|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
Finally, there is some more news about assault rifles for the Indian Army, or shall we say part of the Army because when it comes to equipping soldiers at the cutting edge, where battle is being fought every day and night, we start counting pennies; compared to buying expensive weapon platforms off the shelf at whatever costs while harping upon diminishing chances of all out conventional conflict. In case of latter, the 'Threat in Being' part is acknowledged but the correct balance between this (Threat in Being) and equipping the frontline troops has never been found. This is despite so many Army Chiefs being from the Infantry and hesitancy of Director General's of Infantry in projecting cases, and intermediaries not doing the mathematics that one weapon platform less could equip what at the cutting edge. When the US Army invaded Iraq-Afghanistan, it too was spending more on big-ticket weapon systems while neglecting the cutting edge. However, a quick internal study rectified that. This is something the Indian Army needs to focus on despite the bureaucracy in MoD wanting to go for procuring more big-ticket weapon systems, for more than obvious reasons.
On February 5, 2019, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has signed a contract with the US company Sig Sauer to procure 72,400 7.62x51mm SIG716 assault rifles. Under the 647-crore deal, Sig Sauer is to deliver the assault rifles within one year through the foreign military sales (FMS) route. These rifles will replace the indigenous (5.56 x 45mm) INSAS rifles that our Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) took 15 years to produce after being provided 17 assault rifles from 11 countries, and which was certainly nowhere close to the top 10 assault rifles in available off the shelf in that category globally. Significantly, the fast track procurement of the Sig assault rifles was approved by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) headed by the Defence Minister on January 16, 2018. Why it took another year plus to sign the contract and why the red tape could not be shortened is anybody's guess. The delay possibly was an empowered committee, comprising MoD officials dealing with defence acquisitions and army officers, touring multiple countries, rather than getting the weapons to India for selection, which the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) would have responded in quick time and without any costs to India.
The 7.62x51mm SIG716 rifles are an advanced assault rifle platform with a 16 inch barrel, M-LOKTM handguards and a six position stock. The SIG716 is currently available in patrol and DMR configurations. India is apparently procuring the patrol rifle configuration in line with the request for information (RFI) that the Indian Army had issued in February 2018. Out of the 72,400 7.62x51mm SIG716 assault rifles, Indian Army would receive 66,400, while Indian Air Force and Indian Navy would get 4,000 and 2,000 of these rifles respectively. The Armed Forces require 8.1 lakh assault rifles for the three services, out of which Army alone needs 7.6 lakh rifles to replace the INSAS rifles. According to Alexey Krivoruchko, Chief Executive Kalashnikov Concern (formerly Izhmash), the firm had been interested in producing AK series of rifles in India since 2008 and had been having earnest discussions with Indian companies from 2015 to establish a joint venture in India. It may be recalled that in September 2018, media reported India rejected the "Russian" proposal to produce AK series of rifles in India in joint venture with the Adani Group. By then the government was already under severe pressure due to the Rafale controversy. When Kalshnikov actually made the offer has been kept under the wraps but had it been accepted, the need for go for the SIG716 assault rifles would probably not have risen. But MoD told Russia that Kalashnikov would have to tie up with a government entity i.e. OFB. The rejection bit was possibly delayed to enable procurement of the SIG assault rifles simultaneously, not only keeping both the US and Russia happy, but also MoD bureaucrats with imports being the lucrative option. It also avoided possible accusations of favoritism towards the Adani Group, and gave a fillip to the OFB which has not been able to produce a single state-of-the-art small arm despite guzzling crores of rupees over past 72 years, though established in 1802 and presently having 1,64,000 employees.
By getting OFB involved in this venture, MoD also could deflect from the rising concerns for the need to downsize the governmental defence industrial complex (DRDO-OFB-DPSUs), which are sucking hugely on taxpayers money with grossly poor outputs despite MoD overseeing their functioning and joint secretary level MoD bureaucrats appointed to all the boards of these entities. Additionally, there is also news that MoD is on the verge of signing a contract with Caracal International of UAE headquartered in Abu Dhabi, for procuring quantity 93,895 5.56x45mm CQB carbines. It may be recalled that on January 16, 2018, the DAC had also approved fast track procurement of 93,895 5.56x45mm CQB carbines, in addition to the 72,400 assault rifles for 3,547 crore.