The tactic that helped the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance gain political ascendancy during and after the Rajiv Gandhi involvement in the Bofors howitzer scandal appears set to haunt the Narendra Modi-led NDA in its attempts to buy assault rifles for the Indian Army. Both episodes have but one fatal consequence for the Indian Army and the nation-self-inflicted delays in acquisition.
From the un-thought-through advice of then Army Chief Gen KrishnaswamiSundarji to scrap the Bofors deal in the late 80s, the nation has been plagued by the stasis that this advice generated that came to be known of the Bofors Syndrome-the refusal by the political hierarchy and the Defence bureaucracy to take any decisions that could have a future backlash of the Bofors kind. Much the same syndrome could happen in the case of acquisition of assault rifles for the Indian Army. Accusations have already begun to fly in a manner that could scare away decision-making as happened after the allegations of kickbacks surfaced in the Bofors deal.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already had to shunt a Minister of State for Defence for allegedly objecting to the “single vendor situation” in the acquisition of assault rifles from an Israeli source and suggesting a CBI probe into the deal. This is how the stasis began in the Bofors deal as well. The end result of all this is very predictable.
The history of India’s search for an effective assault rifle (the infantryman’s main weapon) began with the straightforward replacement of the ancient but extremely accurate bolt-action .303 rifle. It had long become obsolescent because of the single shot characteristic and a magazine that could hold only five rounds.
The transition to the self-loading rifle, the British-designed 7.62 calibre manufactured at the Ichhaporearmoury of the Ordnance Factories Board had its share of hiccups. When the time for its replacement came the DRDO developed a family of weapons known as the Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) based on the concept that a weapon that injures an enemy tends to impose manpower constraints that would require at least two others to effect a medi-evacuation of the injured person.
The concept showed up to be a macabre joke during the Kargil war when Indian soldiers had to lug down dead and injured Pakistani soldiers of the Pakistan Army Northern Light Infantry whom the Pakistan military and government refused to accept as their own. Also, in mountain warfare a 400 meter range has proved to be a definite disadvantage. The new demand is for a 500 meter range.
The Army has made suggestions for a return to the 7.62 calibre bullet along with the 5.56 mm calibre so that one weapon can be used for both normal infantry duties as well as dealing with close quarter combat with terrorists. This was intended to be done by changing barrels as per requirement. This concept militated against the need to reduce the working load of the infantryman. Having to carry two barrels and at least two magazines filled with up to 30 bullets each of both calibres would take the load beyond combat necessities.
Over the course of the past three decades during which terrorism has burgeoned not just along the Indian periphery but also inland as well both the Centre and State governments have bought a plethora of diverse infantry weapons from assault rifles to handguns from umpteen sources to try and contain the menace. The concept of commonality of equipment and synergy among security forces has been totally ignored to the detriment of national unity and security. The use of pellet guns in Jammu and Kashmir is a stark reminder of how those who ought to have known better have exploded the very idea of sadhbhavana that was supposed to win hearts and minds.
Now that there has been a grudging admission by the Indian Army that quality staff requirements (QSRs) have been “poorly drafted and unrealistic” will the government screw up the courage to take appropriate action against former Directors-General of Infantry for their role in the skewed acquisition process and their proclivity to come on television to denigrate indigenous products?
Now that the tendency has surfaced within the NDA government to muscle in on lucrative arms deals under pretences like ‘single vendor’; lowest quotation, etc. the government has an opportunity to boost the ‘Make in India’ proposition given that an Indian defence laboratory has produced a weapon generically described as Multi Caliber Individual Weapon System (MCIWS).
The Armaments Research and Development Establishment has produced a prototype of a weapon that can fire a 5.56 NATO round, a 7.62x39mm length projectile as well as a 6.8mm Remington SPC bullet. The weapon has addressed some of the shortcomings found in the INSAS weapons like a facility to allow cocking the weapon with either the left or the right hand (ambidextrous); a picatinny or universal mount for different types of sighting equipment-day/night-(apart from the iron sights for normal firing). It will incorporate an indigenously designed and developed under-barrel rocket launcher with a range of up to 500 meters for both direct fire and airburst. It is in every respect a truly Indian weapon system and it will test the NDA government’s resolve to make the ‘Make in India” concept workable. It would be a good beginning that an indigenous weapon used in large numbers at the very lowest rung of command should, finally, be available to the Indian fighting man. Its modular design allows for easy assembly in battlefield conditions for repair and cleaning.
Simultaneously, the government has taken steps to include the private sector in the design and development of larger types of machine guns required by the three services. A joint venture between a foreign firm and an Indian private sector company that has shown an inclination to make investments in creating the wherewithal for the armed forces has been sanctioned. The weapon is of the kind used in infantry combat vehicles and could be incorporated in the future infantry combat vehicle (F-ICV) that is also being sought to be developed indigenously.
The government is still grappling with the mechanisms to prevent kickbacks and to deal with contract infringements by foreign defence collaborators. It has recently announced that the hitherto applied policy of blacklisting firms caught in malfeasance would not be automatic so as not to disrupt ongoing projects. A system of fines is being contemplated. Also under scrutiny is the possibility of legalizing lobbyists or “middlemen” who have caused so much grief to the Indian acquisition process.
Government will also have to deal with the ‘single vendor’ problem and decide that the acquisition of the impugned weapon is absolutely necessary for national defence and security and be prepared to face the political fallout. Nobody has as yet been identified for delaying the Bofors project-a weapons system that proved itself during the Kargil war.