Why licensed Kalashnikovs could be the solution to India's rifle woes

Top officers from the Mumbai Police fix aim at a stationary target with an AK-47 rifle at the SRP Rifle Range in Jogeshwari, Mumbai in 2009. Source: Getty Images

Top officers from the Mumbai Police fix aim at a stationary target with an AK-47 rifle at the SRP Rifle Range in Jogeshwari, Mumbai in 2009. Source: Getty Images

Mikhail Kalashnikov had set the bar so high in 1947 that it’s difficult if not impossible for modern small-arms designers to achieve an evolutionary leap over the AK-47 assault rifle. If Russia has allowed India to licence produce submarines and Sukhois, then there should be no obstacle in the way of licence producing a rifle.

The Indian Army has decided to end its experiment with the glitch prone Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) 5.56 mm rifle and go for a brand new 7.62 mm calibre weapon. As part of its massive modernisation drive that will re-quip entire divisions with high-end weapons and over a million troops with advanced personal arms, the army says unlike previous failed attempts, this time it’s aiming in the right direction.

The Indian small arms project has suffered too many misfires because the generals wanted the equivalent of the Star Wars Blaster. Had the army kept its general staff qualitative requirements (GSQRs) at a realistic level, Indian soldiers wouldn’t be saddled with a malfunctioning rifle. According to Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, “The Indian Army's dream personal weapon of twin calibre capability with changeable barrels to cater for different calibres has resulted in the acute delay in the final decision. There appears to be no takers for this variety which the General Staff had desired.”

Clearly, reinventing the rifle is a futile exercise. Mikhail Kalashnikov had set the bar so high in 1947 that it’s difficult if not impossible for modern small-arms designers to achieve an evolutionary leap over the AK-47 assault rifle. The larger 7.62 mm calibre that the Indian Army is now seeking is incidentally the same as the AK, buttressing the Russian weapon’s reputation as the most reliable – and copied – weapon in modern history.

In fact, until the 1980s, Indian soldiers were more or less happy with the locally made 7.62 mm Self Loading Rifle. The situation cratered when the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) instead of improving a tolerably good rifle, offered to design a new one. The army's impossible demands combined with the DRDO's over-reach proved fatal to the success of the INSAS project.

Military historian Timothy D. Hoyt explains in Military Industry and Regional Defense Policy - India, Iraq and Israel: "In the early 1980s, DRDO made a commitment to develop a new series of 5.56 mm small arms for the Indian armed forces called the INSAS. Both Heckler & Koch of Germany and Steyr of Austria offered to provide for India's immediate needs and transfer technology worth $4.5 million for free. These offers were declined and DRDO spent the next decade, and approximately Rs 2 billion (about $100 million in 1990), reinventing a family of small arms based heavily on Steyr and H&K technology. In the meantime, India imported AK-47 rifles from former Warsaw Pact nations to fill requirements. The INSAS finally entered service in the late 1990s.”

How not to make a rifle

Although the INSAS was more accurate than an AK-47, it flopped because of reliability issues. Indian soldiers hated it. In particular, it repeatedly jammed during the Kargil War, leading to emergency imports of tens of thousands of AK-47. The chief reason that Indian Ordnance Board (IOB) factories – which make INSAS rifles – churn out shoddy weapons is that they are not run by weapons professionals but bureaucrats of the Indian Administrative Service. Soldiers and officers with battlefield experience, especially in the area of urban warfare, are not involved in weapons design nor is their opinion sought.

The INSAS rifles designed by the IOB lack finish and look amateurish, clearly not meant for one of the largest fighting forces in the world. According to the website, Indians For Guns, the designers have tried to copy the AK-47 and AK-74, with parts scaled down from the larger Russian rifles. There’s plastic everywhere, including the magazine, causing it to crack or jam when used in extreme cold conditions. “The crude scratching that passed off as lettering was too shallow and the lazy (workers) at the factory simply squished some white enamel over the general areas and didn't even bother to wipe off the excess.” See picture here.

To be sure, there is no lack of ingenuity in the defence forces. As the army wades through its procurement bureaucracy, a soldier has modified the INSASrifle, reducing its overall length and weight, allowing corner shot capability. "The modified  weapon is more stable while firing, compact, easy to carry and has better accuracy," a source told NDTV.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was so impressed that he gave the soldier – whose identity remains secret – an "innovation certificate". It's sad that innovators like this soldier remain unsung and are unlikely to be absorbed into the defence industry. India must acknowledge the value of soldier technocrats. Kalashnikov, for instance, designed the AK-47 based on his knowledge of the shortcomings of the Russian rifle versus the German standard issue small-arms of World War II.

Licensed production

Having a Made in India assault rifle would be brilliant, but in the past four decades India hasn’t demonstrated such capability. Until the Defence Ministry infuses some professionalism into the IOB, it shouldn’t try and reverse engineer the world’s simplest rifle. On the other hand, India has successfully licence produced weapons since the 1960s. These include high-performance aircraft such as the MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-27, MiG-29, Jaguar and Sukhoi Su-30MKI, as well as Russian tanks, field guns, anti-aircraft weapons, armoured personal carriers and destroyers.

According to Hoyt, "Licensed production adequately responds to most military needs, provides leverage against supply blackmail by external powers, and demonstrates Indian military and industrial capabilities. Only a few countries are capable of manufacturing supersonic aircraft or large surface warships, or sophisticated diesel attack submarines. Indian industrial capability therefore reflects India's self-image as a growing power and a great nation."

Till such time India is able to develop a world class rifle, the Defence Ministry needs to steer the army in the direction of licence production.

Russian small-arms developments

Considering the size of Indian security apparatus - a million army soldiers plus hundreds of thousands of paramilitary troops - there won't be shortage of foreign partners. If Russia has allowed India to licence produce submarines and Sukhois, then there should be no obstacle in the way of licence producing a rifle. Moscow also seems to have the edge - in technology - over western manufacturers. It has redesigned its entire family of small arms based on information and lessons gained from low-intensity counter-insurgency – such as in Chechnya. Much of the design and development has involved extensive coordination between elements of the Russian military.

Unlike India, Russian (and western) weapons manufacturers employ the ladder approach – incremental improvements in successive generation of weapons. For instance, the standard Russian Army small arm is the AK-74 - a lighter and improved version of the AK-47. Since the mid-1970s the Russians have made further modifications to the gas block and barrel, resulting in the AK-15, an even more reliable gun than the AK-74.

In a declassified CIA report, the agency compares a range of small arms used by Russian, American, British, French and West German armies and concludes that Russian weapons are clearly "superior to their counterpart NATO weapons". While western weapons performed poorly in delivering automatic fire, the Russian designs packed functionality and reliability in a light package.

The report, published in the CIA’s Military Thought journal, is a must read for the Indian Army brass which is about to take a decision on the 7.62 mm calibre rifle. “This cartridge will kill a soldier at ranges of up to 1500 metres and with full reliability penetrate a helmet or armoured vest at ranges of from 600 and 900 metres," says the US report.

Life after Excalibur: Growing calibre

The Excalibur was supposed to be the IOB’s silver bullet that would erase the memory of the failed INSAS. It had a number of improvements, including two settings, single shot or automatic, thus ditching the INSAS' three-round burst, which caused it to jam during battle. It also had reduced recoil. And yet it was junked, demonstrating that India's defence planners aren't adopting the ladder approach.

Perhaps the only good thing about the demise of the INSAS is that its comparatively smaller 5.56 mm calibre round may have been a liability in modern warfare.

The Indian Army had long subscribed to the western military wisdom that the 5.56 mm rifle is better suited for war because it generally injures an enemy soldier, thereby tying down two of his mates who would carry him to safety. On the other hand, the 7.62mm bullet usually causes death, thereby eliminating only one soldier from the battlefield.

The current thinking makes a 180-degree turn. Firstly, soldiers don’t pick up a fallen comrade during a charge. For, that would not only slow down the charge but also expose the rescuers to hostile fire. No army in the world teaches such tactics to its soldiers and it is therefore surprising that such ‘wisdom’ prevailed for so long.

Secondly, the 7.62 mm rifle is ideal in counter-insurgency warfare because it is better to take out terrorists before they come close for suicide bombing. Also, terrorists don’t stop to rescue a fallen terrorist.

The Indian Army’s decision to switch to a higher calibre rifle shows that the brass may have woken up to the realities of the modern battlefield. As Lt Gen Hasnain says, “Let us hope that with renewed interest in a new family of weapons and slippages now causing virtual panic, the senior hierarchy will finally come to a decision on a subject which should be considered as important as the acquisition of aircraft, tanks and guns.”

Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based journalist and foreign affairs analyst.

Views expressed are personal.

Read more articles by Rakesh Simha here.​

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