Not a Small Matter

The army needs to revamp its small arms

Rahul Bedi

It is no secret that the overall war waging capability of the 1.2 million-strong Indian Army is severely handicapped by acute equipment shortages, obsolete hardware and restricted night-fighting capability.

But the extent to which this capacity is compromised is revealed alarmingly by the deplorable status of its small arms, intended to equip some 360-odd infantry battalions and around 106 associated counter-insurgency Rashtriya Rifles and Assam Rifles units.

In mid-June the army scrapped its December 2011 tender to procure 66,000 multi-calibre assault rifles. Instead, it opted for the Excalibur assault rifle, a supposedly upgraded version of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)-designed 5.56x45mm Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) assault rifle. The army had rejected the INSAS rifle in 2010 on grounds of it being ‘operationally inadequate’.

The army’s veto of INSAS rifles came 15 years after it reluctantly inducted them into service in the mid-Nineties and was centred round their bulging barrels, frequent breakdown of moving parts and cracks in their polycarbonate magazines, in Kashmir and Rajasthan’s extreme temperatures.

Earlier, in 2005 India was locked in an unseemly row with Nepal over charges that the INSAS rifles it had supplied its army, had repeatedly malfunctioned, resulting in heavy casualties in an extended fire-fight with Maoist rebels. The Nepali Army claimed the rifles became too hot and unusable for sustained firing during the August 2005 battle at Pili in Kalikot district, 600km west of the capital Kathmandu.

“Soldiers complained that the INSAS rifles did not function properly during the fighting, which lasted for a long time”, a Nepali army spokesman said at the time, when asked why soldier casualties in the encounter were so alarmingly high. “Maybe the weapons we were using were not designed for a long fight. They simply malfunctioned”, he bluntly added.

A chauvinistic Indian Army, however, dismissed this criticism as untenable. Instead, it blamed poor maintenance by the Nepali Army and lack of experience in using the rifles as the cause for their questionable performance. But five years later, unsurprisingly, it too rejected the INSAS assault rifle and declining to repose faith in the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO’s) ability to design a suitable substitute, drafted improbable qualitative requirements (QRs) to import a multi-calibre assault rifle around end-2011.

These required the rifles to weigh less than 3kg and be capable of switching from 5.56x45mm to 7.62x39mm calibre by merely changing their barrel and magazine. They were also required to fire 600 rounds per minute to a minimum distance of 200m.

After nearly three years of technical evaluation, field trials featuring four competitors were conducted at Bakloh cantonment, near Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh and Hoshiarpur in Punjab, concluding in late 2014. Participants included Beretta’s ARX-160 (Italy), Colt Combat Rifle (USA), CA 805 BREN (Czech Republic) and Israel Weapon Industries (IWI’s) ACE1 model.

But all four manufacturers failed to meet the army’s whimsical QRs, as other than Beretta’s ARX-160, currently in service with the Egyptian and Italian armies and the Mexican Federal Police, the three other rifles were prototypes. These had been configured hastily for the lucrative Indian tender, worth an estimated USD 3-4 billion and, consequently were almost certain to perform poorly in trials given the Indian Army’s questionable QRs.

The deal included a technology transfer to the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) to licence build the shortlisted weapon system to meet the army’s long-delayed requirement for over 220,000-250,000 assault rifles. Eventually, the OFB licence-built rifles were also to equip the paramilitaries and special state police units. Thereafter, at least three successive army chiefs reiterated that inducting the assault rifle was their ‘top priority’ and persisted doggedly with the import option.

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