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American SiG Sauer rifle fine for Army—for now. Indian firms should be Modi govt’s priority

The repeat order of SiG 716 rifles from the US shows that Army is in desperate need of modern rifles. But the govt shouldn't depend on foreign supplies too much.

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The Army is all set to go in for a repeat order of the SiG 716 rifles from US firm SIG Sauer Inc., under the ‘Buy (Global) category’ through the fast track route. The fact is that the Army is in desperate need of modern assault rifles to replace the Indian Small Arms System models that it currently uses. The plan to manufacture the AK-203 assault rifle through a joint collaboration with Russia remains unimplemented since 2018 despite negotiations and even the inauguration of the Korwa Ordnance factory in Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi district. Given the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, one is really not sure when the actual production will finally start. Hence, the Army wanting to go in for a repeat order of the SiG 716 rifles is a good thing, at least on the face of it.

The Army has been upset with the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) for failing to come up with an assault rifle that meets its requirements. And it is not looking at just assault rifles but is also keen on buying different small arms, including carbines, pistols, light machine guns (LMGs), and snipers, among others.

While all branches of the Army have undergone modernisation at various levels, the infantry soldier has seen the least. Although it is now getting better and lighter bulletproof vests and helmets, the basic requirement of an infantry soldier in combat is lacking – a good assault rifle. Thankfully, the defence industry is seeing a vast change in the manufacturing of small arms and all other kinds of systems.

Making in India

One does not have to be dependent on just the OFB or a foreign vendor any longer. Take, for example, Bengaluru-based Stumpp Schuele & Somappa (SSS) Defence, a young small arms startup. It has come up with an indigenously designed and manufactured assault rifle, a carbine, and even a sniper rifle. It is India’s first small arms manufacturer in the actual sense. Another indigenous firm is PLR Systems, now taken over by the Adani Group. The company is a joint venture with Israel Weapons Industry (IWI), a former Israeli government firm that was privatised in 2005. It is now making a whole range of IWI small arms in India, including the Tavor and Ace series at its Gwalior facility.

The Kalyani Group, too, is keen to bring in the products of Bulgaria’s Arsenal JSCo. in a venture similar to PLR Systems. Astr Defence, based in Karnataka, has come out with a small arms product — an indigenous pistol called Atal.

Also read: In boost to Atmanirbhar Bharat, security forces to get India-made Israeli assault rifles

Where’s govt support?

All that these companies need is hand-holding from the Narendra Modi government and the Armed Forces. What this basically means is receiving orders to boost production and manufacture of small arms. There is no point in having these companies invest money and come out with a product only to realise that there are no orders in the offing.

The Armed Forces and the Union government should make it their top-most priority to focus on these and other Indian firms when it comes to small arms manufacturing. Currently, PLR Systems is making the best Israeli weapons in India that the Armed Forces and even state police use. But any follow-up order for the contracts already inked in the past by the Army has to go to the Israeli company because that is what our procurement procedures mandate. This is because if an order is given to PLR Systems, the name of the company changes and that would mean a fresh procurement process. So, the Armed Forces give fresh orders to IWI directly, which manufactures the weapons in Israel and sends them over to India.

The Army is inducting the IWI-supplied LMGs, even when the joint venture is capable of manufacturing it indigenously with varied Make in India elements.

So what does PLR Systems do in the meantime? Apply for fresh tenders and wait.

In the case of SSS Defence, they have an indigenous product that is designed and fine-tuned to meet the requirements of a soldier. The Armed Forces should be directed by the government to source their weapons only through these companies or anyone who is willing to manufacture them in India. Even if the indigenously designed product of the SSS Defence meets 90 per cent of the Army criteria, it should be given a chance with limited orders and hand-holding to fine-tune its weapons.

Also read: India to ink ‘repeat order’ deal for 73,000 SiG 716 rifles from the US

No more foreign dependence

Orders don’t have to number in lakhs — a few thousands can work as well, and the companies should be asked to come up with upgraded versions as long as the firing system and ammunition remain the same. At the same time, the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) should be directed to procure their weapons from only indigenous companies and not go in for foreign products.

When the SiG 716 was procured, the Army simply went and bought it without taking into consideration the ammunition that will be needed. Now we have a case of an American rifle being used with the ammunition of medium machine guns manufactured by the OFB. And the quality is an issue, according to defence sources. This has resulted in higher recoil than a regular SiG 716, which is of 7.62 x 51 mm calibre.

In July 2020, I had written that the Army’s decision to go ahead with the 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. It has been nearly two years since then, but the system remains the same. However, I am not suggesting that the repeat order should not be made — it should be, for the soldiers need rifles, but it is also time to focus on indigenous firms.

Another factor to think about is the Army’s proposed small arms plan. If it goes ahead, it will become a unique force in the world to have three different calibres of small arms — 7.62 x 51mm of SiG, 5.56 x 45 mm of proposed carbine and 7.62×39 mm of the AK-203.

One can’t even imagine the logistics nightmare it will bring during an actual war or even counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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