Thirty days ago, the Indian government kickstarted the latest of its serially failed attempts to procure thousands of new assault rifles for the Indian Army’s infantry units. In view of escalated tensions along the Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir and a particularly violent season of exchanges between the Indian and Pakistani armies, the Indian MoD signalled the announcement with flourish — that the procurement was to be on a ‘fast track’ to meet the urgent requirement of India’s border troops.
A degree of schadenfreude from across the border might have been forgiven — and nobody in India really held their breath — given that even ‘fast track’ procurements in India find themselves lumbering up familiar hills of bureaucracy and services ‘issues’. There’s no reason to believe that defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman cannot pull off an efficient, no-nonsense procurement of perhaps the most important piece of armament the country needs to fight both bullets and infiltrating terrorists from Pakistan. But a major disconnect between the Army and India’s state-owned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) has long been known to lie at the heart of the problem.
In testimony to the Indian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence, which finalised a new batch of reports yesterday, an unusual, well, slug-fest between the Army, OFB and MoD bureaucracy throws into stark relief the nature of the disconnect for the first time. It starts off with the secretary for defence production Dr. Ajay Prasad introducing the assault rifle plan announced by the MoD last month, where the OFB will license-produce a large part of the 740,000 rifles identified from a foreign vendor.
That’s an admission right off the bat that the MoD’s ‘fast track’ procurement of these rifles won’t see an order for at least three years. As senior journalist Sandeep Unnithan notes in this comprehensive piece from last year, the Army’s inability to induct a basic assault rifle is down to ‘multiple levels of bureaucracy’ and an acquisition system that is ‘so complex and ponderously slow’.
Now the OFB chairman, whose organisation has prototyped a 7.62×51 weapon in a heart-stopping six months to meet the Army’s deadlines, responds:
An exasperated Lt Gen Sanjay Verma, director general of the Army’s Weapons & Equipment directorate then joins issue with this elaborate critique of the OFB and a damning assertion that nobody can meet the Army’s urgent requirement of basic assault rifles ‘tomorrow’.
The Lt Gen continues, reiterating that the OFB rifles (he’s presumably speaking here of the INSAS-IC, but perhaps also the new Ishapore 7.62×51 assault weapon) have failed to meet Army qualitative requirements:
Finally, in what is perhaps the first candid admission that the MoD has failed to conclude easily the most basic and pressing weapons requirement by ground forces, defence secretary Sanjay Mitra describes the Army’s shifting parameters (from 5.56mm to 7.62mm ammunition), the OFB’s desperate attempt to keep up, and plans now to ensure the OFB doesn’t lose out to an import impulse:
The Army needs 180,000 assault rifles. Earlier this year, the Indian MoD cleared the process to procure 740,000 assault rifles for $1.9 billion, 93,895 carbines, light machine guns for $283 million and 5,719 sniper rifles for the Indian Army & IAF for $152 million. Last year, the Army began receiving its first bullet-proof helmets in a quarter century.