The Indian infantry, the most combat active in the world, was at least two to three decades behind contemporary modern infantry rifle. With the SIG Sauer and Kalashnikov AK-203, is it finally going to be equipped with contemporary weapons?
The 1.3 million-strong Indian Army, perennially facing the dilemma of getting the biggest bang from its precious bucks, always gave short shrift to its manpower-intensive arm, the Infantry. The capital-intensive arms like armoured corps and artillery cornered the king’s share of the capital budget to procure world-class weapon systems. So, it was not surprising that the business end of the Indian infantry, perhaps one of the most combat active in the world, was always a weapon which was at least two to three decades behind contemporary modern infantry rifle across the world.
While the world armies, including non-state actors, were equipped with modern assault rifles, Indian Army continued with the 7.62 Self Loading Rifle (SLR) as its main weapon from the 1970s up to the Kargil war. A licensed version of the Belgian FN rifle, this was a heavy, cumbersome, stoppage-prone single-shot weapon and left many a soldier stranded when faced with an LTTE guerrilla or a heavily armed LET jehadi.
The Indian Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) cobbled up an Indian version of a 5.56mm assault rifle, the Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) which was to comprise of a 5.56mm rifle, a 5.56mm Light Machine Gun (LMG) and a short-barrelled carbine. The rifle was produced in huge numbers and today equips the entire Indian Armed Forces as also the Central Armed Police Forces. The LMG fell short of its assigned role as a squad support weapon due to the small bore and the carbine never made an appearance. Combat veterans have a mixed opinion of the INSAS weapons. But the fact remained that this weapon did not meet the combat needs of a frontline soldier. Mercifully, the specialist counter-insurgency force Rashtriya Rifles (RR), on their raising in the late 1980s, were entirely equipped with imported AK-47 series which have stood them in good stead, proving their value in combat time and again.
The official announcement that the Indian Army will be equipped with the Russian Kalashnikov Series 203 as its main weapon, and specialist troops involved in anti-terrorist operations will be provided with the US-made Sig Sauer rifles, has been widely welcomed by the Indian Infantry. The AK-203 will be manufactured in Amethi, India through a joint venture between the OFB and its Russian manufacturer. To ensure timely set up of factory and monitor the production, a serving Major General will be its CEO, again a first. 72,400 Sig Sauer assault rifles are being procured at an estimated cost of Rs 700 Cr on a fast-track basis so that front line troops can be equipped within a year.
The INSAS rifle, at the time of its issue to troops in 1998, was lauded as an indigenous world-class assault rifle. However, soon a litany of complaints started to flow in with regard to its build quality and reliability- it jammed frequently, the plastic magazine was prone to cracking and it had a tendency to throw hot oil on the firer's face. Despite these complaints, the Ministry of Defence went ahead with the induction and even exported the weapon to Nepal.
In 1999, during the Kargil Conflict, troops participating in the operations reiterated the same complaints. In 2005, a spokesman for the Nepal Army, speaking after a clash with Maoist rebels, said the INSAS was substandard and that the performance of the Nepal Army would have been better if they had better weapons. In 2015, a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the Indian Army filed a PIL that soldiers’ lives were being lost because of the substandard performance of the INSAS rifle. Though the court dismissed the PIL, the message was finally driven home. In 2018, the Government accepted the repeated recommendations of the IA, to reject the new prototypes of the INSAS rifle produced by Ordnance Factory, Ishapur and look for a better, even if imported, alternative.
The Pakistan Army was far more farsighted in its approach towards small arms systems for its military. In the 1960s, it went for the reliable and combat-proven German technology, which although more expensive because of the complex manufacturing process, are known for reliability under combat conditions. The G3 assault rifle has been upgraded over the years and remains the primary weapon. In fact, it is a standard NATO weapon for many countries. The 9mm MP-5, a machine pistol, is a favourite for close quarter battle and is issued as a standard submachine gun. India buys the same weapon from Germany for its National Security Guards (NSG) commandoes
While the SIG Sauer is expected to fill the immediate requirement, India’s long-term requirements are expected to be fulfilled, by the AK-203. Under the terms of the joint venture, Ordnance Factory Board will have a controlling share (50.5%) with minority Russian shareholders; Kalashnikov (42%) and Rosonboronexport (7.5%). The Factory is licensed to produce 7.5 Lakh weapons and there is potential for export to countries, friendly to both India and Russia.
- The AK 203 is the newest assault rifle in the Kalashnikov 200 series. It fires a 7.62x39 cartridge and is ergonomically designed to take on a variety of add-ons, such as night vision devices and aiming points. The addition of the SIG Sauer and AK 203 to the IA’s inventory, will significantly improve the combat potential of the world’s second-largest army.
- More significantly, it marks a departure from India’s earlier policy, to favour indigenous products albeit with poorer performances and higher costs. The DRDO was set up in 1958, to indigenously meet the equipment requirements of the Indian Armed Forces but its’ performance has left much to be desired. In the absence of competitive indigenous products, the joint venture route may indeed be a smart way to equip our armed forces, with the best.
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