Business Standard, 5th Nov 17
The army’s highest levels have arrived at a vital decision that could open the doors to buying new rifles for the entire army, while remaining within a strained procurement budget. The decision is to equip infantry soldiers with a world-class assault rifle, while non-infantry soldiers would get a cheaper, less effective, indigenous rifle.
Earlier, the army had planned to procure some 800,000 state-of-the-art assault rifles from the global market, each costing about Rs 200,000. That would have cost about Rs 16,000 crore – significantly more than what the army can afford.
Now, army chief General Bipin Rawat has decided to buy only 250,000 assault rifles from the international market, and issue them only to combat infantrymen – the frontline foot soldiers who are directly in contact with the enemy.
The remaining 550,000 army soldiers who are authorised rifles but serve mainly in non-infantry arms and services will get a new indigenous rifle. The army will choose between the INSAS-1C, designed by the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO); and the Ghatak, designed by Ordnance Factory, Kirkee. These are less lethal than the infantry’s assault rifles, but also significantly cheaper, at about Rs 50,000 apiece.
“My thinking is: Since a state-of-the-art assault rifle will cost about Rs 200,000 each in the global market, let us issue these only to frontline infantry soldiers who confront the enemy armed only with their rifles,” Rawat told Business Standard. “Let us provide a cheaper indigenous option to other soldiers, for whom the rifle is not a primary weapon,” he added.
The chief explains the army has evaluated two different weapons philosophies. The assault rifle it has chosen for the infantry is a weapon optimised for conventional war, with a longer range and a larger bullet that kills or completely incapacitates the enemy soldiers that it strikes. It is also equipped with a night vision sight. The second type of weapon, which will arm non-infantry units, is optimised for counter-insurgency operations, being lighter and with a smaller bullet that a soldier can carry in larger numbers.
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A variation of this debate played out in the Indian Army in the 1970s, when it was looking to replace its old 7.62 millimetre self-loading rifles (SLRs). At that time, it was argued that the army should get a 5.56 mm rifle, since that would not just be lighter, but it would also injure, rather than kill, an enemy soldier. That would take out of battle not just the enemy who was shot, but additional enemy soldiers who would be tied up in evacuating the casualty.
This resulted in the army equipping itself with the 5.56 mm INSAS-1B1, manufactured by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB). However, the army was unhappy with the INSAS-1B1, complaining that it was prone to stoppages, and that jihadi militants (and Pakistani soldiers in the Kargil conflict) who were shot by its lighter bullet did not always get incapacitated.
“We would shoot a militant with the INSAS and he would just keep coming at us. That is why we have always preferred to use the 7.62 mm AK-47 in Kashmir, rather than the INSAS,” says Lieutenant General VP Singh, a recently retired officer who has served multiple tenures in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).
Notwithstanding this, only the infantry is going back to 7.62 mm calibre rifles. The bulk of the army will get 5.56 mm rifles, which means that the stock of older AK-47 rifles, which equip specialist Rashtriya Rifles counter-insurgency units, would have to remain the mainstay of operations in J&K and the Northeast.
The army currently fields 382 regular infantry battalions, 28 mechanised infantry battalions, 23 Guards battalions and nine Vikas and Scouts battalions, adding up to 442 battalions of infantry and its equivalent.
Even within an infantry battalion, not every one of its 800-odd soldiers will be issued a 7.62 mm assault rifle. These will go only to soldiers who can expect to be in direct contact with the enemy: its four rifle companies and the commando platoon (called Ghataks), totalling up to about 565 persons per battalion. The remaining personnel would be issued other weapons such as 5.56 mm carbines and rifles. At 565 rifles for each of these infantry units, the total adds up to 250,000 rifles.
At Rs 200,000 for each foreign assault rifle, equipping these 250,000 infantrymen will cost Rs 5,000 crore. For the remaining 550,000 non-infantry soldiers, their indigenous rifles – INSAS-1C or the Ghatak rifle, whichever is chosen – would be priced more cheaply at Rs 50,000 each, totalling up to Rs 2,750 crore. This foreign and indigenous mix of 800,000 rifles adds up to Rs 7,750 crore – saving Rs 8,250 crore, or more than half the Rs 16,000 crore cost of buying foreign assault rifles for the entire army.
The Ghatak and INSAS 1C both remain works in progress, with the army chief confirming to Business Standard there were minor problems during trial firing in summer, including stoppages that exceeded permissible limits. “However, there are significant improvements in those indigenous rifles too, and we expect the OFB and DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) to improve them quickly to meet our expectations,” Rawat said.
“We will not delay any further on the procurement process. I have passed orders for the RFP (Request for Proposals, as the tender is called) to be issued by the end of this year,” Rawat added.
The Rs 2 lakh cost of a state-of-the-art 7.62 mm assault rifle includes the cost of “reflex sights” and “night sights” that make it easier to aim and shoot with a high degree of accuracy, including at night. Without these add-ons, an assault rifle is fired with the help of its in-built sights – the soldier aligns a “rear sight” and “fore sight” on the rifles barrel with the target before squeezing the trigger. This requires a degree of skill and is tiring to the eye. With a reflex sight, which is fitted onto a small rail on the rifle (called a Picatinny Rail), the soldier only has to look towards the target through a small telescope, and align a red dot in the sight with the target before firing.
A modern reflex/night sight today costs as much as the rifle on which it is fitted – up to Rs 100,000.
For years, the Indian Army approached the acquisition of personal weapons, such as rifles and carbines, as part of the expansively named “Future Infantry Soldier as a System” (F-INSAS) programme. This aspired to integrate a soldier, along with his personal weapons and communications equipment, into a digitally networked battlefield management system. With this proving too ambitious, the army has now split the F-INSAS initiative into two distinct parts – the acquisition of personal weapons and, separately, a digitisation project termed the “Battlefield Management System” that is being pursued as a “Make” project in India.
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Infantry weapons and equipment have seldom received the attention that is lavished on more glamorous and expensive weaponry like aircraft, warships, submarines or tanks. However, with the infantry constantly engaged in live operations on the Line of Control with Pakistan, the Line of Actual Control with China and in counter-insurgency operations in J&K and the Northeast, there is a growing recognition of the need to upgrade the infantry soldier, particularly his personal weapon, says Lt Gen Singh.
The need for infantry modernisation is especially urgent in India’s operational milieu, where rugged mountain and jungle terrain limits the applicability and effectiveness of support weapons and air power, making the infantryman the final arbiter of battle.
The role of India’s infantry has remained largely unchanged since independence: to close in with and destroy the enemy. In defensive operations, the infantry physically holds ground against all forms of enemy attack. The infantry is trained and tasked to fight to the end, firing rifles and machine guns and, when ammunition runs out, fighting hand to hand with bayonets – a long knife attached to the rifle.
In an attack, while tanks often lead and the artillery provides fire support, eventually it is the infantryman – no women are allowed yet into this most physical of combat arms – who must physically occupy the enemy’s positions, charging at them in the face of their firing. All he can rely on with certainty is his personal weapon – the rifle or the LMG.
The basic simplicity of the infantry’s role and the tenacity needed to discharge it eminently suits the Indian soldier. In active service around the world, including through two World Wars, the Indian infantryman has earned a formidable reputation for tenacity and courage.
“The defence ministry can spend Rs 58,000 crore on just 36 Rafale fighters. But it finds it difficult to spend Rs 16,000 crore on giving modern assault rifles to 800,000 soldiers. Sitting on our border posts at 15,000 feet, we marvel at these priorities,” says the commanding officer of an infantry battalion, talking over the phone.