The rifle, carbine and pistol are the personal weapons of soldiers in combat. The personal weapon is an intrinsic part of the soldier, for whom it is akin to a limb of his body. In peacetime, the personal weapon is kept in the kote or armoury, but while on active duty in counter-insurgency and counter terrorism (CICT) operations or while deployed in active field areas, the personal weapon is always by the side of the soldier—a constant companion at all times.
Prior to Independence, the British Indian Army was equipped with the Lee Enfield bolt action .303 rifle. This was the soldier’s personal weapon and was used in both World Wars I and II. Post-independence, the Indian Army continued with its use, right up to and including the 1962 war with China. The .303 Lee–Enfield rifle, was a bolt action, magazine-fed rifle invented by James Paris Lee and in the UK it was manufactured by the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield.
In use for about 75 years, this was a popular weapon for its reliability, long-range and ruggedness, which led to the manufacture of over 17 million rifles! It had a 10 round magazine that could be loaded by a five-round charger clip, but the fact that it could fire a single shot only and had to be reloaded by pulling the bolt for the next shot finally led to its obsolescence. In India, it was replaced in 1963 with the 7.62 mm Self Loading Rifle (SLR).
The 7.62 mm SLR was a copy of the UKL1A1self-loading rifle, which in turn was a version of the Belgian FN FAL battle rifle. In India, the rifle was produced by the Ordnance Factory, Tiruchirappalli and was in service upto 1998, when it was replaced by the INSAS Rifle. Over a million units of the 7.62 mm SLR rifle have been produced by the OFB.
While the SLR was still in service, a decision was taken, sometime in mid 1980s, to develop a 5.56 mm caliber rifle to replace other obsolete rifles. This led to the development of the 5.56 mm INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) rifle, and the INSAS Light Machine Gun, which came into service in 1998 for use by the Armed Forces, Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), and the state armed police.
But from its very inception, the users, especially the Army, were not satisfied with the weapon, as it jammed frequently, at times oil was sprayed into the eye of the user, and the magazine was susceptible to cracking in cold weather. Some injuries during firing practice were also reported. To solve the problems, the 1B1 variant was issued in 2001, but that led to other problems such as broken magazines.
A major disadvantage of the INSAS is its lack of stopping power. This, along with its poor reliability, made it an unsuitable weapon when troops were deployed in counter-insurgency and counter terrorism (CICT) operations against terrorists who were equipped with the far superior AK 47 rifles or variants of the same. In 2010, the Army declared the INSAS rifle to be ‘operationally inadequate’ and overtaken by ‘technological development’—which was another way of saying that it was a poorly designed and produced rifle!
A need for change
It then began a search for a hybrid replacement assault rifle, capable of swiftly converting from 5.56×45 mm caliber to 7.62×39 mm, merely by replacing the barrel. A weapon system of this nature was futuristic and was not available globally, and the Army’s GSQR was perhaps overtly ambitious, as a result of which this initiative too floundered. An attempt was made by the DRDO-Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) combine to manufacture the 5.56x45mm calibre Excalibur .
This was part of the Army’s F-INSAS project, the acronym meaning Future Infantry Soldier as a System. The proposed Excalibur rifle was to have an interchangeable barrel (5.56 mm and 7.62 mm) and was intended to replace the indigenously developed INSAS 5.56×45 mm assault rifles. But the project was abandoned in 2018 and thus, the process to acquire a modern assault rifle was restarted, in which the AK-203 became a front runner.
To make up for the immediate requirement of the Infantry, it was decided as a stop-gap measure to import a modern assault weapon. Consequently, an order was placed on a US firm in February 2019, for the import of 72,400 SIG 716 G2 Patrol assault/battlefield 7.62×51 mm rifles, manufactured by Sig Sauer. The delivery of these rifles has since been completed and the rifles have been issued to troops deployed in J&K. Towards the latter half of 2020, approval was accorded by the Defence Acquisition Council to procure an additional batch of the Sig Sauer , for use by troops in Eastern Ladakh, deployed against the Chinese.
The total requirement of rifles to replace the INSAS rifle is in the range of 800,000 of which about 145,000 are being catered for through the purchase of the Sig Sauer . The remainder will be manufactured in India. The replacement rifle is likely to be the Russian made AK 203 rifle, one of the most modern assault rifles from the stable of Kalashnikov Concern, and which is chambered to fire 7.62×39 mm ammunition, which is similar to that used for the AK 47. The rifle is to be manufactured in India by the collaborative Indo-Russian Private Limited (IRPL).
In March 2019, Prime Minister Modi inaugurated a new facility at the Ordnance Factory Board complex in Amethi’s Korwa to licence-build 750,000 Russian Kalashnikov AK-203 7.62 x 39 mm assault rifles. A month earlier, in February 2019, an agreement had been signed between New Delhi and Moscow to that effect. It was hoped that the first AK 203 would roll out of the Korba Ordnance Factory by the end of 2019, but till date, the contract has not been signed.
There have been glitches overpricing and technology transfer issues ever since, as a result of which the project could not take off. But in a recent statement, in January 2021, the Chief of Army Staff, General MM Naravane said that negotiations were in the final stages, some last-minute hitches and hiccups have been ironed out and he hoped that the contract would be signed soon.
It is believed that the UAE is also interested in selling its Caracal CAR 816 , also called the ‘Sultan’, to India. The rifle was developed in the UAE by Caracal International company. It has a gas-operated rotating bolt system which is also used in the M-16 and is chambered for a standard NATO 5.56×45 mm ammunition.
The rifle is available in 3 different barrel lengths: 267 mm compact assault rifle; 368 mm carbine and 406 mm assault rifle. It has a telescopic buttstock that can be adjusted for length and a full-length Picatinny-type scope rail. In terms of effectiveness, it performs as well as the 7.62 mm AK series.
The Indian Army and the MoD would have to decide quickly on the future assault rifle for India. As of now, the AK 203 appears to be the frontrunner, if the issue of pricing and technology transfer get resolved.