In a disappointment for Indian designers, and for India’s traditional Russian suppliers, the subcontinental power is testing a shortlist of Western 5.56 x 45mm assault rifles to replace the Indians’ failed INSAS system that was supposed to replace dated Kalashnikov and FAL battle rifles. The selected design is certain to be produced in-house in India’s state arsenals, as its forerunners all the way back to the nation’s era of British colonization have been.
There are five guns on the short list:
- The Beretta ARX 160;
- the Colt Combat Rifle, an M16 revised for Indian requirements;
- The CZ 805 BREN, now in service with the Czech Republic;
- IWI’s ACE 1, which we’re trying to ID as a variant of the ACE 21/22/23 improved Galil (the variants differ by barrel length) or the ACE N which we believe to have a polymer receiver.
- The SIG SG551, offered by the US branch of the firm.
A similar test of CQB carbines reportedly involved only four of the above vendors and their carbine equivalents (odd man out being CZ).
The trials have at least two phases, cold weather evaluation in the Kashmiri mountains this year, and warm weather evaluation in 2014. Jane’s Defense Weekly explains what befell the native development, the INSAS:
The selected rifle will replace the locally developed Indian Small Arms System 5.56×45 mm rifle, which the army rejected in 2010-11 due to it being inefficient and “operationally troublesome”.
Jane’s writer is being diplomatic here. The INSAS was a decades-long boondoggle that took too long and cost too much to put substandard guns in the hands of Indian troopers. And the gigantic invisible rabbit in the room was that, far from being revolutionary, the INSAS just beat the path to a 5.56mm AK, a path already paved and signposted by Finland and Israel, among others. It had an FN-like grenade-launcher-muzzle-brake and a polymer magazine, but it looks suspiciously like a good old Galil.
Now, the editors of Jane’s must stay on cordial terms with the ad buyers of the world’s defense industry. Writing in India’s Sunday Standard, a general interest paper, N.C. Bipindra felt no such obligation to be diplomatic:
The war that broke out in Kargil next year [1999-Eds.] saw the INSAS put to test, and a spate of complaints about malfunctioning and build quality of the rifle poured out of Himalayan battlefields. The rifle jammed, its polymer magazine cracked in the cold, it would go full automatic when set for a three-round burst. Many jawans [troopers - Eds.] remained unconvinced about the stopping power of its 5.56 mm round; they wanted their heavy 7.62s back. It didn’t help that the Nepal Army, one of the few INSAS customers outside India, had its complaints too. The INSAS glitches were fixed but advancement in firearms technology had rendered the weapons system too obsolete for the rapidly modernising Indian Army by then.
And neither did Indian officers he interviewed:
According to Lt. Gen. (Retd) P C Katoch, a Parachute Regiment officer, the INSAS family were “not the best” of weapons. “There were a number of problems with these rifles,” he said, noting that the “DRDO [Defense Research and Development Organization, whose Armament Research and Development Establishment spawned the INSAS - Eds.] and OFB [Ordnance Factories Board, a weapons-manufacturing bureaucracy - Eds.] could come up with only such weapons after 15 years of work”.
India spends nearly Rs 7,000 crore annually on defence research and development, and has 39 ordnance factories to manufacture weapons for its 13-lakh strong armed forces but, in the words of another senior officer: “The DRDO and OFB have failed to develop one good, modern weapon with which the troops are satisfied. As a result, we had to go in for foreign-made equipment and have issued tenders for these.”
They built a half million INSAS rifles and carbines before discovering the thing was no good. They also seem to have binned their fallback plan for the foreign firms to produce rifles with conversion parts for using 5.56 and 7.62mm x 39mm ammunition interchangeably.
Many nations of the world take up rifle and other small arms development, expecting it to be easy. The question is, compared to what? India’s factories and engineers produce nuclear weapons and Mach 2 fighter aircraft (the latter, admittedly, under license). And it’s no exaggeration to say India’s arsenals have built millions of perfectly good weapons before laying the INSAS egg. So what’s the problem? Designing a gun is pretty hard. Designing ones better than the extremely-well-sorted current world leaders, the AR and AK platforms, is extremely hard. Right up there with fighting in those mountains.
The decision to go to a foreign design even if it means that initial weapons and production technology must be imported, is a sign of realism in Indian military — and fiscal — policy.
It’s also interesting to note who’s ni