|By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army
Continuing terrorist attacks, especially the recent ISI-backed JeM terrorist attack of Sunjwan Army Camp in Jammu appears to have roused the MoD into action. The Ministry okayed 1,487 cr to boost the security of Army camps on Saturday, February 12 – same day as the terrorist attack on Sunjwan Army Camp. Now according to media reports, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on February 13, 2018 has accorded “initial approval” for procurement of 7.4 lakh new assault rifles and 16,500 light machine guns (LMGs), collectively worth an estimated 15,934 cr to bolster the firepower of infantry soldiers fighting at the cutting edge. What has been approved is the acceptance of necessity (AON) to the proposals. The Army, Navy and IAF together require 43,732 new LMGs. The initial acquisition of 16,500 will meet the operational requirements of the troops deployed on the borders with Pakistan and China. Media reports quoting MoD sources also say that a concurrent proposal is “being processed” for the remaining LMGs under the Buy and Make (Indian) categorization through a tie-up between an Indian vendor and a foreign armament company. The quantity 7.4 lakh 7.62x51mm assault rifles for all three services are to be made under the Buy and Make (Indian) categorization, through both the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and the private industry at an estimated cost of 12,280 crore.
Significantly, the Army had projected for new assault rifles and CQB carbines to replace the 5.56mm INSAS rifles with multiple faults and the obsolete 9mm carbines 12 years back; in 2005. The shortfall in the overall requirement for 3.76 lakh 5.56 x 45mm CQB carbines are to be made under Make in India project “at a later stage”, as per MoD sources. In addition, the DAC has also approved procurement of 5,719 sniper rifles for the Army and IAF at an estimated cost of 982 crore from the global market under the 'Buy Global' categorization, the ammunition for which will be initially procured and subsequently manufactured in India. The new 8.6mm sniper rifles, with an effective kill range of 1,200m, are to replace the vintage 7.62mm Dragunov sniper rifles having 800m range that were acquired from Russia in 1990. For the procurement of 16,500 LMGs, the DAC has approved the fast track procedure (FTP) to be acquired from the global market at a cost of 1,819 cr, to ensure the project is wrapped up within a year. This appears to be ambitious considering that FTP will still require floating of request for proposal globally, processing the response, extensive trials, selection etc. Besides, procurement of small arms in the past have been nixed in the past because of single vendor situation despite global tender having been floated. No government wants to go ahead in single vendor situation for fear of opposition allegations despite mounting deficiency and obsolescence of weapons held by the forces. What is meant by wrapping up of the project within one-year is unclear, but the Defence Minister will need a magic wand if these 16,500 LMGs are indeed in the hands of the forces within one year.
It is also ironic that while for DAC has approved procurement of 16,500 LMGs on FTP for acquisition from the global market, as also 5,719 sniper rifles under the 'Buy Global' categorization, but has not considered the same for the new 7.62x51mm assault rifles. This is failure to appreciate that the modern assault rifles are equally essential for infantry soldiers, if not more considering that the number of LMGs are few in infantry company where-in by and large all other carry assault rifles. It would have been prudent to procure at least part of the new 7.4 lakh 7.62x51mm assault rifles (say 2-3 lakh quantity) also through FTP from the global market under ‘Buy Global’ and make up balance requirement through ‘Make in India’ instead of entire requirement Buy and Make (Indian) categorization, through both the OFB and the private industry, which will take considerable number of years. This is presumably to bring in the OFB from the backdoor despite its pathetic record in not meeting the small arms requirement of the forces past decades. Actually, only the LMGs may materialize in a year or year plus. The new assault rifles could take anything from 8-10 years going by past experience; the follow up required includes issuing of request for proposal (RFP), formal tenders for technical and commercial bids, in-house technical study, selection of developing agencies (DAs) to develop proto-types, extensive field trials, production and fielding. If the previous hiccups in procurement of small arms is any indication, the red-tape and usual allegation by those who have not been selected as DAs plus the constituency that works to keep the forces under equipped (possibly because of cross-border) links, the time-period by when these weapons will get fielded is anybody’s guess. How many defence ministers will change during this period can also not be predicted. But the Defence Minister will really have to press the system to ensure these projects fructify in a 5-6 years time frame. It is also ironic that the project for making up the void of 3.76 lakh 5.56 x 45mm CQB carbines is still being waived off as “at a later stage”.