The defence ministry has gone back to the start line in procuring a basic weapon for the army’s infantry battalions – the footsoldiers who make up the bulk of the army, defend or capture territory in war and carry out counter-insurgency duties in peace.
After an earlier procurement was aborted last year after years of fruitless trials, the defence ministry announced on Tuesday its go-ahead for re-starting the procurement of 72,400 assault rifles and 93,895 carbines, worth an estimated Rs 3,547 crore (Rs 35.47 billion).
This is a fraction of the one million rifles and carbines that will be needed to re-equip the entire army. However, the ministry said it would “enable the Defence Forces to meet their immediate requirement for the troops deployed on the borders.”
The ministry’s apex procurement body, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), headed by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, cleared this procurement under the “fast track basis”, which requires a contract to be concluded in less than six months and delivery of weapons within a year of signing the contract.
As this newspaper first reported (November 4, Infantry to get foreign rifles, others to get ‘made in India’), the army – struggling to make do with a strained procurement budget – decided against importing the army’s entire requirement of 800,000 assault rifles. Instead, it would cut costs by importing only 250,000 assault rifles for about Rs 200,000 each; and ask the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) and the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) to design and build the remaining 550,000 rifles in the country. An indigenous rifle, it is estimated, would cost less than half the price of an imported one.
On Friday, army chief General Bipin Rawat explained that some high-quality assault rifles would have to be imported in order to “empower the infantry soldier”, who fights eyeball-to-eyeball with the enemy.
It is still unclear whether the remaining 1,77,600 assault rifles needed for frontline infantry would be imported, or manufactured in India with technology transferred by a foreign vendor. Rawat raised that possibility, stating: “Let us see if this imported weapon can subsequently be manufactured in India also by our own industry.”
Meanwhile, the DRDO is continuing perfecting the indigenous INSAS 1C rifle, and the OFB is separately developing another rifle it calls the Ghatak. These weapons are still to pass army trials.
Once these new weapons are introduced, the army will simultaneously juggle two different weapon philosophies. The frontline infantry’s heavy 7.62 x 51 millimetre rifle will be optimised for conventional war, with a longer range and heavier bullets that kill or completely incapacitate enemy soldiers that they strike. These rifles will also be equipped with reflex sights and modern night vision sights.