India’s armed forces have embarked on a shopping spree for modern assault rifles, body armor and helmets, providing a potential boost to global arms suppliers. The 1.3 million-strong military is abandoning its two decade-old Indian made rifles and seeking to outfit its infantry with more up-to-date equipment, scouting for a new model on the global market for 185,000 assault rifles. The Ministry of Defence also needs to buy hundreds of thousands of helmets and tens of thousands of bullet proof vests.
The moves are part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s $250 billion push to modernize India’s armed forces.
Plans to buy new equipment from overseas, however, have been held back by bureaucratic delays and the military’s desire to balance the needs of troops against efforts to have equipment built domestically under Modi’s “Make in India” program, a key plank in his drive to boost local manufacturing.
“It’s encouraging that they’re going ahead with this, but it’s discouraging that it’s not made under ‘Make in India,’ ” said Anit Mukherjee, a former major in the Indian Army and assistant professor at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “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.”
The army currently uses the INSAS, or Indian Small Arms System, rifle, introduced in the late 1990s and built by the state-owned Ordnance Factory. Yet the Indian and Nepalese soldiers issued with the guns complained the 5.56mm rifles were unreliable, prompting the ministry to go to the global market for their replacement.
To identify possible vendors, the ministry last month issued a request for information. It said it wants a larger, more deadly 7.62mm model that will “shoot to kill.”
India needs 65,000 rifles within 28 months of signing the contract and has asked global manufacturers to reply by November 7, the ministry said. India plans to issue a tender for procuring rifles in April 2017.
This is India’s second attempt since 2011 to procure assault rifles for its infantry. The 2011 tenders were issued to Colt’s Manufacturing Company LLC, Italy’s Fabbrica d’Armi Pietro Beretta S.p.A., Swiss Sig Sauer Inc., the Czech Republic’s Ceska zbrojovka and Israel Weapons Industry Ltd. But it was canceled in 2015 after the rifles offered up by the global manufacturers did not meet the multi-caliber requirements of the army.
Apart from assault rifles, the army also sought to buy light automatic rifles and machine guns, as well as sniper rifles. Initially, it planned to buy 43,000 carbines off the shelf from international companies and build 120,000 others at ordnance factories in India.
But a tender issued four years ago to buy the carbines was canceled earlier this month over procedural issues, according to a senior army officer who asked not to be identified discussing information that is private. The rifle procurement is part of the army’s efforts to modernize personnel equipment, including body armor and helmets. It needs over 350,000 bullet-proof vests, and earlier this year decided to buy 50,000 units of body armor to meet emergency requirements. The army has also inched closer to procuring 150,000 lightweight helmets.
Delays in procuring basic equipment should concern policy makers as infantry troops take on the brunt of India’s current operations, according to Srinath Raghavan, a former infantry officer and senior fellow at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.
The “Make in India” program, where foreign firms team up with local ones, is helping to address that, he said. But there were still tensions between the army’s urgent requirements for modern equipment and the slow pace of defense sector joint ventures, meaning at least some equipment must be bought “off the shelf”.
“The fact that you can’t even design your own small arms system reflects very poorly on the military ecosystem in India,” he said. “The military innovation cycle is dysfunctional and broken down and it should be a matter of huge concern.”