Fighting without equipment

Agartala, Border Security Force (BSF) personnel petrol along the India-Bangladesh international border fencing near the Agartala airport in view of the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinaâs two day long visit in Lanka Pura border outpost in the out skirts of Agartal city, capital of Tripura state, northeast India. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrives at Agartala to receive an honorary Doctorate of Literature (DLit) degree from Tripura University. Hasina also hold a meeting with businessmen in the morning to discuss ways to boost trade between Bangladesh and the northeastern states of India. The visit would be the first by any Prime Minister of Bangladesh to Tripura, which had played an important role in Bangladesh's War of Liberation in 1971. Tripura shares an 856-km border with Bangladesh. Vice-President of India Hamid Ansari also arrived on the occasion of the Sheikh Hasinaâs visit.PHOTO: RITU_RAJ_KONWAR   | Photo Credit: Ritu_Raj_Konwar - Ritu Raj Konwar

In the last five years, the small arms profile of India’s paramilitary forces has emerged as significantly superior to that of the Army, which continues to struggle to acquire even basic weapons for its infantry units. Since 2010, the Army has operated without a carbine, and has been battling seemingly intractable Ministry of Defence (MoD) bureaucratic processes to procure one. It is also struggling with similar self-defeating and hidebound acquisition procedures to acquire an assault rifle. It is still years away from selecting one, let alone inducting it into service.

Succeeding Army chiefs have declared the procurement of both weapon systems to be ‘top priority’, but years later, following extended trials and interminable evaluations, this priority remains unfulfilled.

On the other hand, the central paramilitary forces have, over the same time frame, inducted a range of modern carbines and assault rifles into service. Undoubtedly, their numbers are fewer than the Army’s, but there is a procedural lesson for the Army in the relative swiftness with which the central paramilitary forces have shortlisted, evaluated, tested, and finally acquired the weapon systems.

Interminable processes

Ironically, instead of the bigger and more battle-hardened Army setting an example in small arms acquisitions, the opposite has been true, due largely to the central paramilitary forces’ less encumbered acquisition procedures and swifter decision-making processes. Since 2010-2011, the Border Security Force (BSF) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) have acquired some 34,377 ‘Storm’ MX-4 sub-machine guns from Italy’s Beretta, with under barrel grenade launchers (UBGLs) and around 68,000 AK-47 variant assault rifles from Bulgaria’s Arsenal. A follow-on order by the CRPF for 60,000-odd AK-47s is under acquisition. Other central paramilitary forces purchases include 2,540 Tavor X-95 carbines from Israel and over 12, 000 9mm MP-5 sub-machine guns from Germany, some of which have been disbursed to special state police units deployed in counter insurgency operations against Naxalites.

In comparison, the Indian Army’s unending saga of small arms acquisitions makes dismal telling. This is due to utter confusion in determining their qualitative requirements (QRs) and the inherent systemic inefficiencies for which the Army has to assume ownership. This time around, it cannot complain that the MoD deprived its soldiers of basic weaponry.

In December 2010, the Army issued a tender for 44,618 5.56mm close quarter battle (CQB) carbines and 33.6 million rounds of ammunition to replace its World War II vintage submachine guns, which even the Ordnance Factory had stopped producing. The trials featuring three vendors ended in end-2013. But the Army has yet to declare a winner, reportedly due to a handful of senior officers in the interminable procurement chain unduly favouring one carbine over the other for specious, almost laughable, reasons.

The tender requires a carbine weighing no more than 3kg to be capable of firing 600 rounds per minute, to a distance of 200 meters. It also requires the winning model to transfer technology to the Ordnance Factory to licence-build it in order to meet the Army’s requirement for over 2,00,000 CQB carbines. This number is expected to increase manifold.

However, the fear in military circles is that the petty differences in the Army’s selection team could well result in the tender being scrapped altogether. Retendering would take several more years, during which time the Army will have to operate without a carbine.

The assault rifles delay

The assault rifle procurement story is even more incomprehensible and alarming, as the Army is likely to scrap its 2011 tender for 66,000 multi-calibre assault rifles, after four overseas vendors failed to meet its requirements in trials that concluded last November.

The Army’s tender required the modular assault rifles to switch from 7.62x39mm to 5.56x45mm for employment in defensive and suppressive fire roles, merely by changing their barrels and magazines. The selected system was to have replaced the Defence Research and Development Organisation-designed assault rifle, which the Army had stated was ‘operationally inadequate’ in 2010, after using it on sufferance for years. 

The shortlisted rifle, like the CQB carbine, was also to be licence-built by the OFB to meet the Army’s immediate operational requirement for over 2,20,000 assault rifles. Four models participated in trials at Bakloh cantonment near Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh and at Hoshairpur in Punjab, from August 2014 onwards. All four rifles failed to meet the Army’s QRs for various reasons.

Official sources indicated that retrials were unlikely, and that after four years of wasted effort, the Army now plans to draw up fresh QRs for a single calibre rifle, in all likelihood a 7.62x39mm, which has a shorter range than its 5.56x45mm calibre equivalent that is in use with most of the world’s armies. It will then send out a request for information for the new rifle, before re-tendering several months later. Thereafter, it will navigate the time-consuming process of technical evaluation, user trials and shortlisting, followed by price negotiations, a process lasting three to four years.

Poor alternative

The MoD is also believed to be considering the alternative proposal of abandoning the import of both the carbine and assault rifle and manufacturing them locally under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ enterprise. But this will also entail time-consuming procedures, necessitating a private or public sector-led joint venture with an overseas original equipment manufacturer, again selected after extensive trials. Such an enterprise would, doubtless, necessitate the import of a certain number of weapon systems before their licensed production by the JV begins much later.

Army officers have warned that such delays severely compromise the operational efficiency of infantry units, especially those deployed in counter-insurgency operations, as they are forced to employ INSAS rifles against the superior weaponry of militants in Kashmir and the Northeast. Meanwhile, even the sniper rifles used in the paramilitary forces are more contemporary and advanced than the Army’s Soviet-era Dragunov SVD gas-operated, semi-automatic models acquired in the 80s.

Attempts to import around 1,000 sniper rifles for the Army’s Special Forces in 2010-11 under the Fast Track Procurement route proved fruitless and have been abandoned, even though the requirement remains a priority. An Army team led by a two-star officer conducted comparative trials in Israel (for IWI’s semi-automatic Galil sniper rifle), Finland (for Beretta’s SAKO TRG-22/24 bolt action model) and the U.S. (for Sig Sauers 3000 magazine-fed rifle), but with no results.

Unfortunately, even such specialist rifles, which can potentially alter not only the course of battles and politics but even history, remain victims of Army apathy.

(Rahul Bedi is a defence analyst.)

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 1:59:17 PM |

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