The Army Has a New Rifle Acquisition Plan

The Indian Army is determined to get rid of its current combat rifle, the 5.56x45mm INSAS. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The army may have made a key decision that will enable it to acquire new combat rifles.

According to new reporting from Ajai Shukla of Business Standard, the army’s top leadership has decided ‘to equip infantry soldiers with a world-class assault rifle, while non-infantry soldiers would get a cheaper, less effective, indigenous rifle.’

In essence, according to Shukla, the army is scaling back its previous plans to buy 800,000 rifles designed by an overseas manufacturer.

Army chief General Bipin Rawat now plans to purchase just 250,000 of these rifles and issue them to combat infantrymen. The rest of the army’s soldiers, ‘who are authorised rifles but serve mainly in non-infantry arms and services will get a new indigenous rifle.’

‘My thinking is: Since a state-of-the-art assault rifle will cost about Rs 200,000 each in the global market, let us issue these only to frontline infantry soldiers who confront the enemy armed only with their rifles,’ Shukla’s story quotes Rawat as saying.

The infantrymen are to get foreign-designed 7.62x51mm rifles- firing the same cartridge used by the army’s venerable old self-loading rifle (SLR). The locally made rifles, on the other hand, are to be chambered for the 5.56x45mm intermediate cartridge used in the INSAS rifle as well as many other rifles and carbines currently in service around the world.

Even within each infantry battalion, not every soldier will be armed with the new 7.62x51mm rifle. Instead, out of the roughly 800 men in each battalion, only the four rifle companies and the Ghatak platoon- about 565 soldiers- will be armed with the 7.62mm rifle. The rest will be issued the locally made 5.56x45mm weapon.

Rawat wants a request for proposal (RFP) to be issued by the end of the year, according to Shukla, though it’s not clear which of the two rifles this pertains to, or whether Rawat is referring to both.

The Indian-made 5.56mm rife is expected to come with a unit price tag of just INR50,000, according to Shukla’s story, compared to INR200,000 for the foreign-made 7.26mm rifle. However, that’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, since the unit price tag for the imported rifle will include the amortised costs of various accessories, especially reflex sights and night sights. Also, it’s far from certain the Indian rifle can in fact be made for the price of a high-end phone.

What it all means

The Indian Army’s struggle to decide what small arms it wants has left observers scratching their heads for some time now. In 2011, the army issued a fanciful General Staff Qualitative Requirement (GSQR) for a rifle that could be converted from firing the INSAS 5.56x45mm round to the 7.62x39mm Kalashnikov round. Nearly five years on, it wasn’t satisfied with the offerings and issued a request for information for a rifle that fired the full-powered 7.62×51 cartridge.

The army’s decision to (partially) return to its old full-powered cartridge is fairly unusual. The gradual move towards intermediate-power rounds has its origins in the last two years of the Second World War. In the years that followed, there were several steps backwards and sideways, but by the end of the last century, most militaries around the world, including India’s,  had switched to intermediate-power cartridges.

There were sound reasons for this. A lighter round meant a lighter weapon and lower recoil, which in turn made follow-up shots easier and short bursts of automatic fire more controllable. The lighter cartridges also allowed soldiers to carry more ammunition.

However, the Indian Army, like some of its counterparts around the world, occasionally grumbled about the lower range and effectiveness of the intermediate-power rounds. The army also found it hard to decide between two intermediate-power rounds, the 5.56x45mm and the 7.62x39mm- thus the strange GSQR of 2011 that asked for a rifle with a calibre conversion kit.

In June this blog had argued that the army’s chronic indecision over calibres stemmed from unresolved debates over doctrine. Going by Shukla’s reporting, there’s no indication the army is closer to deciding what it really wants.

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