The saga of the Indian Army’s acquisition programme for small arms and assault rifles is a scam wrapped within a farce. The indigenously produced Indian National Small Arms System (INSAS) has been systematically denigrated and successive governments forced to sanction ad hoc acquisitions to meet urgent demands to deal with the perennial threats from Pakistan and China and the internal insurgencies. The result is that the Indian Army and paramilitary, central and State police forces each have a plethora of weapons from varied sources making national security a tragic comedy.
It is amazing that all of these institutions have acquired several different types of foreign weapons from varied sources forcing the country into dependence for different types of ammunition to meet the recurrent exigencies that have become the hallmark of the threat perception of the Indian nation-state. The Army, for instance, has the INSAS family of light machine gun, assault rifle, a submachine gun and a micro-carbine in the standardized 5.56 mm caliber that was intended to reduce the weight of the weapon and contribute to a concept of maiming the enemy over a distance of 450 meters and impose medical evacuation difficulties on the enemy. It also has in its inventory the Israeli Tavor and Galil rifles, the Russian AK-47, the South African “anti-material” rifle to name but a few.
The INSAS family was plagued by several disabilities including barrel warp, jamming in cold weather, its transparent magazine tended to crack and, most disconcertingly, the whole magazine would empty out in one continuous burst when the gun was designed for only three rapidfire rounds to save on ammunition and reduce the load on logistics. One other disability which was quickly remedied was the complaint that the INSAS rifle tended to spray oil on the gunman’s face and hands. This last pointed to improper pre-operation treatment of the gun. It is unheard of that there should be so much oil in the gun that could cause the spray phenomenon. Normal practice should have been to clean the gun to remove whatever oil that may have been applied to ensure that its moving parts do not rust or become clogged before going to battle. That should be standard operating procedure among the infantryman whose life and livelihood depends on the smooth functioning of his weapon.
Given the manner in which a former Director-General of Infantry denigrated the weapon on television it had become plain that the Army was not just not interested in furthering the cause of indigenization but, as in the case of the Arjun tank where the charge of an attempt to sabotage the weapon system was levelled by the manufacturers, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, that the indigenous tank suddenly became very accurate and its serviceability became acceptable.
Having convinced the ministers concerned about the absolute uselessness of the INSAS family of small arms the Army produced a qualitative staff requirement for a global tender that has since been universally described as “unrealistic”. What the Army was looking for was a weapon that weighed 3.6 kg, was capable of accepting two barrels, one of 5.56 mm caliber for the defence of the frontiers and the other of 7.62 mm caliber for counter-insurgency operations and capable of firing 600 round to a range of a thousand meters.
From among nearly four dozen world-class original equipment manufacturers the Army shortlisted five and asked them to bring their weapons for trials in varied terrain-desert, plains and mountain-and temperatures from the subzero of the Siachen glacier to the 50 plus degree centigrade of the deserts in Rajasthan. The five contenders included the Italian Beretta one version of which is already in use by the Central Reserve Police Force, the American Colt combat rifle, the Czech Republic’s BREN, Israel’s ACE 1 and US-Swiss Sig Saeur’s SG551 weapon. The last named did not turn up for the trials because it has been under CBI scrutiny for alleged kickbacks to Indian middlemen.
Reports suggest that given the massive scale of the contract (between Rs 19,000 and Rs 25,000 crore) three of the four contenders dug into their vast experience in gunmaking to create products for the trials. But since they were mere prototypes much will depend on which quotation is the lowest.
Since 2011 when the contract was floated the Armament Research and Development Establishment of the DRDO had been working on an improved version of INSAS rifle which it inappropriately named the Excalibur, the magical sword of King Arthur. Even the most elastic of imaginations would not be able to conjure up a vision of a sword doubling up as a rifle. However, it does appear that the ARDE has managed to remove the many kinks in the INSAS weapons and has given the final product a more appropriate name-Multi-Calibre Individual Weapon System (MCIWS).
DRDO is keeping its fingers crossed and is hoping that the new government’s penchant of “Make in India” will weigh in favour of its product. The main argument against it has been that it is merely an improved version of the INSAS family as if that is a crime (in fact DRDO should be congratulated and encouraged to go in for more “product improvement’ of its wares to keep in tune with the times. If all the kinks in the INSAS have been removed in the Excalibur/MCIWS or MIR (Modified INSAS Rifle) due credit and orders for the product should normally be forthcoming. The ARDE is simultaneously working on a new version of the MIR.
Much depends on how soon and efficiently the Rifle Factory at Icchapore, Northern Parganas, West Bengal be able to incorporate the modifications in the Excalibur/MCIWS/MIR. Analysis of the metallurgy involved in the creation of the INSAS rifle show that four different metals have been used to fashion the different parts of the weapon. The intention was to impart strength to the firing chamber even while retaining the quality of light weight and robustness. This amalgam tends to react differently under very cold or very hot climates with individual metals having different coefficients of expansion. Whether the Ordnance Factories Board has changed the metallurgy to create a homogenous alloy for the modified version is yet to be known.
In a contract worth nearly Rs 25,000 crore the stakes are high indeed. That is why lobbying (and denigration of the local product) has been at a very high pitch. The contract envisages licenced production of the selected weapon in an Indian factory. The history of licenced production in India is one of over-dependence on foreign sources. Product improvement and the promised leapfrogging of technology has been sporadic and confined mainly to missiles. As seen in the saga of the Arjun tank there are many ways to discredit the indigenous product.