Hopes rise again for new assault rifles, sufficient ammunition for Indian Army

The Asian Age.  | Anil Bhat

India, All India

Large stocks of ammunition have been found degraded and created problems when used.

Large quantities of ammunition present a problem of storage. Considering the threats to India, modernisation of its three defence services, dependency of central armed police and paramilitary forces, etc, for ammunition also from the ordnance factories, future requirements of ammunition can only be expected to increase.

As one of the most operationally-committed armies of the world, Indian Army has been functioning with a long pending requirement of new assault rifles and a critical shortage of ammunition.

The Indian Army fought its first two wars (1947-48 India-Pak and 1962 Sino-Indian) with the ancient Lee Enfield, 303 bolt-action rifle. By the 1965 India-Pak war it had the then new 7.62 self-loading rifle. Since the mid-1990s till date, it has been equipped with the lighter, smaller calibre Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) 5.56 mm rifle which has been prone to jamming in cold conditions and its plastic magazine cracking.

In 2010, the Army issued the initial tender for 44,600 close quarter carbines. Weapons from two vendors, Israel Weapon Industries and Italian Beretta, were selected for field trials. Beretta’s ARX160 model was rejected by directorate general of quality assurance because a safety measure on its laser sight was found unsuitable. While 28 companies had shown interest in the tender in the first stage, the Israeli firm was the only vendor left in the final phase. The defence ministry, when necessary, allows single vendor cases to be pursued, but it usually prefers multi-vendor tenders at the final stage to benefit from competition.

In 2016, the Army reportedly rejected Defence Research and Development Organisation’s 5.56 mm Excalibur rifle. In June 2017, it was reported that the Army for the second time rejected a 7.62x51 mm rifle designed by the Ordnance Factory Board for poor quality and ineffective firepower, following extended user trials and would issue a global tender to meet its long-pending requirement for 185,000 rifles.

The Indian bureaucracy’s stranglehold, which used to cause inordinate delays in materialisation of urgently needed weapons and equipment for the three services, will hopefully be loosened with the Defence Acquisition Council (chaired by defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman) meeting on January 16 and simplifying the “Make II” procedure, which prescribes guidelines to be followed to develop and manufacture defence equipment through Indian industry. The DAC also cleared procurement of 72,400 assault rifles and 93,895 carbines on fast-track basis for Rs 3,547 crores to enable the Indian defence forces to meet their immediate requirement for the troops deployed on borders.

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To encourage participation of private sector in defence design and production and to give a boost to “Make in India” programme, the council has introduced significant changes in the “Make II” category of the Defence Procurement Procedure. Considering that no government funding is involved in “Make II” project, the DAC simplified the procedure to make it industry-friendly, with minimal government control. The salient aspects of the revised procedure will now allow ministry of defence to accept suo motu proposals from the industry and also allows start-ups to develop equipment for Indian Armed Forces. The minimum qualification criteria to participate in “Make II” projects has also been relaxed by removing conditions related to credit rating and reducing financial net worth criteria.

As per the earlier “Make II” procedure, only two vendors were shortlisted to develop prototype equipment. Now, all vendors meeting the relaxed eligibility criteria will be allowed to participate in the prototype development process. The vendor will not be required to submit Detailed Project Report. After approval of the “Make II” project by the council, all clearances will be accorded at Service HQs (SHQ) level.

To hand-hold industry and start-ups, SHQs will now setup project facilitation teams to act as the primary interface between the SHQ and the industry during the design and development stage. These teams would provide technical inputs, trial infrastructure and other facilities as required by the vendor. Even if a single individual or firm offers innovative solutions, the SHQ will now have the option to accept and process the vendor’s development initiative. SHQs will be allowed to hire domain experts/consultants from private sector to increase outreach and enhance awareness among the industry. Most importantly, once sanctioned, there will be no foreclosure of project, except on default by the vendor, to ensure that the successful vendor has assured orders.

To overcome the shortage of ammunition, the government recently announced its approval of manufacturing of eight selected ammunitions for the Indian Army by Indian Industry. As the indigenous manufacturer will be required to set up a new establishment for manufacture of ammunition, the defence minister has approved a long-term contract of 10 years with the selected ammunition manufacturer to facilitate a viable commercial model. This marks another step in the direction of “Make in India” in defence sector and to facilitate development of indigenous capacity, reduce dependence on import and with the long-term objective of building capacity within the industry as a robust alternative source of ammunition.

As per Indian Companies Act 2013, individual Indian companies, with foreign equity not exceeding 49 per cent, owned and controlled by resident Indian citizens, consortiums consisting of only Indian companies and wholly owned subsidiary company, are eligible to participate. The selection of manufacturer will be through an Open Tender Enquiry under two bid system. Companies can bid for any number of ammunition types, but will be awarded maximum three contracts. Prospective manufacturers will be free to select their technology partners, negotiate and obtain transfer of technology (ToT). The technology partners could be indigenous or foreign manufacturer, as per the discretion of participating entities.

Considering the ammunition requirement for India’s multifarious security commitments, even without a war on, this announcement has come better late than never.

In 2015, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) stated that the Indian Army had no more than 20 days ammunition for war. In July 2017, the CAG report, stated that there was not enough ammunition to last more than 10 days of war. For any Army facing two inimical neighbours and terrorists, this is indeed a worrisome situation.

It may be recalled that in 1999 when Pakistan precipitated the situation in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kargil sector, the artillery, after pounding the enemy for two months, had begun to feel the pinch of shortage of ammunition.

Red-flagging the 2015 report on availability of ammunition for only 20 days of war, the CAG had alarmingly added that some types of ammunition would not last even 10 days.

While the CAG blamed the functioning of the Ordnance Factory Board for the shortage of supplies to the Indian Armed Forces, there are a number of factors contributing towards shortfall of ammunition to the Army.

In its 2015 report, the CAG had said that the Army needed more budgetary support to reach 50 per cent of the target capacity of the War Wastage Reserve (WWR), meaning various military materials held in reserve in case of war. These include ammunition of all types and calibres, equipment, weapons and fuel. Ideally, the WWR should last for 40 days of intense war giving enough time to the ordnance factories for ramping up production of required ammunition and supply the same to the military. The CAG report meant that if adequate budgetary support was given, the shortfall in ammunition could be overcome by 2019 and in any case not before that.

CAG’s 2017 report mentions that despite the red-flagged warning and high-level report on defence preparedness in 2015, no improvement was seen in the working of the ordnance factories and that the production and supply of ammunition remains inferior in quality and quantity so far.

Large quantities of ammunition present a problem of storage. Considering the threats to India, modernisation of its three defence services, dependency of central armed police and paramilitary forces, etc, for ammunition also from the ordnance factories, future requirements of ammunition can only be expected to increase. There are problems in storage quality too. Properly stored, bullets and shells can last for decades. But large stocks of ammunition have been found degraded and created problems when used. Ammunition management methods must be improved with innovativeness and best use of technology.

Further, red tapism and archaic bureaucratic practices have hampered defence forces over the years. According to one report, only 20 per cent of the targeted amount of ammunition was imported between 2008 and 2013 as bureaucracy kept creating hurdles.

“Fighting to the last man and last bullet” sounds great and the Indian Army did so during the Sino-Indian war in 1962. But it is disastrous for any nation and reflects poorly on it to allow its Army to reach a stage of becoming short of ammunition.

The writer, a retired Army officer, is a defence and security analyst based in New Delhi