The big deal about the Army’s small arms

Even deciding on a multi-purpose tool, akin to a Swiss knife, for example, has been delayed despite trials in 2011 featuring European and American vendors.

July 04, 2014 12:23 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:23 pm IST

Shortly after taking over as the Chief of Army Staff in May 2012, General Bikram Singh had emphatically declared that upgrading the small arms profile of his force was his foremost priority.

Two years later, as Gen. Singh prepares to retire in end July, neither the 5.56mm close quarter battle (CQB) carbines nor the multi-calibre assault rifles he promised are anywhere in sight for the Army’s 359 infantry units and over 100 Special Forces and counter-insurgency battalions, including the Rashtriya Rifles and Assam Rifles.

The Army’s prevailing operational reality is that it does not own a carbine as the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) ceased manufacture of all variants of the WWII 9mm carbines, including ammunition, around 2010.

And, two years later, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) finally endorsed the Army’s persistent complaints regarding the inefficiency of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)-designed INdian Small Arms System (INSAS) 5.56x39mm assault rifles. It agreed that they needed replacing.

The former Defence Minister, A.K. Antony, was forced into admitting in Parliament in late 2012 that the INSAS rifles had been overtaken by “technological development” — a euphemism for a poorly designed weapon system which the Army grudgingly began employing in the late 1990s and, unceasingly, had complained about ever since.

Among largest arms programmes

The Army’s immediate requirement is for around 1,60,080 CQB carbines and over 2,20,000 assault rifles that it aims on meeting through a combination of imports and licensed-manufacture by the OFB. Ultimately, the paramilitaries and special commando units of respective State police forces too will employ either or both weapon systems in what will possibly be one of the world’s largest small arms programmes worth $7-$8 billion.

Gen. Singh’s guarantees, however, remain delusional and, expectedly unaccountable. And, in time-honoured Indian Army tradition, they will now be transferred to his successor, the Army Chief-designate, Lieutenant Gen. Dalbir Singh Suhag, to vindicate.

An optimistic time frame in inking the import of 44,618 carbines, which have been undergoing an unending series of trials since August 2012, is another 12-18 months away if not beyond. The deadline to acquire assault rifles, trials for which are scheduled to begin in August, is even longer — certainly not before 2016-17, if not later.

Till then, the Army faces a fait accompli of making do without carbines, a basic infantry weapon. It will also have to make do with inefficient INSAS assault rifles, another indispensable small arm for the force’s largest fighting arm.

Currently, three overseas vendors are undergoing “confirmatory” trials at defence establishments and weapon testing facilities in Dehradun, Kanpur, Mhow and Pune with their CQB carbines. The November 2011 tender for CQB carbines also includes the import of 33.6 million rounds of ammunition.

Competing rivals include Italy’s Baretta, fielding its ARX-160 model, Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) with its Galil ACE carbine and the U.S. Colt featuring the M4. The U.S. subsidiary of Swiss gunmaker Sig Sauer, which was originally part of the tender with its 516 Patrol Rifle, has failed to turn up at the ongoing carbine trials.

Sig is under investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on charges of alleged corruption in potentially supplying its wares to the Indian paramilitaries. Alleged arms dealer, Abhishek Verma and his Romanian wife, Anca Neacsu — both are in Tihar jail — once represented Sig’s operations in India.


The carbine trials, expected to conclude by mid-July, will be followed by a final report by the Army, grading the vendors on the performance of their systems. Thereafter, the MoD will open their respective commercial bids, submitted over two years earlier and begin price negotiations with the lowest qualified bidder — or L1 — before inking the deal.

According to insiders associated with the project, this intricate process is almost certain to be protracted, despite the inordinately high expectations of efficiency from the Narendra Modi government. They believe the carbine contract is unlikely to be sealed within the current financial year. However, once signed, weapon and ammunition deliveries are to be concluded within 18 months alongside the transfer of technology to the OFB to licence build the designated carbine.

In short, no Army unit will be equipped with a carbine till well into 2016.

The saga of the assault rifles is even starker.

A multi-service internal review in 2012 of the INSAS assault rifles revealed that they were made from four different kinds of metal, an amalgam almost guaranteed to impair their functioning in the extreme climates of Siachen and Rajasthan.

Surprisingly, the Indian Air Force was the most vociferous in castigating the DRDO over as many as 53 operational inefficiencies in the rifle that the country’s prime weapons development agency took nearly two decades to develop and at great cost.

Inexplicably, the DRDO insisted on the OFB developing the SS-109 round, an extended variant of the SS-109 NATO-standard cartridge for 5.56x39mm rifles aimed at achieving marginally longer range, a capability unnecessary for such a weapon system. This operational superfluity delayed the INSAS programme as it required the import of specialised and expensive German machinery and necessitated the “stop gap” import of millions of ammunition rounds from Israel.

The DRDO-designed and OFB-built rifle also cost several times more than AK-47 assault rifles of which around 100,000 were imported from Bulgaria in the early 1990s for less than $100 each as an “interim” measure at a time when the Kashmiri insurgency was its most virulent and Islamist militants better armed than Army troopers.

The MoD issued the tender for 66,000 5.56mm multi-calibre assault rifles in November 2011 to 43 overseas vendors, five of who responded early the following year.

The competing rifles, required to weigh no more than 3.6kg and to convert readily from 5.56x45mm to 7.62x39mm merely by switching the barrel and magazine for employment in counter-insurgency or conventional roles, include the Czech Republic’s CZ 805 BREN model, IWI’s ACE 1, Baretta’s ARX 160, Colt’s Combat Rifle and Sig Sauer’s SG551. The latter’s participation, however, remains uncertain. A transfer of technology to the OFB to locally build the selected rifle is part of the tender.

Meanwhile, field trials for the rifles are scheduled for early August, nearly 30 months after bids were submitted, as that is the extended time period it surprisingly takes the Army to conduct a paper evaluation of five systems.

But these too have already run into easily avoidable problems.

On security grounds, the rifle vendors are objecting to the Army’s choice of its firing range at Kleeth in the Akhnoor sector hugging the Line of Control (LoC) as the venue for the initial round of trials. A final decision on this is awaited. Thereafter, other trials will follow in diverse weather conditions in Leh, Rajasthan and high humidity areas, all regions where the assault rifles will eventually be employed.

Transforming the soldier

Acquiring these modular, multi-calibre suite of small arms is just part of the Army’s long-delayed Future-Infantry Soldier As a System (F-INSAS) programme envisaged in 2005, but interminably delayed.

The F-INSAS aims at deploying a fully networked infantry in varied terrain and in all-weather conditions with enhanced firepower and mobility for the digitised battlefield. It seeks to transform the infantry soldier into a self-contained fighting machine to enable him to operate across the entire spectrum of war, including nuclear and low intensity conflict, in a network-centric environment.

But senior military officers concede this programme stands delayed by six to seven years almost exclusively because of the Army’s inability in formulating qualitative requirements (QR) to acquire many of these ambitious capabilities.

Even deciding on a multi-purpose tool, akin to a Swiss knife, for example, has been delayed despite trials in 2011 featuring European and American vendors. Officers associated with F-INSAS said this, like other equipment acquisitions, was due to the Army’s rigid procedures, inefficiencies and inability to take timely decisions.

The Army continually blames the MoD for creating bureaucratic hurdles in its modernisation efforts, but fails in acknowledging its own shortcomings in drawing up realistic QRs, conducting timely trials and, above all, realistically determining its operational needs and working towards them economically.

Senior officers privately concede that the “uniforms” are largely responsible for the lack of modernisation, but manage to successfully deflect their own limitations sideways onto the MoD.

Gen. Singh’s tenure, like several other chiefs before him, exemplifies this. It is highlighted by their collective inability to even incrementally upgrade the Army’s war waging capacity be it night fighting capability for its armour fleet, modern artillery, light utility and attack helicopters or infantry combat vehicles, among others.

(Rahul Bedi is a New Delhi-based defence analyst.)

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.