Assault Rifles, Carbine Procurement – Israel could be best source

Army turns down assault rifles manufactured by Ordinance Factory Board
Army turns down assault rifles manufactured by Ordinance Factory Board

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

Media headlines on January 17 read “13 yrs after requst, Army to get 1.6 lakh rifles, carbines”. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) headed by the Defence Minister, has  cleared fast-track procurement of 72,400 assault rifles and 93,850 carbines for Rs 3,547 cr from the global market. According to PTI, tenders will soon be floated while procurement could also bedone on government to government basis.

Approval for these limited emergency purchases come after repeated scrapping of tenders, mainly because of allegations of graft, as well as DRDO's inability to provide state-of-the-art small arms over almost two decades. These purchases are to be followed by a larger ‘Make in ' project for equipping the Army including 382 infantry battalions and 63 Rashtriya Rifles battalions.

With respect to ‘Make in India', ‘Make II' category of the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP), MoD can accept suo motu proposals from the industry and also allow start-ups to develop equipment for the military. Vendors meeting the relaxed eligibility criteria are allowed to participate in prototype development without the need to submit Detailed Project Report. After accord of approval of the ‘Make II' project by the DAC, all clearances are to be accorded at Service HQ level.

The saga of new assault rifles actually began 18 years ago in 1980 when 17 x 5.56mm rifles from 11 countries were imported by MoD to equip three Para Commando battalions and three Para Battalions. Despite successful trials and money kept reserved in the 6th Army Plan, red tape blocked imports, giving these 17 weapons to DRDO who took 15 years to produce the 5.56 INSAS rifle that was nowhere close to top 10 assault rifles of the .

The IPKF went to Sri Lanka in 1987 armed with the unwieldy 7.62 SLR rifles battling the LTTE armed with AK 47 assault rifles. Eventually, Army had to import 1,00,000 AK 47 rifles (then costing only US$ 300 apiece) to give 100 per infantry battalion in the IPKF.

In May 2015, the RFP for the assault rifles was scrapped by MoD, forcing the Army in September 2016 to re-launch its global hunt for around 2,00,000 new-generation 7.62mm x 51mm assault rifles after similar bids over last decade were shelved on various grounds including corruption. In 2016, the MoD also scrapped tender issued in 2010 for 44,618 close-quarter battle carbines, in which too IWI of Israel had emerged as “resultant single-vendor” over Italian firm Beretta, amid allegations of irregularities and political intrigue. Significantly, the Army had issued a global tender in 2008 (nine years ago) to replace the 1944 vintage British-era carbines but the ensuing cycle has brought all efforts to nought.

In 2011, another tender was floated for direct acquisition of 65,000 new generation assault rifles for the Army costing Rs 4,848 cr to equip 120 infantry battalions. Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) was to then manufacture over 1,13,000 such rifles through JV with the foreign vendor providing ToT. The rifle was to weigh around 3.5 kg with advanced night-vision, holographic reflex sights, laser designators, detachable under-barrel grenade launchers etc.

However, since the DRDO's ‘Excalibur' had only some cosmetic changed to the original INSAS, it too failed in the trials undertaken by the Army. Now the whole process for procuring an assault rifle for the Army has started once again. Media had been mischievously touting that Army had planned to procure some 800,000 state-of-the-art assault rifles from the global market, each costing about Rs 200,000; that would have cost about Rs 16,000 crore – significantly more than what the Army can afford. But this is grossly incorrect since Army had all along planned to procure around 2,00,000 assault rifles, not 8,00,000.

In fact, only 65,000 (costing Rs 4,848 cr) were to be imported and 1,13,000 were to be manufactured by OFB. Had this been pursued in 2011, Army's 140 infantry battalions would have already been equipped and balance in the process through a JV.

This time the Defence Minister appears genuinely pushing to rectify this long outstanding criticality of soldiers at the cutting edge. Government is also facing public pressure with editorials in daily citing unhappiness of the Army for multiple reasons including non-provisioning of a reliable rifle. Over the years, in the Army have varied between the 5.56mm calibre, the 7.62mm x 51mm calibre, rifle with exchangeable barrels for firing different caliber ammunition, and the like. There were also recent reports that Army is going in for equipping infantry soldiers (not all) with a world-class assault rifle, while non-infantry soldiers would get a cheaper, “less effective”, indigenous rifle.

There is no doubt that whatever decisions the Army takes is after detailed thought. At the same time, there is no denying that the AK Assault Rifles are no stoppage weapons, easy on maintenance and a double strapped magazine gives the soldier advantage of 60 rounds of ammunition readily available. It is for this reason that terrorist are using AK Assault Rifles globally, and it is for this very reason that our soldiers deployed on the Saltoro Range in Siachen keep an AK Assault Rifle next to the service issues INSAS rifle because the latter may have stoppages at the critical moment, but the AK won't.

The only problem with the AK Assault Rifle was that it was sans night sight, which was a major disadvantage. But now an Indian start-up, Aerodef Solutions Pvt Ltd, is providing just that capability and is already in the process of upgrading AK Assault Rifles for Northern Command under the Army Commander's Financial Powers.

The Thermal Imaging Weapon Sight is a light combat scope that has: user selectable NTSC or PAL format; intuitive drop-down user interface; 1x, 2x, 4x and 8x digital e-zoom; white hot, black hot, rainbow and other colour modes; six onboard digitally controlled reticle patterns; reticle colours in black, white, red and cyan; extended operation time with optional external battery power supply; optional video recorder with onboard replay; wireless remote control for tactical operations; waterproof CNC machined aircraft-aluminum alloy construction; rapid start-up; MIL-STD-1913 (Picatinny Rail) quick-release mount, and; shuttered eye-guard to prevent facial display backlash and maintain light security.

Characteristics of the Multifunctional Thermal Imaging Mini Monocular are:  weight 240g; MIL-810G rugged, waterproof reinforced fiber glass construction; fast F1:1 19mm front germanium lens; 800×600 organic LED display; drop-down menu and icon based menu; intuitive three button control; polarity control (black hot / white hot); colour and monochrome palettes; digital zoom up to 8x; integrated digital compass; integrated laser pointer and digital inclinometer; NYSC/PAL field switchable video output; adaptable to wide selection of head, helmet, and weapon mounts with quick rail / dove tail / bayonet interfaces; < 3 sec fast time to image, and; one CR123 battery operation.

The Night Vision Clip On System comprises: quick conversion of daytime scope, sight or binocular to night vision; mounts in front of riflescope with no re-zeroing required; equipped with wireless remote control; variable gain control; XLR-IR850D detachable X Long-range IR Illuminator; single alkaline 1.5V AA or 3V CR 123A lithium battery; quick release mount and; mil standard compliant.

The Army and the MoD could seriously examine the AK series of assault rifles, which being lightweight could well be used as carbine too.  The question of UBGL will remain, whether it can be fitted on the AK or another weapon (one or two in a section) will be required, which needs to be examined. But need of the hour is cut down the red-tape and elaborate procedures. Suggesting Israel as the best source (title of the heading) may be considered déjà vu, with opposition parties crying blue murder, but procurements in the past have taken place with single vendor. However, in case of small arms procurement, on two-occasions in the past scrapping of tenders occurred because IWI of Israel emerging as “resultant single vendor”.

Depending on the Army decision, the shortest procurement action could be government-to-government deal between India and Israel. Quick emergent procurement followed a JV under Make in India would be the best course.

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