A file image of Indian Army in Srinagar | Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
A file image of Indian Army personnel | Representational image| Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
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While the bulk of Indian Army personnel use a rifle from the 1990s, Pakistan’s army uses one which dates back to World War II.

New Delhi: Nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan have been scrambling to update their battle rifles for years in the face of changing conflict scenarios.

While India uses a rifle from the 1990s, Pakistan’s dates back even further.

Both countries seek rifles of a higher calibre for combat operations. And instead of importing them, they want to produce the rifles domestically for a range of considerations, including cost.

India

The Indian Army has used the same rifles and carbines since the 1990s, despite complaints by soldiers.

Soldiers who used the indigenously produced 5.56 mm-calibre Indian National Small Arms System (INSAS) in the Kargil war complained that it jammed frequently and caused injuries.

While news of retiring the INSAS has been doing the rounds since 2017, it remains the Indian Army’s main weapon.

The Army has admitted before a parliamentary standing committee that it has been unable to finalise “a very big order” for rifles and carbines in the last eight years.

The reasons are many.

‘A brutal debate’

As Indian ordnance factories prepared to modify the INSAS 5.56 mm over the last few years, the Army’s “operational needs” underwent a change.

The INSAS has been known to injure but not kill the target. The Army’s new requirement was for a 7.62 x 51 mm assault rifle, according to the parliamentary standing committee report, a calibre that would shoot to kill.

“The emerging operational environment necessitates increasing small arms lethality and range with an aim to kill rather than incapacitate the adversary at a range of 500 metres,” said Major General Bhupinder Yadav (retd), a defence consultant. “The more powerful round of 7.62 mm has a higher kill probability and hence most countries prefer the 7.62 calibre for rifles.”

A “brutal debate” continues on whether to kill an enemy soldier on the battlefield or injure them, according to Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd), a distinguished fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.

It is widely believed a smaller calibre rifle that only injures deals a bigger blow. “A lighter calibre will injure a soldier and make sure a chain of personnel is required to evacuate him,” said Brigadier Kanwal.

A rifle that no one could make

Recognising the merit of both these views, the Army settled on both 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm calibres. “The 7.62 is for the troops who are in contact and who fight the enemy at the forefront, and 5.6 for those who aren’t in contact,” said Kanwal.

In 2011, the Army decided to test a dual-calibre assault rifle, one that could fire both 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm ammunitions. Trials for such a rifle were conducted till 2015, but none succeeded.

Experts say this is an unreasonable and technically impossible requirement.

“It increases the logistics, wastage, wear and tear of the weapon system without offering any additional advantages. None of the weapon systems in the world could meet that requirement as it was unrealistic,” said Yadav.

Before the parliamentary standing committee, the Army had said as much, claiming their stringent criteria was the reason behind the failure of most trials. But experts say this is not a fair ground to delay procurement.

You can always purchase something and then improve upon it according to your requirement, through our indigenous production facilities. But, unfortunately, in frequently changing the requirements and asking for the best, we lost over 10 years on this account,” Yadav added.

The vendor problem

Another problem that the Army has faced is that, sometimes, only a single vendor qualifies to deliver the arms after trials. In such cases, the request for proposal (RFP) or tender has to be cancelled.

In 2017, the defence ministry had to cancel an RFP for acquiring 44,000 light machine guns of 7.62 mm calibre.

“When trials are carried out, quite often, it turns out to be a single-vendor situation. You cannot negotiate a contract with a single vendor…if two-three were to qualify you can negotiate with them,” Kanwal said.

In 2016 as well a tender for 44,618 close-quarter carbines was cancelled. The minister of state for defence at the time, Rao Inderjit Singh, had reportedly accused the Army of unfair selection, and allegedly favoured an Italian firm, Beretta, disqualified in the trials. The RFP was cancelled and, days later, Singh was moved to the planning and urban development ministry.

The road ahead

According to a parliamentary committee report, the Army has said 7.5 lakh assault rifles will be made by ordnance factories and private manufacturers within the country, the first order for which will be placed by 2020-2021.

Pakistan, meanwhile, has already been using 7.62 x 51mm calibre rifles for a long time.

Pakistan

Pakistan has so far relied on a World War II, German-created battle rifle. The G3, manufactured by Heckler and Koch and produced at the Pakistan Ordnance Factory (POF), is a modern combat rifle that has served the country for decades. According to the POF, the G3 combines “the accuracy of a sniper rifle with the firepower of a machine gun”.

Another rifle the Pakistani army has used heavily is the Norinco Type 56 rifle, a licensed Chinese clone of the Russian AK-47 (7.62×39 mm). While the G3 has been used in conflicts with India, the Type 56 has been deployed in counter-insurgency operations.

However, the G3 is heavy and known to jam in extreme climates. In 2011, Pakistan shortlisted a few new rifles and began testing them. The chosen rifle would have to be cost-effective and last for decades like the G3. It would be gradually introduced into the army, according to defence news and analysis group Quwa.

The main obstacle to upgrading the country’s rifles has been its ordnance factory.

“POF is a success story, but some of the plant and machinery is getting old and needs replacement, which is expensive. Much will depend on negotiations with suppliers, and it is likely that the Chinese will be the most prepared to offer attractive deals,” Brian Cloughley, a former Australian defence attaché to Islamabad, told Defence News magazine in 2016.

The POF will need to manufacture the rifles domestically because it would be too costly to import the weapons for a half-a-million-strong army.

Former Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif was a champion of domestic manufacturing, and had constantly emphasised the need to make POF modern as well as to find foreign markets.

The cost factor

Transitioning to completely new rifles would also imply expenditure on ammunition and cartridge production, spare parts and special training.

“The cost of changing the entire army (sic), training, ammo, spares, and transition would be staggeringly huge, time consuming and waste of resources,” Zaid Hamid, a war veteran and national security analyst, had tweeted earlier this month.

Pakistan has a large stock of 7.62 x 51mm cartridges that would become useless if new rifles were brought in, Hamid had said.

Make in Pakistan

Many have suggested that Pakistan opt for a smaller assault carbine, which would be a modification of the G3. The G3 carbine would be made by the POF — it would be cheaper as well as lightweight, and not require the army to be trained anew.

“Ideal would be that we design our own rifle…but this carbine option on G3 platform can serve us well for the next 10 years,” said Hamid.

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