Defence Industry

Finally, an Assault Rifle
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 19 Dec , 2021

One often gets to read about how the Indian Army is coping with its night-blind main battle tanks, vintage artillery & anti-aircraft guns and outdated helicopter fleet. But the plight of Indian infantry remains unheard. Known as the “Queen of Battle”, this glorious arm, which guards country’s frontiers, fights insurgency & terrorism and remains battle-ready for conventional operations, has been having obsolete small arms on its inventory.

Small arms such as pistols, carbines, rifles and light machine guns (LMG) are rather inexpensive as compared to big-ticket items like tanks and guns. Our dalliance of over three decades to find a better assault rifle only reflects poor planning and insensitivity towards the requirements of the troops.  

In India there are about 4.5 million security personnel (the armed forces, Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), Paramilitary Forces (PMF), state police and India Reserve Battalions) armed with disparate weapons – from World War I vintage .303 Lee-Enfield rifles to assorted array of assault rifles, carbines and pistols. Normally, the small arms philosophy for the security forces originates from the requirements of the army (read infantry). These obsolete weapons need to be replaced and that makes India most solicited client in the small arms market.

We have been rather lackadaisical in keeping abreast with the technological changes in the field of small arms. In 1962, 7.62 mm Self Loading Rifles (SLR) were hastily imported from the United States for the troops in North East Frontier Agency fighting the Chinese with .303 rifles. In 1965, the production of 7.62 mm SLR had commenced in our ordnance factories.

During Punjab insurgency (1984), Operation Pawan (1987),terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir (1989) and Left Wing Extremism the security forces faced adversaries armed with Kalashnikovs, which put them at great disadvantage. As a stop-gap measure some AK-47 rifles were imported; and the single-shot SLRs were converted into automatic rifles through battlefield improvisation.

In late eighties, the Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) rifle was indigenously developed and mass produced by the ordnance factories. INSAS was intended to produce a family of 5.56 mm small arms – carbine, rifle and LMG, which was not to be. Poor design, metallurgy and materials, breakages during operation and delays in rectifying the grey areas made it unpopular amongst the troops. Nevertheless, the troops fought Kargil warand counter insurgency operations with INSAS rifle. Looking back, replacing 7.62X51 mm cartridge with 5.56X45 mm was a mistake – a mere adoption of the Western concept; not in consonance with our climatic and terrain peculiarities and operational requirements.

In 2014-16, Rifle Factory Ishapore had also developed a 7.62 mm assault rifle based on the design of AK47, which failed atthe army trials. However, some state police forces still procured it. While we dithered in selecting an assault rifle, different types of small arms – assault rifles, carbines, sub-machine guns and pistols were bought off the shelf by the security forces.

On 06 December 2021, Indo-Russian Rifles Private Ltd (IRRPL), a joint venture set up by the Advanced Weapons and Equipment India Limited (AWEIL) and Munitions India Limited (MIL) of India (erstwhile Ordnance Factory Board), and JSC Rosoboronexport and Kalashnikov concern of Russia inked a deal to produce more than 6,00,000 AK-203 assault rifles in India at IRRPL’s plant at Korwa, Uttar Pradesh. The production is likely to start in the next 2-3 years and achieve 100 per cent indigenization in future. In the interregnum, India shall import 1,00,000 AK-203 rifles from Russia.  

Designed by Mikhail T. Kalashnikov, the AK-47 came intoservice of the Soviet Army in 1947. Its improved versions were the AKM (1960) and AK-74 (1970). Unlike the previous rifles, the AK-74 used 5.45X39 mm cartridge – the Soviet version of5.56X45 mm (NATO) ammunition. AK-47 is the most copied and produced assault rifle in the world. Its over 100 million pieces have been produced. Many armies use it as their standard issue infantry weapon. It has been the weapon of choice for theterrorists world over.

The AK-203 carries an impeccable lineage of AK-47. From the armory of the Kalashnikov assault rifles like AK-103, AK-203,AK-12 and AK-15 and submachine gun PPK-20 are the fourth generation weapons. The AK-12 and AK-15 have been developed for the Ratnik Programme of the Russian Army. AK-103 was developed in three versions to use 7.62X51 mm, 5.56X45 mm and 5.56X39 mm ammunitions, ostensibly, for exports. It is in use in over 30 countries.

The developers of the INSAS were not on the same page regarding the requirements of the army, articulated through the General Staff Qualitative Requirements for an assault rifle. They found it rather fastidious. This difference has been the bane of the INSAS programme. Normally, a user looks for robustness, accuracy, range, lethality, ease of operation, carriage and maintenance in an assault rifle. In battlefield the weapon should be able to accept modern observation and aiming devices – day and night sights, laser, infra-red, etc. It should also fire grenadesthrough an under barrel grenade launcher. Depending upon the combat situations, troops should be able to use the weapon in the open and from the restricted space. Selection of AK-203 fits the bill snuggly.

Years of experimentation and stop-gap measures have affectedthe standardisation and inter-operability of small arms in the army. Today, our small arms inventory includes 5.56 mm INSAS rifles and LMG, 7.62 mm LMG, 7.62 mm Sig Sauer, 5.56 mm Travor, 7.62 mm AK-47 and AK-103 and a plethora of other weapons bought off the shelf over a period of time. Other services, CAPF and PMF too face similar dilemma. Earlier, infantry battalion’s rifle company could use the same 7.62 mm ammunition in its rifles, LMGs and medium machine guns.Presently, different ammunition is to be catered for.

Over the years, Rifle Factory Ishapore has developed huge capacity to produce INSAS rifles, LMGs and 5.56X39 mm ammunition. How this capacity can be better utilised?

Selection of AK-203 rifle partially addresses our problem. We need to identify right kind of optical sights (day, night, infrared and laser) for the weapon. Army still needs a replacement for its out-dated INSAS LMGs. When would the CAPF, PMF, state police would receive the replacement their obsolete weapons?

We need to review our small arms philosophy (if there is one) to identify future battlefield requirements and develop smart small arms accordingly. With the replacement of INSAS weapons, what is the future of our F-INSAS programme? How does Ak-203 fits in there?

The Kalashnikov concern is going to set up a state-of-the-art production plant in Korwa for producing the AK-203 rifles and transfer the technology. How do we propose to leverage this advantage? Pitch India as a small arms designing and productionhub or meander through the usual ambivalence and squander this opportunity?

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col US Rathore

has commanded 17 Maratha Light Infantry. He is a defence and security analyst.  

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