Ignoring the Foot Soldier – Chronic malady

September 4, 2017 Photo(s): By SP Guide Pubns
By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army


Infantry continues to battle with antiquated weapons

According to media reports, the Army is slated to get the advanced medium-range-surface to air missile (MRSAM) capable of shooting down ballistic missiles, fighter jets, AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems), surveillance aircraft, helicopters and drones, at a range of 70 km, by 2020. These missiles are to be produced in a joint venture (JV) between the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Israel Aerospace Industry (IAI). DRDO has signed a 17,000 cr deal with IAI to produce these missiles.

The MR-SAM, a land-based version of the long-range surface-to-air missile (LRSAM) for the Navy; the deal envisages 40 firing units and around 200 missiles. The first set of missile system reportedly will be ready in the next three years, albeit what that 'set' will constitute has not been specified. Hopefully, DRDO will meet this timeline but the overall provision of 40 firing units and 200 missiles will go much beyond 2020. However, this certainly is good news since these MRSAMs will mark a paradigm shift in Army's strike capabilities.

The irony is that the soldier at the cutting edge continues with antiquated weapons and equipment even as the nation uses the Army as first respondents even for law and order duties that should be taken on by the huge police forces.

What is not good news is the media report that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has junked the order for procurement of light machine guns (LMGs) for the Army. According to the report, the MoD has scrapped the procurement plan for some 44,000 LMGs for the foot soldiers of the infantry, describing it as "another major blow to the Army's modernisation plans." MoD retracted the request for proposal (RFP) for the 7.62mm LMGs on ground it is single-vendor situation with only Israeli Weapon Industries (IWI) in the fray after protracted field trials (December 2015 to February 2017). The procurement plan was to import 44,000 LMGs with transfer of technology (ToT) under 'Buy and Make' followed by large-scale indigenous production by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), cost estimate of entire project being 13,000 crore. This is the third such project, after the cases for new assault rifles and close-quarter battle carbines, to be junked over the last two years. In May 2015, the RFP for the assault rifles was scrapped, forcing the Army in September 2016 to re-launch its global hunt for around two lakh new-generation 7.62mm x 51mm assault rifles after similar bids over last decade were shelved on various grounds including corruption.

In 2016, the MoD also scrapped tender issued in 2010 for 44,618 close-quarter battle carbines, in which too IWI had emerged as "resultant singlevendor" over Italian firm Beretta, amid allegations of irregularities and political intrigue. Significantly, the Army had issued a global tender in 2008 to replace the 1944 vintage British-era carbines but the ensuing cycle has brought all efforts to nought. Similarly, in 1980, 17 x 5.56mm rifles from 11 countries were imported by MoD to equip three Parachute Commando battalions and three Parachute Battalions of the Parachute Brigade. Despite successful trials, the red tape and mafia blocked imports, giving these 17 weapons to DRDO who took 15 years to produce the 5.56 INSAS rifle that was nowhere close to top 10 assault rifles of the world.

The IPKF went to Sri Lanka in 1987 armed with the unwieldy 7.62 SLR rifles battling the LTTE armed with AK 47 assault rifles. Eventually, Army had to import 1,00,000 AK 47 rifles (then costing only $300 apiece) to give 100 per infantry battalion in the IPKF. In 2011, another tender was floated for direct acquisition of 65,000 new generation assault rifles for the Army costing 4,848 crore to equip 120 infantry battalions. OFB was to then manufacture over 1,13,000 such rifles through joint venture with the foreign vendor providing ToT. The rifle was to weigh around 3.5 kg with advanced night-vision, holographic reflex sights, laser designators, detachable under-barrel grenade launchers etc. However, since the Excalibur had only some cosmetic changed to the original INSAS, it too failed in the trials undertaken by the Army. Now the whole process for procuring an assault rifle for the Army has started once again. Procurement of state-of-the-art LMGs has unfortunately met the same sorry end.

The irony is that the soldier at the cutting edge continues with antiquated weapons and equipment even as the nation uses the Army as first respondents even for law and order duties that should be taken on by the huge police forces. Forcing the infantry to continue with antiquated weapons on pretexts like "single vendor situation" and even "resultant single-vendor" is ridiculous. Why exceptions can't be made given the crying need for modernisation. Take the CQB carbine procurement; is the fault of the Army that despite elaborate trials, "resultant single-vendor" situation occurred.

If MoD had doubts, the entire trial process could have been scrutinised and retrials ordered, if required. For that matter, is the procurement plan for the MRSAMS not single-vendor situation? Why can't the same be applied to infantry weapon procurement after a global tender has been floated? The fact remains that no defence deal anywhere in the world goes without something under the table. Unfortunately, in case of small arms weapons especially in the case of 'Buy and Make' where only small number are to be imported, that 'something' is too small an amount. But then will the powers that be ever take a call to modernise the foot soldier, and if so, in what timeframe?