The new AK-203 will meet the army’s need and give a fillip to ‘Make in India’ policy
There is a considerable satisfaction in the Indian Army that finally a new assault rifle has been selected and that production will soon begin at Ordnance Factory at Korwa near Amethi. It is reported that the Joint Venture (JV) to produce the AK-203 was ‘fastest ever’ created by Russia. The need for an assault rifle has been felt ever since the INSAS was introduced and was not found to be up to the mark. However, given the manner in which our defence acquisition process progresses as also the ever-shrinking allocation for defence in each successive budget has delayed the project till now.
It must also be acknowledged that the big-ticket requirements of the Indian Navy and the Air Force had taken the urgency off this requirement. The fact that the low-level insurgency being faced in Kashmir and parts of the Northeast could be combated by the present small arms used by the army also contributed to the lower priority that came to be accorded to the search for a new and modern assault rifle. The army also has a share in this delay because of the changing qualitative requirements as newer features became available as well as the fact that the ‘incapacitation versus kill’ debate was later changed in favour of the latter at an advanced stage. However, that is now in the past and the present JV should fulfil two needs, one, the requirement of the army and two, a fillip to the ‘Make in India’ policy of the government, which has foundered despite its positive aim.
Another factor that should help is that since the AK-203 incorporates the latest features, it will be possible to export these once the basic needs of the country’s security forces, both military and civil armed police, are met.
The introduction of the AK-203 will help our troops who are deployed in counter-insurgency role, in defending the border, particularly on the Line of Control (LC) and above all the Infantry whose basic weapon is the rifle. Understanding why this should be so, we need to look beyond just capabilities of the weapon, examine its evolution and need, its ability to enhance the fighting potential of the Infantry soldier and indeed all those who are required to fight in close proximity of the enemy.
Prime Minister Modi launching AK-203 rifles facility in Amethi, along with Union and state dignitaries
The family of small arms may be considered to consist of the personal man-portable weapons that a soldier carries in battle and the main user and beneficiary of this is the Infantry. These comprise the pistol, carbine, rifle and the light machine gun. This definition may not satisfy the purist but suffices for the purpose of this discussion. At the time of Independence, we had inherited the World War II weapons which had proved their utility.
However, the limitations of the .303 rifle were embarrassingly exposed during the 1962 war with China as our troops fought with antiquated weapons, mainly the bolt loading single shot rifle. The Infantry was unable to cope with the ‘human wave’ tactics that the Chinese deployed. The situation was worsened by the fact that most of the engagements took place at high altitude which affected the performance of the rifles and carbines. The light machine gun with its automatic capability was of greater use but the restricted weight that the jawan could carry, ill equipped, ill supported and unsuitably clothed as he was, all led to degrading of performance. The .38 revolver then in service was next to useless except for personal defence.
However, after the war of 1962 the army received very quickly, the 7.62mm SLR (Self Loading Rifle) of western origin and this was a great improvement on the old .303 rifle. The carbine remained more or less the same and was as temperamental and prone to stoppages as before. The old .38 revolver with six rounds was replaced by the 9mm machine pistol, but it still remained useful only for personal protection. The 7.62mm light machine gun was also an improvement. The induction of this family of small arms along with improved clothing and equipment, better understanding of high-altitude warfare and improved, sustained training resulted in the newly expanded army becoming more confident and proficient. This proved its worth in both the 1965 and 1971 wars. However, by the late Eighties, the limitations of the 7.62mm family started becoming apparent and this was highlighted by the experience of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) used an assortment of weapons including the American M-16 rifle firing a 5.56mm bullet but the mainstay of their armoury was the AK-47 rifle. As we faced the AK-47 we realised its efficacy in the sort of fighting that the IPKF was engaged in. It was lighter, fired a 7.62mm bullet, could be fired in the automatic burst mode and was able to produce a greater volume of fire at the point of contact. The heavy firing pin that the rifle had ensured that it had far fewer stoppages. This was all important in the sort of sharp, brief engagements the LTTE preferred, as their aim was to cause damage and disappear. We did not realise it immediately but the LTTE treated the interregnum of fighting the IPKF as a prelude to the showdown with the Sri Lankan army, they saw as being inevitable. (That this duly occurred after the IPKF left, is another matter.) What this experience taught the Indian Army was that the AK-47 was the preferred weapon of insurgents around the world and we needed a weapon of this type if we had to fight similar wars – just to keep up with such an adversary! In practice, a captured AK-47 was much sought after and the jawan or officer who captured it, would establish right over it and use it instead of the issue 7.62mm rifle. It reflected poorly on our ability to visualise requirements of the future for the Infantry.
In a personal aside, the author was witness in Sri Lanka to a modification carried out by the Ishapore Rifle Factory to fire the 7.62mm SLR in a controlled burst mode. A senior officer visited our Headquarters and preached the capability and advantages of the modification he had brought. We listened sceptically and he proposed to demonstrate this to us and an officer from our Headquarters took him to the bank of the neighbouring lagoon where weapons could be fired at will. This party was soon back. Our visitor had almost dislocated his shoulder and his shirt had torn severing the sleeve. In fact, he needed a tailor immediately to get it repaired. As it was being done the atmosphere in our Headquarters became less welcoming and I am sure he was as glad to be away from us as we were to be rid of him. This might sound as a nice story but there was a lesson here that tinkering with the existing rifle would not do and that a separate family of personal weapons was required. What this resulted in was the search for a similar type of weapon which culminated in the INSAS family of small arms based on the 5.56mm bore.
At that time, the army was in the process of being modernised and the emphasis was all on mechanisation. But the IPKF experience came as a rude check that the Infantry had been neglected over a period of time and that it too needed attention. The INSAS family that was subsequently introduced, in its own way met the requirement but the rifle was heavy and its reliability was always suspect. As a result, there were complaints from the beginning and it soon became apparent that we would have to look outside the country for a new assault rifle.
The AK Family of Rifles
The AK-47 rifle was designed by General Mikhail Kalashnikov for the Soviet Army in 1947 and has seen many variants since then, though the basic firing mechanism remains the same. It basically fires a 7.62mm bullet. In between the Russians appear to have experimented with a smaller bore, chiefly the 5.56mm. However, the AK rifle has remained basically a 7.62mm bullet firing bore.
The Western countries led by the US have preferred the 5.56mm bore and the M-16 series has been the equivalent of the Russian AK series. There are pros and cons for both the types of calibre; lighter, more portable and less lethal for the 5.56mm version and its converse for the 7.62mm version. One can find votaries for both variants, but the Indian Army’s experience with the 5.56mm INSAS seems to have settled the argument in favour of the 7.62mm version. This is obviously a well-considered decision and can be accepted as the received wisdom.
The AK-203 is the export variant of the AK-103 and that is what has been contracted for. The main difference between the older version and newer version is in improved ergonomics (design and arrangement so that the human handling is simplified) and the ability to attach an under-barrel grenade launcher or a bayonet. The latter is more a nod to tradition than necessity. A knowledgeable expert has recorded that “… all rifles have same long-stroke gas piston operated action with rotary bolt locking and same stamped steel receivers. The front trunnion and rear side base are redesigned to include top cover hinge which is modified with the addition of Picatinny rail on top and locking mechanism in the rear… it has a telescopic shoulder stock … a new polymer pistol grip and new polymer fore-end with integrated Picatinny rails are fitted to each gun … barrels are equipped with flash hiders … and iron sights are graduated to 800m or 500m depending on the version. All versions can be equipped with quick detachable sound suppressors (silencers).” (Subhadeep Paul, Symbiosis International University, Pune, March 04, 2019).
The INSAS was introduced in 1994 but as has been stated earlier, the army remained dissatisfied from the very beginning, mainly due to its unreliability and weight. The Kargil war of 1999 showed up its limitations. There were issues of jamming, magazines cracking and unreliable automatic mode. The Royal Nepal Army which had taken these were also dissatisfied.
In November 2014 the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) also wanted it changed and were given AK-47 rifles. All attempts at improvement did not meet the user’s requirements and so the search for a replacement system continued. In November 2009, the government had given approval for the acquisition of almost two lakh assault rifles under the ‘Buy and Make’ method and these were to consist of both 5.56mm and 7.62mm bores. However, this did not progress and by mid-2015 the process was back to square one.
In the meanwhile, an attempt was made to develop yet another version of the INSAS rifle called INSAS 1C. This, too, was based on 5.56mm bore. However, the army in the meantime had taken a decision that they would prefer a 7.62mm version and the decision hinged on the debate whether the aim was to incapacitate the target or to kill. The former version with its smaller bore aimed at incapacitation of the target but the army felt that at even slightly longer distances, it was not possible to sufficiently incapacitate the enemy target and a heavier bullet would do this better.
Our experience in Sri Lanka in particular showed that at longer distances the capabilities of 5.56mm rifles as used by our adversary were limited. One particular incident that stays in memory is of a helmet peppered with 5.56mm bullets without having penetrated and remained stuck on the outside. The jawan who was wearing this helmet was asked how he felt after being hit, his answer that except for a minor headache he had suffered no other damage. Long afterwards I would wonder at the jawan’s luck. Other officers have also recounted similar experiences including Lt General Ata Hasnain who has done so in a blog dated 28 April 2016 on News18.
As the requirement started becoming more urgent, the government, Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) in January 2018 gave a nod to procure 72,400 rifles and some 94,000 carbines on a fast track basis. The first part of this has materialised with a contract worth approx. Rs 700 crores the following month, i.e. February 2018. Following this the DAC gave further approval for the purchase/manufacture of 740,000 assault rifles under the ‘Buy and Make’ head involving both the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and the private sector.
The visit of President Putin of Russia in October 2018 gave form to this proposal when an Inter-government agreement was reached to set up a JV to produce 750,000, 7.62mmX39mm AK-203 rifles. The 39mm refers to the length of the cartridge. A longer length packs more explosive but also makes the ammunition heavier and ultimately there is a trade-off between weight which affects the soldier’s mobility and lethality which impacts the firepower. It has been seen that this debate is an ongoing one and will remain so. The JV was registered on 25 February 2019 (the so-called ‘fastest ever’). OFB will hold 50.5 per cent equity stake and the remainder by the Russian partners. The company will be known as Indo-Russian Rifles Private Ltd. It has been reported (Economic Times, 9 July 2019) that the army is yet to place an order and it is expected that the technical and commercial proposals are likely to be submitted by the end of July 2019. There is likely to be an option for exports which suits India.
On the Russian side, Rosboron Exports which is the nodal company for all Russian defence exports, feels that this the entry point of Kalashnikov plans for the growing Indian market. India is apparently the first country to get this latest rifle. The positive aspect of this is that both India and Russia (the erstwhile Soviet Union) have a long history of arms trade. The OFB with its majority stake of 50.5 per cent will give it access to Kalashnikov’s proven and considerable supply chain as well as technical expertise. The majority stake retains decision making power. It now remains to be seen as to how this works out. It is also reported that 40,000 AK-203 assault rifles will be directly imported, another 110,000 will be assembled and the balance manufactured. This to be achieved in 32 months from the date of contract. Future technical upgrades, as required will be done by the JV in India thus giving OFB further technical experience.
It is expected that all rifles after the first 120,000 produced at Ordnance Factory Korwa will be fully indigenous. This is a challenging situation and one hopes that it will give impetus to both Indian ordnance gactories as well as the private sector. Ordnance Factory Korwa which is operating with a skeleton strength at present will get a boost and the project will bring much needed energy to a key sector of Indian defence manufacturing.
Given the propitious circumstances and conditions of this JV, whether our system is able to cope with the demands of the future is anybody’s guess. For example, whenever a new modification is proposed, considerable time and effort is spent in evaluating it. Today, a complex prototype can be created by using additive (3D) printing and tested in computer simulation before actual commitment. This is but a stray thought and no doubt more capable minds are seized of such problems.
There are major changes afoot in the Indian Army. There are new proposals in the organisational sphere, e.g. restructuring of Army Headquarters; in the operational realm of the testing the concept of Integrated Battle Groups, new equipment and above all a modern soldiery which is more educated, technically savvy and more receptive to new thought and proposals. What has been discussed is just one facet, seemingly small in itself but of great importance to all soldiers, Infantry as well as other arms and services.
The country is presently on the cusp of change and modernisation and this applies not only to the armed forces but all aspects of manufacturing. There is an emphasis on ‘Make in India’ and the need to create employment for an ever-growing workforce. The armed forces will also contribute to this process and the new JV for the manufacture of and subsequent plans for the export of the AK-203 forms an integral part of it. Only future will tell how this gets implemented. On our part, we can only wish the venture well.
(Author’s Note: While credit has been given in the body of the article to sources quoted/relied upon; additionally, the IDSA article ‘AK-203: A Boost for the Army and Make in India’ by Amb. Sujan R. Chinoy, DG IDSA and Laxman K. Behera, Research Fellow at IDSA, 11 March 2019 needs a special mention)