Small arms, big demand

Only way to meet continuous supply is to manufacture rifles, carbines within country

Smruti Deshpande

For decades, India’s armed and paramilitary forces have faced a tremendous shortage of small arms because of heavy dependence on foreign firms and little procurement. A number of times when the country’s forces faced security challenges and were in desperate need of personal arms, foreign firms cancelled contracts that were already signed, leaving the forces in the lurch.

Small arms by DRDO
Small arms by DRDO

In June 2020 during the standoff with China, one of the army’s units faced a critical shortage of weapons. The Belgian small arms manufacturer, FN Herstal (FNH), cancelled the contract to supply 1,500 small arms to the Special Frontier Force. The contract was worth Rs 70 crore for the P90 personal defence weapons and two variants of its SCAR assault rifles. Earlier, the German company, Heckler & Koch, which was supposed to supply the MP5 sub-machine guns to state police forces to replace their World War-II vintage small arms after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai.

Most recently in May 2022, the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) decided against inking a Rs 700-crore repeat order it had approved in 2020 for 72,400 Patrol Sig Sauer assault rifles from the US because of operational glitches with the first batch of the rifles India had purchased a year before. The Sig Sauer rifles are being used by the army’s units deployed along the line of control in Kashmir.

In September 2022, the army repeated its attempt at procuring close-quarter carbines and sought information from domestic arms manufacturers about the possible supply of more than 4,25,213 guns. For a force that is engaged in counter insurgency, it has been operating without such carbines for nearly three decades now. In its request for information to Indian vendors, the army said it plans to procure 5.56x45mm CQB carbines worth nearly Rs 3,500 crore.

The army has been without close-quarter battle weapons for years. It has been using regular assault rifles for the purpose, reducing the operational efficiency of the troops. Two types of small weapons—rifles and close quarter carbines—have different uses and serve different purposes. Carbines are used for close quarter battles whereas rifles, which have long barrels, are generally used for long-range targets because of their ability to give the user the benefit of distance and accuracy because of the rifle’s spiral groove. The spiral groove spins the bullet when fired to reach a distant target. Carbines are compact with short barrels and they are usually less than 20 inches in length. They are comparatively light weight.

In India, efforts are on to build an infrastructure to produce different types of small arms. Towards this, a number of deals have been signed and the private industry is actively participating. But there still is a long way to go for Indian arms manufacturers to serve the three armed forces, the paramilitary forces and the state police. In order to meet this huge demand for small arms, the only solution is internal production rather than procurement externally.

The Kalyani Group is an Indian entity that is interested in making small arms. At the DefExpo 2020 in Lucknow, chairman and director Baba Kalyani of Bharat Forge told the media that the company was looking forward to investing huge resources in making small arms. He said since they were in the business of forging metals, making of small arms would not be very different for them. At the DefExpo, the Kalyani Group signed an MoU with Arsenal, a joint stock company from Bulgaria, to manufacture small arms in India.

The IWI and Punj Lloyd signed a JV under the Make in India initiative in 2017 and in the same year they inaugurated India’s first private sector small arms manufacturing plant at Malanpur in Madhya Pradesh. It was named Punj Lloyd Raksha Systems (PLR). The JV planned on producing the X95 carbine and assault rifle, Galil sniper rifle, Tavor assault rifle and Negev Light Machine Gun (LMG). While not much information is available about this JV, a report published in The Print in July 2020 said two new Israeli assault rifles, Arad and Carmel, would now be produced in India at the PLR.

The Kalyani Group is already involved in India’s small arms industry. It has supplied defence-related components to Indian forces. As the company has made huge efforts to be active in defence manufacturing, the company has grown in such a way that the small arms profile of the company includes assault rifles (7.62x39mm), CQB carbines (5.56x45mm), LMGs (7.62x5mm), sniper rifles (7.62x51mm and 8.6mm) and protective carbines (5.56x30mm).

In November 2021, India and Russia signed a deal for the manufacture of six lakh AK-203 assault rifles at a new factory in Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi. The Kalashnikovs will replace the Insas rifles as standard issue for Indian troops. Earlier, India bought the SIG-716 G2 patrol rifles with a 16-inch barrel for the army as it was struggling with the Insas rifles.

In the most recent development, Swedish defence major Saab on September 27 last announced plans to manufacture its Carl-Gustaf M4 shoulder-fired weapon system in India. The manufacturing would be done by a new fully Saab-owned subsidiary, Saab FFV India Pvt. Ltd. The company is yet to receive government approval for the new venture. Saab will transfer the technology to India and the first product will roll out in 2024.

In March 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the manufacturing unit of the Indo-Russian Rifles Pvt Ltd, an Indo-Russian joint venture to manufacture AK-203 assault rifle. A partnership between the Indian Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and Russia’s Kalashnikov Concern, the JV will manufacture around 7.5 lakh rifles. They will replace the Insas rifles, the current standard-issue to Indian soldiers. These guns are also expected to equip other Indian forces. The OFB owns 50.5 per cent shares, the rest by Kalashnikov Concern and Rosoboronexport. On August 15, 2021, India announced the dismantling of the OFB into seven new defence manufacturing entities. The corporatisation of the OFB is not expected to have any impact on the project.

The joint venture, as part of the UP-defence corridor, is expected to give a boost to the corridor and self-reliance in defence. According to the Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA), Russia will provide technology, manufacturing know-how and special materials. The IGA allows the JV to export the guns to a third country as well. The two sides have aimed at 100 per cent localisation within the first two years of the project. Through the JV, the two sides are looking at deeper cooperation beyond just transfer of technology, including material-based co-manufacturing, product-development and upgrade. India is expected to import 70,000 rifles from Russia and manufacture the rest in Amethi. One of the main contentions between the two sides was price and royalty. Russia has reportedly waived the royalty. The price of the guns is expected to be around USD 1,000 each. Coming from the home of the AK-47, the AK-203 is an improved version of the AK series, which fires 7.62×39 mm bullets and allows all modern add-ons, including a variety of sight systems, target designators and under barrel grenades. Despite evolving into a modern firearm, the gun has retained all the advantages of the traditional AK classics: reliability, durability and ease of maintenance.

Compared to earlier Kalashnikov rifles, the AK-203 has better ergonomics, accuracy and density of fire. Its robust mechanics and simplicity of operation are other strong points. The gun has been tested under extreme heat and cold conditions. The obvious technical advantages of the AK-203 for India are its high degree of versatility, adjustability and customisability. The Picatinny rail enables swift instalment of additional equipment depending on the nature of the mission: night and day gunsights, flashlights, handles, laser designators etc. The rifle can be adapted for use by various components of the armed forces and security agencies. The annual exports of Kalashnikov assault rifles exceed 1,00,000 units.

Today, the Indian armed forces need a continuous supply of small arms. The only solution to this is arms manufacturing within the country. Imports help fulfil temporary gaps but do not entirely equip all forces. As a result, today, Indian paramilitary forces use different small arms, such as the Beretta-developed Storm MX-4 sub-machine guns, Kalashnikov’s AK-47 assault rifles, Tavor X-95 carbines from IWI and 9mm MP-5 submachine guns from Heckler & Koch. These weapons were procured in smaller tranches at different points in time. This means there was a lack of one-time procurement, pushing up costs.



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