India needs to work on its small arms design and production capabilities

The Indian government's failure to open up the competition to design small-calibre firearms in India is a missed opportunity for the country to improve its defence technology and become more self-reliant.

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

It is widely acknowledged that domestic production for imported goods can be beneficial. India is one of the few countries where this matter would attract more attention than other countries. The “Make in India” initiative, which aims to increase the country’s self-sufficiency, has received support from each succeeding administration in India.

In addition to covering small arms, the initiative also established significant export manufacturing capacities. Then, however, something unthinkable happened: it turned out that even India’s military did not need the small weapons it manufactured; what kind of export could there possibly be?

The Comptroller General and Auditor of India (CAG) [an independent constitutional authority responsible for auditing and reporting on the financial affairs of the government] report indicates that between the fiscal years 2015/2016 and 2019/2020, the Indian Army showed little to no interest in the four primary types of small arms manufactured in India. These small arms include the 5.56 mm INSAS rifle, the 5.56 mm light machine gun, and other types. According to the report, the number of “barrels” purchased has dropped to almost nothing from its previous level of approximately 100,000 units per year. As a consequence of this, the primary source of orders for Indian ammunition manufacturers came from the country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs; however, the volume of these orders was not sufficient to meet production quotas.

Over five years, the Ministry of Internal Affairs acquired 28 per cent of the firearms, states and Union Territories bought 24 per cent, and private individuals purchased 22 per cent. The Army only made up 10% of the total purchase. What are they fighting with, you can ask?

In response to the reasonable question, the Army replied in April 2022 that its principal weapon, the 5.56 mm INSAS Rifle, was already obsolete due to technological advancements. The Army changed its philosophy regarding small arms in 2015-2016, moving from a 5.56 mm calibre to a 7.62 mm calibre. This change was because 7.62 mm weapons were found to be more lethal and suitable for operational duties.

This is not the end of the issue. According to reports, payment delays exacerbated the problem, resulting in the factories accumulating weaponry. The Rifle Factory Ishapore (RFI), the Small Arms Factory Kanpur (SAF), and the Ordnance Factory Trichy (OFT) housed inventories that totalled Rs 641 crore (about USD 780 million)as of March 31 2020. This represented 72% of the total cost of production for the three factories combined.

In addition, the quality of the products turned out to be subpar: all four varieties of weapons supplied to customers were returned for repair, and the return rate for one of the categories exceeded 40%. “Icing on the cake” – during the specified period, the Army recorded 269 accidents involving the above four categories of small arms.

As a result of the failure of the Ordinance Factory Boards (OFBs) to develop new and modern small arms, the Army had to import small weapons such as the 7.62X51 mm Assault/Sniper/LMG to satisfy its operational requirements.

Following the conclusion of the audit period, the OFB was dissolved, and the 41 OFs were subsequently transformed into seven Defense Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs), all of which started their business activities on October 1, 2021. The production of small weapons has been delegated to the Advanced Weapons and Equipment India Limited company, which has its headquarters in Kanpur.

Authorities are also negligent

The authorities had long observed the proceeding, but their patience eventually ran out. Russia and India inked a contract in December 2021 for the joint production of over 600,000 AK-203 assault rifles for the Indian military in India (of course, 7.62 mm calibre). Production commenced in January of 2023.

Although licence production and indigenization may contribute to a country’s self-sufficiency in defence equipment and technology, more is needed to eliminate a nation’s reliance on foreign sources, especially in firearms which are bought in huge quantities and remain with the troops for decades. Comparing current practices to past practices is insufficient justification for the current method and its limitations in attaining genuine independence from foreign dependence.

The capacity to design and produce advanced weapons is crucial to a nation’s defence and security. Given its geopolitical position and complex security challenges, it is particularly important for India. 

The Indian government’s failure to open up the competition to design small-calibre firearms in India is a missed opportunity for the country to improve its defence technology and become more self-reliant. Several countries have recognized the importance of developing futuristic small arms and have taken significant steps in this direction. For example, the United States has developed the XM25 airburst weapon, which can fire grenades that detonate at a precise distance, enabling soldiers to engage enemies behind cover. Similarly, Germany has developed the HK416 assault rifle, which has a shorter barrel and can fire more accurately and with greater range than its predecessors. Chinese QBZ-95 is a bullpup assault rifle that fires a 5.8×42mm cartridge. The weapon has a modular design and can be customized for different roles, such as a carbine or light machine gun.

These projects demonstrate the significant investments being made in small-arms research and development across the world. The development of advanced technologies such as airburst weapons, modular weapon systems, and bullpup assault rifles highlights the importance of innovation and customization in small arms design. By embracing these advanced technologies, countries can enhance the capabilities of their soldiers and increase their effectiveness in the field.

In contrast, the Indian government has slowly adopted advanced technologies in small arms design, relying primarily on imports from other countries. This limits the country’s ability to customize weapons to meet specific operational requirements and makes it vulnerable to supply chain disruptions, embargoes, and other geopolitical tensions. Moreover, the lack of domestic production of small-calibre firearms results in a loss of economic opportunities and job creation.


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