Why is the Indian Army still using outdated assault rifles designed in the 1980s?

The country’s defence planning and procurement system is broken.

In 2011, the Indian Army floated a tender for the supply of multi-caliber assault rifles to replace its existing INSAS, or Indian Small Arms System rifles, which were inducted around 1988, and are outdated. Six years later, the Army’s requirements have still not been met, and the majority of its troops are still saddled with INSAS rifles (There were reports last year that the government had cleared the purchase of 185,000 modern assault rifles, but no tenders have been issued so far.)

Last year, the Army rejected the indigenously developed Excalibur made by the Defence Research and Development Organisation as it did not meet the required standards, and in June, it rejected another indigenous weapon built by the Ishapore Rifle Factory, in West Bengal, after it failed firing tests.

The inability of the Indian government to provide its soldiers with their most basic fighting weapons is a severe indictment of how broken the defence planning and procurement system is.

A brief history

India fought the short 1962 war with China using the vintage Enfield .303 bolt action rifles, which had a deadly effect, but were horribly outdated by that time. Chinese troops carried their versions of the venerable AK-47 and were much better prepared, overrunning Indian troops easily.

After the war, the need for a new rifle for the Army led to the Ishapore Rifle Factory developing the 7.62 mm Ishapore Self-Loading Rifle, which was a copy of the Belgian FN-FAL rifle. However, this too was a single-shot rifle, and outlived its utility by the late 1970s.

In 1987, when the Indian Army was rushed to Sri Lanka for a peace keeping mission during the island nation’s civil war, its personnel were still carrying Ishapore self-loading rifles, which were nearly 20 years old by then. This weapon is deadly but bulky, and was no match for the Russian AK-47, the preferred weapon of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which targeted the Indian forces.

The worst off were the para-commandos. This was a time when the three battalions of the Indian Army were still to be renamed the Special Forces. The para commandos were expected to carry out special operations, which normal Infantry units were not trained or equipped to do. But for this, they too had to depend on the bulky Ishapore, or the vintage carbine that was an improved version of the World War II Sten gun that had been developed by the British as a cheap weapon to quickly replace losses in the war. Clearly, the Indian Army was woefully ill-equipped for battle.

Worried at this mismatch in firepower, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, tasked with developing new weapons for the Army, hastily tried to produce a fully-automatic rifle by modifying the Ishapore Self-Loading Rifle. But every burst of fire from this rifle produced such recoil that the weapon would start pointing skywards as soon as the trigger was pressed. It proved to be a disaster in battle and was quickly abandoned.

Work began on producing a new rifle, with a smaller calibre, which would be lighter and more effective. This 5.56 mm calibre weapon was developed by the Pune-based Armament Development Research Establishment and called the INSAS. It was originally envisaged as a family of weapons with different capabilities for varied uses. But none of the others ever materialised.

The INSAS has features copied from several different rifles, making it a mishmash of various designs without any thought to the specific needs of the Indian soldier. The Indian Army has been lugging around this rifle for nearly 30 years now.

The INSAS rifle.
The INSAS rifle.

Rifle development

Ideally, the development of rifles is a scientific process, which involves the experience of the fighting troops and the strategic aims of the country they serve. Every great rifle, be it the AK-47 or the United States’ M4, has gone through extensive battlefield research before it was developed and brought into service.

Researchers developing these rifles looked at reliability under adverse conditions, fire power, ease of use, weight and ergonomics. They looked at past data of how many bullets were expended to kill a single enemy and produced designs that addressed a host of complex requirements.

Unfortunately, in India, despite the rich experience of the Indian Army soldier, these inputs have never been taken into account. For instance, the Indian soldier fights in vastly different terrain – from the heights of Ladakh to the jungles of the North East to the deserts of Rajasthan. From moisture to dust and extreme temperatures, they contend with a variety of conditions.

However, rifle designers at the Defence Research and Development Organisation and Armament Development Research Establishment have always borrowed from the West, without looking at local requirements or strategic interests. While designing the INSAS, designers went by NATO concepts. At that time, the NATO militaries were re-thinking the calibre of their weapons and decided to go with the 5.56 mm version. The idea behind it drew on the wars in the past. The western rifle designers felt that lower calibre bullets would allow soldiers to carry more weight. But the most important consideration was the belief that the smaller calibre would only injure the enemy, and not kill. This would mean that an injured soldier would end up bogging down at least three others, who would need to carry him, therefore tying down more troops. However, there was just one problem with this premise. Body armour was being developed simultaneously, and it soon rendered the 5.56 mm weapon useless.

In India, police forces armed with the INSAS 5.56 mm rifles in Chhattisgarh have frequently complained of the rifle’s lack of stopping power in their skirmishes with Maoists. In Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian Army set aside the unreliable INSAS and took to the AK-47 for its counter-insurgency operations. Clearly, none of these experiences were taken seriously. It is no wonder then that when the Defence Research and Development Organisation offered the Army its latest assault rife, the Excalibur, the Army rejected it.

The INSAS is not a very efficient rifle either, with frequent jamming. In Siachen, it proved to be so unreliable – for instance, the rifle’s magazine (ammunition storage) would crack – that soldiers would keep AK-47s handy. Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch, who was the commander of the Siachen Brigade, experienced this firsthand and recorded it in a piece he wrote recently. Katoch would also play a role in trying to improve the condition of the Special Forces, which needed a special rifle of its own.

As the Deputy Director General of Special Operations, Katoch travelled to Israel with a delegation in May 2004 to urgently seek replacements for the ageing AK-47 MK VZ version of the rifles in service with the Special Forces. After extensive trials, they chose the Israeli Tavor, which arrived nearly a decade later.

The search continues

The search for a modern rifle for the Indian Army continued, with Army Headquarters, at one point, also suggesting a rifle with interchangeable barrels. This was based on an idea that the soldier could carry both barrels and change them to fire different kinds of ammunition. However, the fact that this would significantly increase the weight each soldier would have to carry killed the idea, which was inherently flawed anyway.

By now, the world has moved into a new “bull-pup design” for rifles. In this design, the ammunition magazine comes behind the pistol grip, ensuring a smaller and more compact design. Many militaries across the world, from the United Kingdom to France to China have adopted this design. The Excalibur continues to follow the old design. The lack of a good and dependable assault rifle for India’s 1.3 million strong Army should have been a priority. Unfortunately, red tape has managed to deny its soldiers even this.

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