The Great Indian Rifle Mess

Soldiers of the Indian Army’s 9 Para Commandos with Israeli 5.56x45mm Tavor rifles. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Indian Army’s search for a new standard rifle is back at square one- yet again. According to reporting from NDTV and PTI on Wednesday, the army has rejected a 7.62x5mm rifle produced by the Ordnance Factory Board’s Rifle Factory Ishapore. The NDTV story cites faults including excessive recoil and “excessive flash and sound signature”. More significantly, the rifle suffered from an “excessive number of faults and stoppages [during trials] to the extent of more than twenty times the maximum permissible standards.” According to sources cited in the story, the rifle also had safety issues and its magazine needed a complete redesign.

The testing took place at Infantry School, Mhow in Madhya Pradesh. Last year, the Infantry School had rejected another OFB-DRDO offering, the 5.56x45mm Excalibur rifle.

There’s little information on the prototype 7.62x51mm rifle the army rejected yesterday- we don’t even have a name. However, the rifle apparently used a rotating bolt and DRDO is said to have helped OFB develop a recoil dampener for it.

The quest for a rifle

The rejection of the OFB weapon is only the latest development in the Indian Army’s long and unedifying quest for a new generation of small arms.

Last October, it surprised the observers at home and abroad with a new request for information (RFI) for a rifle that fired the full-powered 7.62x51mm. The RFI is a throwback to the old self-loading rifle (SLR) that Indian soldiers began wielding in the mid-1960s.

However, since the late 1980s, the Indian Army, following most armed forces around the world had shifted towards so-called ‘assault rifles’ that fired intermediate power cartridges. It adopted the INSAS rifle that fired a local variant of the NATO standard 5.56x45mm cartridge and fielded hundreds of thousands of imported and captured Kalashnikovs that chambered the 7.62x39mm round (along with some other rifles including Israeli Tavors and Zittaras, and old Czechoslovakian VZ-58s).

But the army remained unsatisfied with the INSAS, which had problems attributable to both design flaws and production quality. It also remained deeply ambivalent about the efficacy of the 5.56mm round, especially after its experience in counterinsurgency operations.

The INSAS rifle
The DRDO-developed INSAS rifle has failed to meet the Indian Army’s needs. Image Credit: Pvt. Howard Ketter

Unfortunately, the army’s response to these problems was in a now-familiar pattern, quirky and strange. In December 2011, it released a General Staff Qualitative Requirement (GSQR) for a new rifle that that could fire both the 5.56x45mm and 7.62x39mm rounds. This interchangeability was to be achieved by swapping a few parts- the barrel and bolt for sure- but also more realistically, the magazine well assembly. In its 7.62mm avatar, this rifle would be used for counterinsurgency, while its 5.56mm version was meant for conventional warfare against other states.

The GSQR was for an initial batch of 185,000 rifles. But it was clear that if the contract was successful, up to a million would be produced under license locally for use by all three services as well as police forces. Such opportunities are rare in a world awash with small arms and not surprisingly, several arms makers including Beretta, Colt, BREN, and IWI responded, even though they were undoubtedly bemused by the Indian Army’s requirements. It’s also worth noting that other big-name manufacturers like Heckler and Koch and FN Herstal were conspicuous by their absence.

As vendors struggled to meet requirements, DRDO’s Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE) entered the fray, unveiling a multi-calibre individual weapons system (MCIWS) during the biannual DEFEXPO in 2014.

Ultimately, the army, which had set impossible standards, was not satisfied with any of the contenders and scrapped the programme in favour of the current RFI for 7.62x51mm rifles. Yet even this RFI is not free from over-ambition. For instance, the new rifle is expected to shoot roughly three-inch diameter groups at 500 metres and requirements include telescopic sights. While these features are perfect for a designated marksmen role, they’re unrealistic and downright undesirable in any light-weight and rugged battle rifle.

The unrealistic requirements aren’t the only factor likely to discourage foreign vendors. The global market for combat rifles is dominated by the intermediate calibres. Few manufacturers have such weapons chambered for 7.62x51mm in their inventories (IWI is one of them). Vendors have also been burnt by the failed multi-calibre rifle programme and not likely to leap into the Indian market again without looking.

The quest for a carbine

Unusually, the Indian Army also has a close quarters battle (CQB) carbine programme distinct from the one for a rifle. Carbines are compact versions of rifles and most militaries field carbines and rifles from the same family. For instance, the US M4A4 carbine is a compact variant of the full-size M-16A4 rifle. This helps achieve economies of scale, simpler logistics, maintenance and training. Despite these rather obvious considerations, the army’s CQB carbine programme went ahead, with trials concluding in 2014. According to a piece in Force magazine, the IWI Galil ACE was found suitable after extensive testing, but the programme is currently stuck in Ministry of Defence red tape.

Calibre Confusion

The Indian Army’s inability to pick a single calibre and set realistic specifications may stem from deeper doctrinal uncertainties. It would seem not everyone in the army agrees on the tactical role of a rifleman and more broadly the likely relationship between insurgency and regular warfare in future conflicts.

The multi-calibre rifle project defies common sense. In the event of war with another state, soldiers involved in counterinsurgency operations are expected use a conversion kit to switch calibres. How would the logistics of such a conversion work? Should soldiers always carry such kits with them? (A disastrous proposition.) Or will they be supplied these while on route to their new theatre of operations? What happens when the fog of war disrupts logistics? How should soldiers being rushed to a war zone re-zero their rifles after the calibre change? And how much will the features necessary for rapid calibre changes, like a quick-detachable barrel, increase the unit cost of the rifles?

The multi-calibre project also appeared to assume a clear divide between insurgency and regular warfare, but the reality of future conflicts on the subcontinent may be murkier. During the Kargil war of 1999, soldiers involved in counterinsurgency were thrown into combat with the Pakistan army in what was essentially a different sector of the same war zone. And is a soldier patrolling the Line of Control today involved only in counterinsurgency? Or must he also be prepared for conventional threats from the other side?

The new 7.62x51mm rifle, if it ever comes to be, does not improve matters. It will presumably exist alongside a CQB carbine chambered for 5.56x45mm. Does that mean counterinsurgency forces will stick to the carbine until a conventional threat causes them to swap it for the bigger rifle? Or will soldiers carry a mix of both weapons? Won’t that complicate logistics?

Until the Indian Army figures out what it really wants, its small arms programmes are likely to remain way off target.

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