There is little doubt that the Indian Army is in dire need of 7.62mm and 5.56mm assault rifles. The Army still uses the AK-47 in the category of the 7.62mm rifles while the Indian Small Arms Systems (INSAS) 5.56 is an obsolete as well as unreliable assault rifle and needs replacement. A 5.56mm assault rifle is smaller-calibre ammunition which is lighter; hence, for the same load, more rounds can be carried by each infantryman.
In 2016, there were reports that the Army was looking for 1,85,000 assault rifles. Acquiring the assault rifle is crucial for the infantry as it not only faces the brunt on the borders but also carries out counter-terrorism operations. It is a known fact that the Indian Army does not use heavy weaponry in counter-terrorism operations unlike the US and the NATO countries.
One of the reliable weapons systems for the Army during counter-terrorism operations is the assault rifle. Hence, it is important for India to acquire modern and sophisticated assault rifles.
There have been efforts to procure the assault rifle since 2011 but consistent delays have stalled the progress of acquiring a good quality rifle. This delay is a concern for the Army. Despite global companies participating in the assault rifle tender, in 2015, the task to manufacture the rifle was ultimately given to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
The DRDO was to make the INSAS Excalibur, but that plan was cancelled. The same year, India decided to manufacture an assault rifle with interchangeable barrel that would be able to fire different calibres - both 5.56mm round and 7.62mm round - so that the same gun could have served the purpose of counter-terrorism as well as guarding borders and peace stations.
However, this ambitious project did not meet any success as the contractors could not meet with the ambitious demand of the Army. The project required the gun to be lightweight and the calibre needed to be changed by changing the barrel and magazine.
This was followed by another event in September 2016, when the ministry of defence reissued a request for information for a 7.62x51mm assault rifle that can "shoot to kill" instead of a 5.56mm INSAS. Such "shoot to kill" weapons are characteristic of a 7.62mm assault rifle and are best suited in counter-terrorism operations when the reaction time is less. The DRDO was previously developing a 7.62x45mm gun but the Indian Army was then interested in a 7.62x51mm assault rifle.
The Indian Army still uses the AK-47 in the category of the 7.62mm rifles. Photo: Indiandefensenews
The government wanted to procure an assault rifle under the Make in India strategy but that has not reached any success. This year, the Army rejected the indigenously made 7.62mm rifle on the grounds that it was technologically not up to the mark. The Army cited reasons that the gun was of poor quality and had ineffective fire power. According to reports, during the trial sessions, “excessive flash and sound signature” was observed and did not meet the standard.
Rahul Bhonsle, a retired Indian Army brigadier and defence analyst, stated once: “DRDO projects will remain technology demonstrators given that they do not provide confidence to the customer, the Indian armed forces, that these weapons systems are modern or state-of-the-art.”
However, hope is not yet lost as India’s private sector organisations are now keen to venture into weapon manufacturing. In May 2017, reports came in that India’s private firm Punj Lloyd Raksha Systems has set up a venture Israeli Weapon Industries (IWI) to manufacture the Tavor assault rifle.
India has already entered into an agreement with Israel to jointly manufacture weapon systems and transfer of technology and this venture would only strengthen this agreement. The special forces of the Army, the Garud special force of the Indian Air Force and the Marine Corps of the Indian Navy already use the Tavor-21 assault rifles.
According to reports, 1,000 foreign companies from 40 countries are vying to capture the defence market in India and hence, the desire to acquire sophisticated weapon systems including assault rifles can be achieved either by joint production or by transfer of technology - two crucial strategies of the Make in India agenda.