The Indian military has a problem: it can't manufacture a rifle to save its – or its country's – life.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi secures billions of dollars in arms sales from the United States and Israel, India has been trying to replace 185,000 20-year-old assault rifles for the last two years. Embarrassingly, it has rejected its last two candidates: both of which – like the model being replaced – were made in India.
The problem is three-fold.
PROBLEM 1: The current issue – the Indian New Small Arms System (INSAS) rifle – and its variants absolutely suck. There's no nice way to say it.
Mass-produced in 1997 by the state-run Ordnance Factories Board (OFB), the INSAS first saw combat in 1999 during the three-month-long Kargil War between India and Pakistan. It immediately began to show problems: according to The New Indian Express, soldiers reported that the weapons frequently jammed, had select-fire problems, and that the polymer magazines cracked in the high-altitude cold. But that wasn't all.
The INSAS' tendency to overheat and otherwise malfunction was blamed for the deaths of 43 Nepalese soldiers after a base near Kathmandu was overrun by Maoist rebels in 2005. In a statement to reporters following the assault, Brigadier-General Deepak Gurung of the Royal Nepalese Army said, "Soldiers complained that the INSAS rifles did not function properly during the fighting, which lasted for a long time... Maybe the weapons we were using were not designed for a long fight. They malfunctioned."
I spoke to Chris Erickson, a former Green Beret and U.S. Special Forces Weapons Sergeant, about his experiences with the INSAS' lack of reliability.
"I have personally observed a Nepalese SOF (Special Operations Forces) arms room where INSAS rifles (were) in extremely good condition gathering dust, while troops were carrying extremely worn M-16s," Erickson said. "The commandos said that the rifles had not been used in years, due to being extremely unreliable during the Nepalese civil war with communist guerrillas. When I took one of the weapons down to the range, it began having extremely frequent jams after no more than two magazines (60 rounds) being fired through it. The weapon was taken down again, cleaned, and NATO ammunition was again fired through it to the same results."
"It just didn't work, but I could see how it looked like a great idea on the drawing board." – Chris Erickson, Former Green Beret
Other complaints from soldiers carrying the weapon included a lack of stopping power, general unreliability, and a tendency to spray oil in the user's face when fired. One USMC veteran who declined to be identified said, "everyone I know that has had hands on (experience with the INSAS), hates it."
By 2015, the complaints from soldiers had become so prolific that all INSAS rifles in East India's "Red Zone" and 50% of INSAS rifles in the disputed regions of Jammu and Kashmir were ordered to be replaced by the AK-47.
Since then, the hunt has been on for a new rifle, which leads to...
PROBLEM 2: Modi's "Make in India" has Indian manufacturers – specifically the OFB, who, you'll recall, designed and manufactured the INSAS – attempting to create a replacement for two years. That apparent obstinacy has slowed things down because of...
PROBLEM 3: The replacements they made still sucked. One – The Excalibur rifle – was, inexplicably, an INSAS variant. It was tested and dismissed last year. According to NDTV, one source diplomatically said that "since major shortcomings were noticed during comparative trials, the option was not pursued." This year's candidate, also made by OFB, displayed another host of problems, including excessive recoil, muzzle flash, sound signature, and difficulty in loading. NDTV quotes an unnamed source that said the rifle was rejected due to an "excessive number of faults and stoppages [during trials] to the extent of more than twenty times the maximum permissible standards."
India's Ministry of Defence has issued a Request for Information from vendors in the hopes of finding a vendor to make 185,000 "7.62mm x 51mm rifle(s) with lethality to achieve the objective of ‘Shoot to Kill’" with an immediate need of 65,000. Last month, NDTV reported that 21 manufacturers signaled their intention to bid on the contract. The military is also hoping to acquire body armor and lightweight helmets, but it's unknown whether or not they are seeking outside vendors.
Is "Make in India" slowing India's military progress?
It's arguable that part of the philosophical premise behind "Make in India" – that Indian manufacturers are as technically capable as any in the west – is inherently flawed, at least when it comes to arms. Although the INSAS is standard issue, there's no shortage of German, Belgium, Russian, Swiss, American and other foreign rifles, pistols, and other arms in India's armories, and few – if any at all – have the disastrous reputation of the INSAS. It may time for India to take a step back and objectively analyze what, exactly, the future of Indian manufacturing can and should look like in a global marketplace, especially now that the Goods and Services Tax has been simplified.
In an interview with Bloomberg, assistant professor at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Anit Mukherjee – a former Indian Army major – expressed disappointment with the decision to go with an outside manufacturer to replace India's troubled rifle. "It’s encouraging that they’re going ahead with this, but it’s discouraging that it’s not made under ‘Make in India,’" Mukherjee said, "The fact that it took 10 years for Indians to go ahead and say, ‘we’re importing’ means the bureaucracy is still holding back modernization of the armed forces. That’s problematic."