Arms Twisted

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From assault rifles to main battle tanks, Indian defence relies largely on imports even after years of research on indigenous production, says Rahul Bedi

Gunning for best New assault rifles are to be imported to replace the INSAS AR
Gunning for the best: New assault rifles are to be imported to replace the INSAS AR

INDIA’S PENCHANT for a membership to the elite, international ‘clubs’ that operate nuclear-powered submarines (SSN) and indigenously developed Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) is indeed laudable.

But it also connotes overreach; a misplaced sense of priorities and the proclivity to largely ignore the indigenous development of basic, operationally vital armaments and ammunition at a time when all three services — especially the army — were wrestling with bureaucratic red tape and corruption scandals to modernise and upgrade most of their ageing assets.

This includes indigenously developing essential small arms systems like credible assault rifles (ARs) and close quarter battle (CQB) carbines for the army’s 359 infantry battalions and 66 associated Rashtriya Rifles (RR) units deployed on counter-insurgency operations (COIN). These primary shortfalls leave the army hopelessly import-dependent, not only for advanced platforms but also for its cutting-edge, everyday requirements.

Defence Minister AK Antony admitted as much in Parliament recently, when he lamented the “shameful and dangerous” situation in which India was compelled to import 70 percent of its military equipment despite repeated governmental assertions claiming self-reliance in this regard.

Illustration: Samia Singh
Illustration: Samia Singh

But the tortuous and hugely expensive saga of the army abandoning the DRDO-designed and Ordnance Factory Board (OFB)-built Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) 5.56mm AR after expending hundreds of crores on it over the past two decades for an imported model, best illustrates the domestic military-industrial sectors’ gross inefficiency. It also demonstrates the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) consequential predilection for massive imports.

“Successive editions of the defence procurement procedures are geared largely to importing equipment rather than locally developing and manufacturing it cheaply,” says Vice-Admiral (retd) Raman Puri, a votary of indigenising India’s military needs. Besides, the charter of the Department of Defence Production (DPP), he laments, appears to be “buy, and buy more from overseas”.

Having spent nearly 15 years developing and producing INSAS ARs and an equivalent period attempting to thrust some 5,00,000 of them upon the army that employed them grudgingly, the MoD opted for closure on yet another abortive DRDO-led indigenous programme last November.

It did so by dispatching a tender to 40 overseas manufacturers to acquire 66,000 5.56mm ARs for an estimated $300-400 million. The bids submitted earlier this month by a handful of vendors require the imported ARs to weigh 3.66 kg and convert from 5.56x45mm to 7.62x39mm merely by switching the barrel and magazine for employment in either a defensive or suppressive fire role. The ARs, likely to undergo trials in early 2013 with deliveries to begin 18-24 months thereafter, would also need to be equipped with under-barrel grenade launchers and be capable of firing OFB-produced ammunition.

The army’s initial requirement is for 2,18,320 ARs, with the majority being licence-built locally under a transfer of technology exclusively to the OFB as mandated in the tender. India’s eventual AR requirement, however, is likely to be over 3-4 million not only for the army but also the Central Paramilitary Forces (CPF) and the provincial police, in a programme estimated at over $3-4 billion. Under the recently revamped national security grid, the paramilitaries and police forces are eventually expected to employ similar weaponry on COIN deployment.

Armament industry officials, however, bemoaned the exclusion of the private sector from this potential contract of licence building ARs indigenously. They claimed it was at odds with the MoD’s parroted aim of privatising the monopolistic State-run military sector that had produced little of worth over several decades.

And later this year, four competitors will participate in trials in support of the army’s requirement of 44,618 CQB 5.56mm carbines to replace its obsolete 9mm model. As well as 33.6 million rounds of ammunition at a cost of $400-500 million. Official sources say the army has not conducted carbine firing practice for nearly three years, lacking the requisite weapons and ammunition.

Israel Weapon Industries (IWI), Italy’s Beretta and USA’s Colt and Sig Sauer will compete in the CQB trials at the Infantry School at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and high-altitude regions. The selected CQB manufacturer, like in the AR tender, will be required to transfer technology exclusively to the OFB to licence-build some 3,80,000-4,00,000 carbines. Of these, 1,60,080 will be for the army and remainder for the CPF and the police. According to armament industry officials, the combined AR and carbine procurement and licensed manufacture is possibly the world’s largest and most expensive of all small arms programmes, worth an estimated $4-5 billion.

The DRDO’s decision to develop the INSAS AR in the early 1980s followed a proposal by the MoD to import around 8,000 5.56mm ARs for select parachute regiments that later converted to Special Forces. The army wanted to replace its heavier 7.62mm Belgian- derivative FNFAL self-loading rifles with a more manageable weapon system.

Germany’s Heckler & Koch’s G41 model, Austrian Steyr’s AUG rifle and UK Royal Ordnance’s-later BAE Systems-SA80 AR were short-listed for trials. All three vendors offered a transfer of technology on easy terms if their product was selected for the estimated $4.5 million purchase.

Meanwhile, the army’s requirements doubled and a cash-strapped federal government vetoed the AR import proposal. The ubiquitous DRDO, claiming to have made progress in developing its own 5.56mm AR at its Armaments Research and Development Establishment in Pune, stepped in and vociferously undertook to make good the army’s small arms requirements.

It took nearly 15 years for the INSAS AR project to fructify, in 1995, and according to weapon experts, what emerged was an ‘amalgam’ of several models: the Russian AK-47, the G41, AUG and SA80 designs. It was also not in consonance with modern engineering production techniques. This rendered it expensive, as manufacturing necessitated importing additional pricey machinery.

Each OFB-produced INSAS AR eventually cost over Rs 20,000, compared to the 1,00,000 battle-tested AK-47’s supplied by Bulgaria that cost $93 each, or Rs 2,800 at the prevailing exchange rate. Imported at the height of the Kashmiri insurgency in the early 1990s for the army as an ‘operational necessity’, these rifles were priced at a seventh of the INSAS’ cost. Eventually, frontline infantry and RR battalions preferred the dependable AK-47, as the INSAS AR reportedly suffered from ‘cold arrest’ or seizures when used in freezing climates. Some components, particularly its semi-transparent magazine, cracked at high altitudes. After some of the defects were partially rectified, the MoD insisted the army induct it into service and it was employed during the 1999 Kargil conflict with mixed results.

The INSAS AR’s inadequacy also triggered a row with Nepal in August 2005, when the erstwhile Royal Nepal Army (RNA) claimed it repeatedly malfunctioned in fire-fights with Maoist insurgents, resulting in heavy casualties.

The RNA maintained that the ARS supplied by India “became too hot” and unusable for sustained firing during a particular engagement at Pili in Kalikot district, 600 km west of Kathmandu, in which 43 soldiers died. Reacting irately to these charges, Indian officials dismissed Nepali concerns and instead blamed the RNA’s poor maintenance and its lack of experience in using the INSAS AR.

“The INSAS AR emerged after years of development as a noncompetitive and inefficient weapon system and the army, being a tied customer, had little choice but to accept it irrespective of its operational shortcomings,” says Major General (retd) Sheru Thapliyal. This profligacy has not only deprived the army of an efficient basic weapon system for decades but made hugely expensive imports a necessity, he adds.

The INSAS programme symbolises the inefficiencies inherent in India’s vast and monopolistic military-industrial complex, comprising 51 DRDO laboratories, 39 OFB units and eight Defence Public Sector Units (DPSUs).

MANY ARMAMENT industry officials maintain that 65 years later, this behemoth still remains a work in progress, ill-equipped to meet the military’s most basic requirements. Its highly bureaucratic workings lead to interminable delays and inflated costs in designing and building low-to-medium level material, impinging on military efficiency.

The ongoing inquiry by the CBI into the MoD’s Kolos Tatra truck procurement for inflated amounts from the DPSU Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML) in Bengaluru, is just one such instance of the Services paying more for questionable licence-built equipment than importing it directly.

Frontline infantry and RR battalions preferred the AK-47, as the INSAS rifle reportedly suffered from ‘cold arrest’

Unlike the relatively accountable private sector, costing in the DPSUs and the OFB was ‘flexible’ and subject to ‘creative bookkeeping’, senior army officials concede. Being State-owned, their manpower was considered ‘free’ and deadlines mattered little, besides which they functioned wastefully under the MOD’s overarching protection.

Alongside, their monopoly resulted in supplying problematic, and at times, even unsafe equipment to their ‘dedicated’ customers at hugely inflated rates. For instance, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had for years castigated Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for spending twice the amount to build Su-30 MKI multi-role fighters at its Bengaluru unit, than it would have cost to import them directly. And in August last year, Defence Minister AK Antony told Parliament that each upgraded version of DRDO-designed and OFB-built Arjun MK II main battle tank (MBT)would cost the army an astronomical Rs 376 crore, or $7.4 million.

Comparably, the Russian T90S MBTs— 647 of which the Indian Army imported as fully-assembled kits from 2001 onwards, and another 1,000 to be built locally under licence at the Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi near Chennai to equip the bulk of its 59 armoured formations — were acquired for $2.2-2.5 million per unit, a third of the Arjun’s price.

Successive parliamentary defence and other watchdog committees have revealed in excoriating reports, often ignored by the media or reported cursorily, that technology transfers by overseas vendors were largely symbolic, adding little or nothing to India’s overall capacity-building or enhancing self-reliance.

Domestic political considerations too perpetuated inefficiencies and casualness in the DRDO, OFB and the DPSUs, as all political parties feared that disbanding, streamlining or even privatising their combined workforce of more than 1.4 million for greater efficiency would trigger the disintegration of loyal ‘vote banks’.

India’s military-industrial sector still remains a work in progress, ill-equipped to meet the military’s most basic requirements

“The DPP (that monitors the OFB and DPSUs) is solely responsible for the current pitiable condition of the indigenous defence industry,” says Major General (retd) Mrinal Suman, known analyst on offsets and the military-industrial sector.

The army, he declared, was forced by the DPP to accept poor-quality equipment and ordnance, resulting in extensive loss of life and adversely impacting the military’s overall war-preparedness. Scores of soldiers had died when faulty OFB-supplied mines exploded whilst being laid during Operation Parakram in 2002 as some of their fuses, it later transpired, had been supplied by a toy manufacturer.

“It all needs to change”, says Gen Suman resignedly.

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