New Delhi: The Army’s quest for close quarter battle (CQB) carbines — a project initiated in 2008 — got a fresh lease of life this week after the defence ministry gave its nod to the plan to induct approximately four lakh of these weapons.
The Ministry of Defence said in a statement Tuesday that this project would provide a major impetus to the small arms manufacturing industry in India and enhance “atmanirbharta” (self-sufficiency) in small arms.
It added that the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) has been given to this project to combat the “current complex paradigm of conventional and hybrid warfare and counter-terrorism at the borders”.
An AoN is the first step in any defence procurement process.
While the defence minister remains tight-lipped on whether the procurement will be through the ‘Buy Indian’ category or through the Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufactured (IDDM) route, sources in the defence and security establishment told ThePrint that it would be through the former.
Procuring through the Buy Indian category will mean that several foreign companies who either have or will have joint ventures with Indian firms will be participating.
Under IDDM, the competition would have been between only three firms, out of which only one would have been a private firm.
Sources also said that the likely calibre requirement will be the 5.56×45 NATO, and not the 5.56×45 INSAS. While the former is the one used globally, the latter is a slightly different calibre used by India for its INSAS series of rifles, which will be replaced by the AK 203.
It is also learnt that the weight requirement of the carbines is likely to be a maximum 3.2 kg.
Companies that will be taking part
Defence sources said the exact companies that will bid for the project will depend on what the Request for Proposal (RFP), or tender, says.
Sources said that the finer details are yet to be worked out, and it’s still unknown if participating companies will have to showcase a weapon that has been manufactured in India during the trial.
An industry source said: “This would be unfair if foreign companies who have not invested in India are able to showcase weapons that they have. There are foreign companies that have invested in India already and are either manufacturing locally or in the process”.
Defence sources said that the main companies in contention will be Bengaluru-based private defence firm SSS Defence, PLR of the Adani Group, the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), Kalyani Group — which has a tie-up with French firm Thales but is also in talks with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) — the Jindal Group, which has tied up with a Brazilian firm called Taurus, and Neco Desert Tech, a joint venture between Indian and American firms.
However, if the deal is opened up to non-locally manufactured carbines, then more companies will participate on the condition that they will set up a manufacturing base in India if they bag the contract.
Sources said that SSS Defence would be offering its indigenously built M 72 Carbine while PLR is likely to present its Galil Ace.
PLR has tied up with Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) and is already manufacturing various small arms in India.
Sources said that the Kalyani Group is likely to tie up with DRDO for the project, while OFB will be offering its own product.
If the competition opens up, the UAE’s state-owned firm Caracal, which had emerged as the lowest bidder for a now-junked fast-track procurement (FTP), will also throw in its hat. While the firm was initially in talks with Reliance Defence for a tie-up, the deal did not go through, according to sources.
The Army’s carbines saga
The Army has been trying to acquire the CQB carbines since 2008 to replace its outdated and ageing 9mm British Sterling 1A1 submachine guns that are in service.
Both state-owned DRDO and OFB had failed to meet the Army’s requirements back then, and a global tender for procurement of 44,618 CQB Carbines was issued in 2011.
While four companies — Israel’s IWI, Italian Beretta, and American firms Colt and Sig Sauer — participated, only IWI qualified as the other contenders could not meet the qualitative requirements pertaining to the night vision mounting system.
But the defence ministry did not go ahead with IWI because it had become a single vendor case, which, according to the government’s procurement manual, is not allowed.
In 2017, a global Request for Information (RFI) — a process initiated to gather information on what is available in the market — was issued for the purchase of 2 lakh carbines, while a separate process was rolled out to procure 93,895 under FTP.
It is estimated that the overall demand would be over 5 lakh if when taking into account the armed forces, the central armed police forces, and the state police forces.
Caracal had emerged as the lowest bidder but the contract for its CAR 816 had run into rough weather over a number of issues including costs and complaints from other bidders.
In 2020, ThePrint reported that the government had decided to scrap the project altogether.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)