India’s soldiers still have to fight with clunky, outdated and unreliable rifles

Long wait.
Long wait.
Image: Reuters/Danish Ismail
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One of the world’s largest tenders for assault rifles has been scrapped. And, as a result, one of the world’s largest armies must continue to wait for reliable weapons for its frontline troops.

Last month, after four years of deliberations, India’s defence ministry finally called off a project worth Rs4,850 crore ($765 million) to purchase 65,678 new assault rifles for the world’s third largest standing army. Assault rifles are weapons primarily used by the army’s infantry troops.

“I can confirm to you the information that the Indian Government has cancelled the tender,” Hana Smilkova, a spokesperson for Czech-rifle maker Ceska zbrojovka A.S, told Quartz via email. A defence ministry spokesperson did not respond to phone calls or messages from Quartz.

According to the 2011 tender, 65,678 assault rifles were to be procured from one of the five international companies that were invited for trials, with an option to make another 113,000 in India through technology transfers. American gunmaker Colt, Italy’s Beretta, Czech Republic’s Ceska, Israel Weapon Industries and SiG Sauer of Switzerland were the other companies selected for trials.

“The army remains without a critical and basic weapon system for the infantry, that forms the bulk of the fighting force,” James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor for IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, told Quartz via email. 

For long, the Indian Army has attempted to find a replacement for its 5.56mm indigenous INSAS (Indian small arms system) rifle,which is currently in use. India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had started work on the INSAS rifles in the early 1980s based on some foreign weapon designs, including the Kalashnikov. The prototype was finally designed in 1986 and went into bulk production in 1994. These rifles were introduced as a replacement for the much heavier 7.62mm self-loading rifles.

But the INSAS rifles were also known to have defects, which became increasingly prominent after the Kargil war of 1999. In 2003, for instance, a major revamp of the rifle was carried out as it reportedly splashed oil on the faces of soldiers while firing, if excess oil was used to clean the weapon. In 2010, before the tender was issued, as many as 69 incidents or defects were reported.

“It is inefficient and unable to operate in cold and hot climates,” said Hardy. This is a problem given the frontline terrain where the Indian Army is deployed.

That’s why a new weapon for the Indian infantry is so critical, although the procurement process was not without its problems. The rifles, according to the tender, were to have interchangeable barrels that can fire both the 5.56 mm INSAS and the 7.62 mm AK-47 rounds, which isn’t a particularly popular configuration.

“The assault rifle project was flawed from the beginning,” Ajai Shukla, a defence expert and a former Colonel in the Indian Army, said. “The costs were high and no country in the world uses such kind of rifles. It should  have been scrapped a long time ago.”

Earlier this year, India’s army chief General Dalbir Singh had listed assault rifles as one of the seven most critical requirements of his troops. But with this tender scrapped, the Indian Army must now wait for a few more years before getting its hands on a new, reliable rifle.