After decades of fumbling, Indian Army’s hunt for a modern assault rifle appears to be nearing completion, provided MoD doesn’t pullout another rabbit from its hat. According to press reports, a deal between India and Russia is likely to be signed by end of this year , which will enable indigenous production of 6,50,000 Kalashnikov rifles under the ‘Make in India’ initiative to replace the 5.56mm INSAS rifles currently held by the Army. These will be Kalashnikov 7.62mm AK-103 assault rifles, for which the deal is to be signed between India’s Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and Russia’s JSC Kalashnikov with the OFB holding 50.5% shares in the joint venture (JV). Why the deal could not be signed during the recent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2018 will remain a mystery especially since JSC Kalashnikov was looking for an Indian partner since 2014 and had proposed a JV with the Adani Group.
Two factors perhaps delayed and changed the tie up for the Kalashnikov rifles: one, government wanted to sign the deal closer to elections for obvious electoral gains, and; two, furor over the offsets link between Rafale and Anil Ambani, made government dump Adani Group, under the excuse that this being government-to-government deal, Kalashnikov cannot choose private partner. How this has become government-to-government deal is weird because JSC Kalashnikov Concern is under corporate governance with 51% of the Concern’s shares held by Rostec and 49% of the company belonging to private investors. Even if it were to be considered government-to-government deal, why did it take that many years since 2014 for government to tell Kalashnikov it will be OFB, not Adani Group? Of course these rifles will be good for the Army, negating imports with all raw material also to be sourced indigenously. Media states that the “high performance” AK-103 are meant to go to front-line soldiers and some of the features of these AK-103 rifles will include attachment to mount under-barrel grenade launcher, folding plastic butt and standard mounting for night vision.
The saga of how the Indian Army has been taken around in circles over decades for a state-of-the art rifle, the money and time wasted, and the money ‘made’ by vested interests, can be interesting case study for arms mafias. During the 1962 Sino-India conflict, our Army fought the PLA with the horribly outdated Enfield .303 bolt action rifles, the older version (MLE) of which the British used to subjugate India and the latter version (SMLE) in vogue since 1903. What many would not know is that the PLA was equipped with Chinese version of the AK-47 which helped them overrun Indian positions with rapid fire, in addition to ‘human wave’ tactics. After the 1962 War, the 7.62mm Ishapore Self-Loading Rifle (SLR) was developed by the OFB, which was copy of the Belgian FN-FAL rifle. But because of it being a single-shot rifle that was heavy and bulky, the Belgian version lost its utility abroad by late 1970’s but continued with the Indian Army.
In 1978, when the IPKF went to Sri Lanka, troops were carrying the 7.62 mm SLR which were already 20 year old by then. The irony was that even the parachute commando battalions deployed as part of IPKF were inducted with 20-year old 7.62mm SLRs and World War II vintage carbines. In contrast, the LTTE was armed with Russian AK-47 assault rifles that gave them tremendous advantage. While the fighting with LTTE had been ongoing for few months, the India Army was forced to import quantity 1,00,000 AK-47 rifles then priced at USD 300 apiece. These were distributed among infantry battalions of the four divisions forming part of IPKF – about 100 AK-47 per battalion.
In 1980, Army had taken up a case for equipping three parachute commando and three parachute battalions with state of the art assault rifles, keeping aside the money required in the Sixth Army Plan. MoD imported 17 state-of-the-art 5.56mm assault rifles from 11 countries, without reference to the Army, for undertaking trials. The Army undertook comprehensive trials and identified the first, second and third preference. After sitting on the trial report for some time, MoD returned the case querying why the AK-74 had not been tried out? The Army replied that the 17 weapons imported were without reference to the Army did not include the AK-74 and the AK-74 was 5.45 caliber whereas the rest of the weapons were 5.56 caliber. With this, the Army again forwarded its import preferences. The AK-74 was a googly by the MoD aimed at blocking import of assault rifles for the six battalions because the file shuffling red tape ensured that the Sixth Plan was overshot and the money kept for the purpose ‘lapsed’.
MoD then handed over the abovementioned 17 imported weapons to the OFB who took more than a decade to develop the 5.56 INSAS rifle which was nowhere close to the top 10 assault rifles available on world market. In fact, during one Infantry Commanders Conference at MHOW in mid 2000, infantry battalion commanders pointed out to the Army Chief some 14 faults in the INSAS that had still not been rectified. The worst problem remained was of stoppages, because of which frontline troops on the Saltoro Range in Siachen area keep an AK-47 next to that INSAS, knowing former would not fail at the critical moment. The preference of terrorists world over including in J&K is the Kalashnikov because it is a no stoppage weapon aside from being lightweight, easy on maintenance and with automatic firing feature. We should have gone for the Kalashnikov with night vision years back. Why our OFB has never tried reverse engineering and added a night sight is also perhaps by design, the irony being that a private firm is providing AK-47s with night vision to Northern Command under Army Commander’s financial powers.
In between there were more dramatics. The Army issued a global tender in 2008 to replace the 1944 vintage British-era carbines but the ensuing cycle brought all efforts to naught. 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. OFB was to then manufacture over 1,13,000 such rifles through JV with the foreign vendor providing transfer of technology (ToT). 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 IWI of Israel had emerged as ‘resultant single-vendor’. The MoD-OFB tried to get the Army to accept the Excalibur assault rifle, cosmetic derivative of the INSAS rifle, but it was not found fit by the Army.
Army had all along planned to procure around 2,00,000 assault rifles, of which 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 indigenously. On June 30, 2018, MoD sent an Empowered Committee to Australia, Israel, South Korea, UAE and the US to scout for rifles and carbines after the defence acquisitin council (DAC) had cleared fast-track procurement of 72,400 assault rifles and 93,850 carbines for Rs 3,547 cr from the global market on 16 January 2018. After DAC approval of January 2018 to import rifles and carbines, it shouldn’t have taken five months to get bids from foreign OEM’s. These purchases are to be followed by a larger ‘Make in India’ project for equipping the Army including 382 infantry battalions and 63 Rashtriya Rifles battalions (obviously the abovementioned Kalashnikov-OFB JV). Had the government gone in for the Kalashnikov JV in 2014-15, these imports and Empowerd Commistte would not have been required albeith that may not have suited the bureaucrats dealing with acquisitions in MoD.
The best part of the Empowered Committee was, it was not bringing back any weapons, and had just one member from Infantry Directorate, where primary users of these weapons are the infantry. Given only the parameters of range and weight, and the fact that the weapons have to be tried in India for compatibility with indigenous ammunition, this whole exercise of sending out an empowered committee was perhaps paid holiday for bureaucrats. This 15-day globe-trotting period could have been better utilized by getting weapons of all the OEM’s that had responded to the tender in India; they would have provided the weapons on desired locations in India free of cost. The fact remains that equipping the Army with assault rifles and carbines, catering for next couple of decades, are serious business and cannot be hurried without proper general staff evaluation.
In backdrop of the above dubious achievements of the MoD-OFB, many questions arise. Given the pathetic performance of OFB in terms of small arms, what will be the final product of the JSC Kalashnikov-OFB JV considering that OFB has 51.5% shares and the MoD-OFB nexus can make the Army hierarchy acquiesce as in the case of INSAS – a clearly sub-standard product compared to global products in same category. JSC Kalashnikov, holding lesser shares would have little say and why would they bother if it is acceptable to MoD. The quality of indigenous ammunition too has been below par. The imported silent Uzis stopped being ‘silent’ after the imported ammunition was expended and indigenous ammunition was used. There is also the question of what type of ammunition are we looking at. Terrorists in J&K are using bullets with steel-core (instead of normal lead-core) that penetrates steel bunkers because of Chinese technology passed on to Pakistan. Hopefully we will take such issues into consideration.
What every AK-103 will cost Army is another issue. Is the indigenous manufacture only for quantity 6,50,000 for the Army? Shouldn’t we also include requirements of the Central Armed Police Forces, which would have brought down the costs considerably and eliminated import of assault rifles by the MHA? The hierarchy needs to address these issues.