Aatmanirbhar Bharat needs world-class assault rifles; can they be ‘Made in India?’

Indian Army has decided to procure another batch of 72,000 SIG 716 assault rifles from the United States through Fast Track Process (FTP)
Aatmanirbhar Bharat needs world-class assault rifles; can they be ‘Made in India?’
  • The hunt for a substitute for ageing INSAS rifles has been on for almost a decade now, but there has been little headway in boosting indigenous manufacturing

  • Local production of assault rifles by India-Russia JV IRRPL has also been delayed because the company has taken 13 months to submit a techno-commercial bid

New Delhi: In the backdrop of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's call for Aatmanirbhar Bharat, the Indian Army has decided to procure another batch of 72,000 SIG 716 assault rifles from the United States through Fast Track Process (FTP), highlighting that indigenous defence manufacturing in India is yet to be competitive even in the arena of small arms. In 2019, the Army had placed a similar order to procure the same number of these rifles from West Virginia-based firearm manufacturing company Sig Sauer. The purchase is part of India's attempt to replace ageing INSAS rifles which were inducted way back in 1988. 

The hunt for a substitute rifle has been on for almost a decade now, with the initial tender floated in 2011. Since then, the Army has already floated RFPs multiple times, rejected assault rifles and has bought Sig 716 assault from a foreign player. The emergency purchase highlights India's cardinal problems of lack of trust on its indigenous manufacturing delivery system. Commenting on the matter, Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch (Retd), who played a significant role in acquiring Israeli Tavor for Special Forces as the Deputy Director General of Special Operations said, "I think the small arms should completely be manufactured in India. If India has the calibre to send spacecraft with the pin point accuracy, If we produce a missile like Brahmos which is the leader in world in its class, there is no way we can't produce world-class assault rifles."

India's long quest for assault rifle 

As per the modernisation plan, Army wants to replace its highly controversial INSAS rifles —which have been in news for all negative reasons. Frequent jamming, cracking of its plastic magazine and its lacklustre performance has pushed the Army to the wall. In operational areas like Jammu and Kashmir, the Army was quick to replace INSAS rifle with much lighter and deadlier AK-47s. 

In 2016, the Army rejected an indigenously made assault rifle called 5.56 mm Excalibur Guns as it could not live up to its expectation. The local manufacturing faced another setback when the Army rejected 7.62×51 mm assault rifle developed by Rifle Factory Ishapore after it miserably failed the firing tests. 

The India-Russia JV and Make in India

Eventually, a decision was taken to locally manufacture 6.7 lakh assault rifles — AK-203 — in Amethi by Indo-Russia Rifles Private Limited (IRRPL). The company is a joint venture between India's OFB (Ordnance Factory Board) and Russia's Rosoboronexport and Kalashnikov. Even though the company started operations in March 2019 only but the actual production got delayed due to the company taking 13 months just to submit a techno-commercial bid. Moreover, pricing has been another issue where the involved parties are yet to take a decision. 

Due to these multiple reasons the Army invoked its emergency power and ordered additional 72,000 Sig Sauer 716 Assault rifle for its troops involved in counter-insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East. Lt Gen Katoch said, "Acquiring 72,000 Sig Sauer 716s is like arming 150 battalions of a command which will definitely provide them with the requisite firepower."

Yet another setback for indigenous players 

The decision, however, has come as a major setback for local manufacturers, especially private players. There are private companies, like Kalyani Group, SSS defence and PLR Systems, who are manufacturing a competent rifle, but the Army has decided to directly purchase from a foreign player. Lt Gen Katoch added, "In India, the defence sector has been completely dominated by PSUs. It is in recent times that some opportunities have been given to the private players. The existing model of our defence manufacturing is not delivering the desired results." 

He also said, "Rifles must not be purchased from outside. These were emergency purchases so it can be ignored. But we must put our act together at the organisational level, since we don't have dearth of talent. Moreover, we also need to take all the stakeholders, including developer, manufacturer, and the end-user (Army in this case) onboard, who are (currently) working in silos to produce a world-class rifle of a requisite quality."

Stressing on the call for 'Atmanirbhar Bharat' given by PM Modi, Lt Gen Katoch said, "Rifles can be at the vanguard of realising the goal of self-sufficient or 'Atmanirbhar Bharat,' provided the right approach and accountability."

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