Unsatisfactory performance of the indigenous INSAS, stalling of the joint production of the AK-203 with Russia and lack of clarity from the military have dogged India's quest for a dependable assault rifle for its soldiers

by Pradip R Sagar

It is an interesting conundrum: how is it that India, with some of the most capable rocketry and ballistic missile programmes in the world, does not have an indigenously designed, world-class assault rifle—the infantryman’s basic weapon. The answer is a mix of factors—persistent flaws in indigenous designs, dithering of the Indian Army over the exact type of weapon it wants and unrealistic demands from weapons manufacturers. India is the world’s largest user of small arms (under which assault rifles are categorised), with approximately two million rifles currently in use. The Indian military and paramilitary forces use a variety of assault rifles, such as the INSAS (Indian Small Arms System, the standard issue personal weapon of the Indian soldier), AK-47, M4A1 Carbine, T91 assault rifle, SIG Sauer 716, and Tavor. INSAS forms the major chunk of India’s small arms inventory, with close to one million rifles in use. The armed forces use 810,000 assault rifles for the three services, out of which the army alone uses 7,60,000 rifles.

Assault rifles, designed for military use, can function both as a semi-automatic weapon (which fires a single bullet with each pull of the trigger) and a fully-automatic one (that fires continuously until the trigger is released). In a major advancement from older, bolt-action rifles, semi- and fully-automatic rifles allow for a higher rate of fire by using the energy of each fired bullet to eject the spent cartridge and load a new one. The Indian military’s two-decade-long search for a reliable assault rifle has much to do with the unsatisfactory performance of the INSAS, which was developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), manufactured by the state-run Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and has been in service since 1998. Soon, multiple defects were reported—repeated jamming and stoppage, bursting cartridge cases (the metal encasing of every bullet) and cracking of the rifle’s barrel (the metal tube through which the bullet travels after being fired). As early as 1999, during the Kargil War, Indian soldiers complained about cracking of the polymer plastic magazine (the box that holds a given number of cartridges/ bullets that are fed into the rifle) in the cold weather. Gradually, more complaints streamed in—jamming during high-altitude operations in Siachen and the Kashmir Valley, as well as malfunctioning during anti-Naxal operations in the forests of central India. Gradually, the army stopped using it during counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir, going instead for the trusted AK-47, known for its ability to withstand extremes of weather conditions and duration of use in a single spell.

Soon after Kargil, the army started its search for a suitable replacement to the INSAS. That quest has taken various shapes in the past 25 years, including an upgraded version of the INSAS and another indigenous rifle, which were tried and discarded. Amidst a debate over the required calibre of a rifle, demands for imported rifles with interchangeable barrels with varying calibres were also raised and dropped. The prolonged uncertainty has now yielded an obvious solution—import of a foreign weapon.

In December 2023, the Indian Army got the approval to import more than 72,000 7.62 x 51 mm calibre (the diameter of the bullet x the length of the cartridge) Sig Sauer assault rifles in a ₹840 crore deal from the US through the ‘emergency procurement’ route. However, these are not the military’s first Sig Sauers—under a ₹694 crore deal signed by the defence ministry in February 2019, 72,400 assault rifles were imported and are being used by soldiers along the Pakistan and China borders.

The key reason for the Indian Army’s desperate effort to import more Sig Sauers was the undoing of the much-hyped India-Russia co-production of the AK-203 rifle due to reasons like costs and share of indigenous content. However, the INSAS isn’t being replaced lock, stock and barrel. Due to the sheer numbers in use and the enormous cost involved in replacing them, efforts are under way for an upgraded version that seeks to rectify flaws and makes them serviceable for a longer period.    

Speaking about the tortuous course of procuring/ manufacturing a dependable assault rifle, Lt Gen. D.S. Hooda (Retd), former Northern Army commander, says that the DRDO was never really focused on the task at hand, while the Indian Army was never sure about its exact requirements. “Army headquarters was never clear on what type of weapon it was looking for. Manufacturers can come to you only when you decide what you want,” he says. Furthermore, the army headquarters’ complex General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQRs), which dictate the specifications and standards for new equipment, have confused Indian weapons manufacturers. The GSQRs for small arms have been criticised for their disconnect with the actual needs on the ground.

Lt Gen. Anil Ahuja (Retd), former deputy chief of the Integrated Defence Staff for Policy Planning and Force Development, agrees, and says that India’s inability to have an indigenous assault rifle for its armed forces is a cumulative result of the inability to clearly define operational requirements, the inability of the public sector rifle factory to manufacture a dependable weapon and slippages in the acquisition process.

However, defence officials maintain that any small arms weapon system takes a long time to evolve. The American M4 assault rifle, they point out as an instance, evolved over 50 years from its initial models, which were also marred by consistent quality issues.

Arc of Rifle Fire

During the 1962 Sino-Indian war, Ind­ian soldiers faced their AK-47-toting adversaries with outdated bolt-action Enfield .303 rifles. That blunderbuss was eventually replaced by the 7.62 x 51 mm SLR (self-loading rifle, an earlier avatar of the semi-automatic rifle), with which the Indian military fought the 1965 and 1971 wars against Pakistan and which served till the late ’90s. In the ’80s, in keeping with the global trend, a decision was taken to change the calibre of the standard service rifle from 7.62 mm to 5.56 mm. The reason was a paradigm shift in the doctrine of fighting—wounding the enemy on the battlefield, and making him a logistical liability for others, was deemed more advantageous than to take him out altogether. Shorter length and girth also make a bullet lighter, allowing for lesser penetration of the target upon contact and, therefore, a non-fatal injury. Moreover, the round produced less recoil, with a higher muzzle velocity and flatter trajectory, making it more accurate till about 200 metres—the common engagement range in a firefight. In addition, the bullet was lighter and cheaper to produce as it had less brass and lead. The new INSAS rifles, therefore, came with a 5.56 x 45 mm calibre.

However, as Lt Gen. Ahuja points out, “While the rationale behind switching from 7.62 to 5.56 calibre still holds good for conventional operations, it’s inadequate for counter-terrorist operations, where we need an assured kill.”

Faced with a malfunctioning INSAS, army headquarters was unsure of what rifle to procure. In 2011, the army floated a global tender for an assault rifle with interchangeable barrels. The programme was junked after four years as it failed to pass field trials. Top-of-the-line assault rifles such as Beretta’s ARX-160 (Italy), Colt Combat Rifle (the US) and CA 805 BREN (the Czech Republic) failed to rise up to the unrealistic army GSQR. The experiment had to fail, for no army in the world has a two-calibre rifle as its basic weapon. “If a soldier needs to carry two barrels and two types of ammunition, the total battle load would have increased by at least 10 kg, reducing mobility,” says a senior army official.

After scrapping the idea of interchangeable barrels, the Indian Army again had a rethink about its guiding principles vis-à-vis assault rifles—the debate over a 7.62 mm rifle with assured killing power or a 5.56 mm rifle that sought to incapacitate was reopened. Eventually, in 2016, all top army commanders decided to import the more powerful 7.62 x 51 mm rifle—the longer, heavier calibre bullet causing more grievous, potentially fatal wounds—for their infantry battalions and counter-insurgency units with “higher kill probability and stopping power”. The recent decision to buy 7.62 x 51 mm Sig Sauer assault rifles reflects this decision.

However, two more disappointments lay in store for the army. In 2016, it rejected the 5.56 mm Excalibur assault rifle—a gas-operated, automatic rifle with a foldable butt that was an upgraded version of INSAS—developed by DRDO—over quality standards. In 2017, the army refused to use a 7.62 x 51mm prototype assault rifle developed by the Rifle Factory Ishapore. The rifles apparently backfired. “The military never trusted Indian manufacturers, as soldiers have to bear the brunt of a faulty weapon,” says a colonel.

Eventually, India decided to fall back on its largest arms supplier, Russia.

AK-203 & Sig Sauer

India and Russia signed an inter-governmental agreement for AK-203 assault rifles—a fifth-generation (the previous generations being AK-47, AKM, AK-74 and the AK-100 series) assault rifle of the famous Kalashnikov family with 7.62 x 39 mm calibre—in February 2019. Subsequently, in 2021, during Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to India and the inaugural India-Russia 2+2 dialogue, a deal for manufacturing AK-203 rifles in India was signed. The Indo-Russia Rifles Private Limited (IRRPL) was set up in 2019 as a joint venture between OFB (with a 50.5 per cent majority stake), Kalashnikov (42 per cent) and Russia’s state-owned defence export agency Rosoboronexport (7.5 per cent), under which the rifles would be manufactured at the Korwa Ordnance Factory in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh. The IRRPL planned to import 800,000 AK-203s for around $1,100 (Rs 81,000) apiece to meet the army’s urgent operational needs, followed by the licensed production of the remaining 650,000 units.

Lt Col. Manoj K. Channan, who has been part of multiple Make in India projects, says financial constraints and the issue of indigenous components posed a significant hurdle in the AK-203 project. “The high costs associated with the royalty and transfer of technology rendered the project financially untenable, especially compared to alternative weapons available to the armed forces,” says Lt Col. Channan. The current pricing model indicates that India could acquire three foreign-made rifles for the cost of one domestically-produced AK-203, he adds.

To tide over its immediate needs, the Indian military in 2019 acquired 72,400 US-made Sig Sauer 7.62 x 51 mm rifles. The Sig Sauer, one of the best weapons in its class, was chosen for its ruggedness, complete reliability and a long range of 600 metres. It has higher accuracy than the AK-47 and INSAS. Indigenised with local night vision systems, grips, bipods and India-made ammunition rounds, this American weapon is now a formidable weapon in the hands of Indian soldiers patrolling the borders with China and Pakistan. From the lot, the army got the major share of 66,400 rifles, the Indian Air Force received 4,000 and the Navy got 2,000. Soon after, the MoD restricted the import of assault rifles by adding them to the Positive Indigenisation List of weapon systems. However, last December, the army convinced the ministry of its urgent requirement for another tranche of 72,000 units of Sig Sauers. “We would not have gone for imports if locally made rifles were meeting our basic requirement. We are left with no option but to import,” says a key army official.

The advent of the Sig Sauers aren’t the end of the road for INSAS rifles. Considering their large-scale use, military planners have worked out a plan to upgrade the existing inventory of INSAS rifles, deeming this an operationally viable and cost-effective solution. While some paramilitary forces and state police have started using the upgraded INSAS, the northern command of the Indian Army proposes to do the same.

Samir Dhawan, director of Star Aerospace, which has offered an upgrade of the existing INSAS rifles, claims his company has provided the upgraded rifles to the paramilitary and state police forces. He adds that the optimally modified INSAS rifle offers state-of-the-art characteristics and contemporary features.

The latest indigenous rifle on offer—but untested as yet—is the 7.62 mm calibre Ugram, jointly developed by the Armament Research and Development Establishment of the DRDO and the Hyderabad-based private firm Dvipa Armour India Private Limited.

The perennial hunt for an assault rifle to arm the world’s second-largest standing army is not ideal. A complex inventory of different assault rifles can create confusion in times of conflict too. While expediting ongoing projects, the private sector’s involvement is a must for a permanent Make in India solution towards a single, stable weapon.