New Delhi: The Army’s decision to go ahead with a second order of 72,000 SIG 716 assault rifles from the United States is yet another “setback” to the private small arms industry in India, and sharpens focus on the government’s inability to kickstart the AK 203 production factory in Amethi.
When the order for the SIG assault rifles is placed — under the option clause of the original contract signed for 72,400 rifles — it would mean that over 1.4 lakh 7.62×51 mm rifles in total will be bought off the shelf from abroad without a ‘Make in India’ initiative.
The domestic industry said the Army’s decision isn’t surprising, but is indeed a setback to them and doesn’t align with the government’s aatma nirbharta (self reliance) push. For now, domestic manufacturers are placing their bets on the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), special forces and the state police, besides the export market for their range of assault rifles.
Defence sources said the SIG assault rifles procurement had to do with a weapon already in service with troops. The fact that an option clause was part of the deal means the plan was always to buy more rifles, depending on the feedback and necessity.
On the ‘Make in India’ initiative, a source said it was being promoted through the AK 203 manufacturing factory, which is expected to be the mainstay of the armed forces. The source added that there are several other tenders in the works in which private domestic players are participating.
The Indian Army had been trying to replace their standard INSAS assault rifles for many years but has been unable to so due to varying factors.
The second batch of SIG rifles will arrive after the delivery of the first order this year, which was placed through the Fast Track Process (FTP). The option clause allows the Army to reorder the rifles for the same price within a similar delivery time-frame.
The new rifles will go to troops in the Northern Command and other operational areas, while the rest of the troops will be equipped with AK 203.
However, the SIG order draws attention to the fact that the government has not been able to start production of AK 203 rifles, chambered to fire 7.62×39 mm ammunition (same as the AK-47), at the Amethi factory that was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last March.
The Indo-Russia Rifles Private Limited, established between the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), Kalashnikov Concern and Rosoboronexport, the Russian state agency for military exports, has seen a delay in starting production.
Earlier this year, the defence ministry had formed a committee to work out the cost of the AK 203 since the Russian partner and OFB are yet to arrive at an agreed price.
Domestic industry unhappy
A source in the defence industry said that when the Army suddenly decided to acquire AK 203 under a government-to-government initiative in 2018, it was the first blow. The SIG rifles deal was also a “setback” for private manufacturers.
“The Army’s decision to order for another tranche of rifles from the US is not surprising but is indeed a setback. A number of companies in India have come up with their own rifles and other systems or tied up with foreign companies and set up manufacturing facilities,” the source said.
A second source said, “The arms manufactured by India have to go through multiple tests. From summer trials to winters to high altitude and desert. However, under the FTP model, the foreign manufacturer shows off the ability in their own factory and is selected under emergency clause.”
A third source said, “The talk now is of ‘Make in India’ and ‘Atmanirbartha’. But when domestic industry is offering world-class rifles, the focus is still on procuring from abroad. Do note that the 1.4 lakh rifles from US will be straight import without any Make in India or technology transfer.”
Domestic manufacturers up their game
One of the early companies to set up an arms manufacturing plant in India was PLR Systems in a tie-up with Israeli Weapons System (IWI).
Under the deal, the companies began producing weapons like Tavor series, the mainstay of the special forces in India, along with others like the Galil sniper rifle, Uzi Pro submachine gun, Masada pistol and the Negev Light Machine Gun (LMG) with indigenous content ranging from 40-60 per cent.
In case of a repeat order, though, it is sent to IWI directly instead of the local manufacturing unit since there will be a change in the name of the firm.
“This means that there will have to be fresh trials even when it is the same rifle manufactured in India with a large indigenous component,” a third source said.
Bengaluru-based SSS Defence is another company in the domestic market. The company manufactures a sniper, assault rifle and light machine gun.
The rifles are completely indigenously designed, with SSS Defence holding the Intellectual Property Rights for its design.
Bharat Forge of the Kalyani Group also works in the small arms market and has tie-ups with a foreign player for indigenous manufacturing for an Army contract bid.
Army’s quest for assault rifles
In 2011, the Army issued a global tender for procurement of assault rifles wherein Colt of United States, Beretta of Italy, IWI of Israel and Ceska of Czeck Republic participated.
However, this attempt failed since only the IWI weapon qualified the trials and was declared the resultant single vendor.
The Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE), DRDO and OFB also tried to design and develop assault rifles to replace the INSAS. However, none of their weapons made the cut.
Yet another Request for Proposal (RFP) for procurement of assault rifles was issued in 2017 with assurance of a floating RFP in 2018.
Given the situation, it was felt that a certain quantity of rifles needed to be procured on an urgent basis for the frontline troops.
Accordingly, the Indian Army planned to procure 72,400 assault rifles of Calibre 7.62x51mm through the Fast Track Process route.
Later, the Army backed the idea of manufacturing AK rifles jointly with Russia, a project that the Russians had been pushing for a while.