rifles (Tavor is already in service with India’s Special Forces), the Galil sniper rifle and the Negev light machine gun. As Indian engineers and managers begin to gain experience in the design, development and manufacture of weapons systems, such ventures will contribute to achieving self-reliance in defence acquisitions.

Systems Approach

The army has initiated a project to equip all its infantry battalions with a system that had for long been called the Future Infantry Soldier as a System (F-INSAS). The new system will be a force-multiplier and will include a modular weapon with a thermal imaging sight, a new assault rifle with an UBGL that will replace the INSAS rifle, a Laser range finder, a combat helmet equipped with a head-up display and communications head set, a smart vest with a body monitoring system, a back pack with integrated GPS and radio and protective footwear. The new combat system is expected to be built indigenously with COTS components being imported. It resembles the US Army Land Warrior system and is expected to cost over Rs 25,000 crore ($3.85 billion) to equip over 350 infantry battalions.

Infantry modernisation plans also include the acquisition of hand-held battlefield surveillance radars (BFSRs), and hand-held thermal imaging devices (HHTIs) for observation at night. Stand-alone infra-red, seismic and acoustic sensors need to be acquired in large numbers to enable infantrymen to dominate the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan and detect the infiltration of Pakistan-sponsored terrorists. The army also requires more than 350,000 new bullet-proof jackets but only 50,000 have been ordered so far. The army had requisitioned the jackets almost ten years ago.

To enable the army to fight and win the nation’s future wars in an era of strategic uncertainty, the government must give a major boost to the army’s modernisation drive. Infantry modernisation, in particular, has been stagnating for over a decade. The approval of necessity given by the Defence Minister for the acquisition of infantry weapons worth Rs 15,081 crore (2.32 billion) is just the first step on the procurement ladder. Even under the fast track procedure, it will be one to two years before the contracts are signed and another couple of years before the first deliveries begin.

The army’s modernisation plans require substantially higher budgetary support than what has been forthcoming over the last decade. The speeding up of the weapons and equipment acquisition process is also necessary. Doctrine, organisation and training standards will need to keep pace with technological modernisation to make the Indian Army a 21st century force to be reckoned with.

– Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd) is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.