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The Indian Army Wants A 7.62x51mm Assault Rifle

June 28, 2017

Few modern infantry weapons are as derided as the standard rifle of the Indian Army. The Indian Small Arms System or INSAS, which resembles the Israeli Galil, has enjoyed a quarter century of use in the world’s toughest battlefields. Designed in the late 1980s, it was supposed to replace the army’s trusted FAL rifles, which were made by state-owned factories since the 1960s.

In what proved another exercise in haphazard implementation, the original timetable for its development, testing, and introduction went awry. Rather than be accepted among India’s multitude of jawans in 1988, the rifle didn’t reach the troops until the 1990s–after a sudden and questionable design change.

The INSAS’ appearance is far from remarkable. Soldiers prefer the weapons they train and fight with and the INSAS seemed to recall their beloved FAL’s. The upper and lower receiver of the AK-47 was copied but the bright orange finish from the Indian-made FAL’s furniture was retained on its bakelite stock, pistol grip, a foldable carrying handle, and housing for the barrel assembly. Its elongated muzzle brake, copied from the FN FNC, is designed for launching grenades and holding a bayonet.

It was planned to be chambered for 5.56mm bullets on a new cartridge. This didn’t pan out. The preference was alleged to be influenced by the US experience in the Vietnam War. An odd choice since the conflict was won by the side that used Soviet and Eastern Bloc weapons. The North Vietnamese military’s dependence on AK-47’s, S-125 SAMs, T-55 and PT-76 tanks, and MiG fighter jets gave them a lot more in common with the Indians compared to the Indians with NATO.

Yet the INSAS ended up with the generic NATO 5.56x45mm round in a transparent plastic magazine that carried 20 bullets instead of the usual 30. The reason why the metal STANAG 5.56mm magazine wasn’t used is a mystery. It had front and back sights copied from the Galil and, on paper, an effective range of 600 meters. A flip sight above its extended gas chamber was for launching grenades.

The original Galil was partly modeled from a Finnish AK-47 derivative called the Valmet M62. It was the IDF’s assault rifle for a little over two decades before its replacement by the M16. Copies of the Galil are manufactured in Colombia, South Africa, and Vietnam. Notice the uncanny resemblance with the INSAS?

Conflicting dates are given on when mass-production of the INSAS began and the year it entered service. The Indian Army puts it at 1993, when 1,500 where presented in a publicized ceremony, although other sources cite 1996 and 1998. The new rifle arrived just in time for the Kargil War in 1999 that pitted the Indian military against Pakistan’s own forces and their proxies in the world’s highest active war zone.

This is when the controversy over the INSAS began. Fought in extreme altitudes, the Kargil War meant India’s new rifle experienced its fair share of teething problems (the rifle jammed when exposed to frost) but this didn’t compel the army’s leadership to replace it.

Doing so would’ve been unwise since India’s security environment is tough. Aside from the headache posed by Pakistan the borders shared with China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh need to be guarded. Ongoing rebellions against militants in Kashmir and Naxal Maoists, alongside smaller local insurgencies, meant government forces couldn’t be deprived of arms.

But the INSAS’ reputation didn’t improve. Developed as a family of weapons using the same round, a carbine, an LMG, and a sniper rifle were made to complement the original INSAS. The LMG or Light Machine Gun in particular is an interesting semi-automatic small arm patterned after the Soviet RPK.

The INSAS’ own pedigree that combined features from two rifles designed in the 1940s (the AK-47 and the FAL) meant it failed to stay ahead of changing requirements in the 2000s, when NATO armies experienced the limitations of their own 5.56mm firearms. Never the definition of “tacticool,” its capacity to launch rifle grenades was made redundant by local copies of the 40mm M203 underbarrel grenade launcher. The Indian army claimed the INSAS went through upgrades thrice but whether these fixed the rifle’s shortcomings can’t be verified.

As NATO rifles–and the INSAS was patterned after NATO specifications–were modified for better optics and handling the INSAS fell short. Accurate production figures for the INSAS are unavailable, but hundreds of thousands were made in the last 20 years, with small batches exported to Nepal and Oman.

Two separate trends did irreparable harm to the INSAS in the long run.

First, constant negative press and online scrutiny highlighted its defects. This was a result of non-standardized production from separate state-owned factories in Ichapur and Trichy. The faults become apparent when studying the INSAS. Whether it’s the rust-resistant finishing or its measurements, the rifle looks poorly made. Production of the INSAS carbine and LMG was assigned to a third plant in Kanpur and its output was negligible.

Second, special forces, police, and paramilitary units kept using AK-47’s and AKMs imported from Eastern Europe. (Romania and Bulgaria are the main suppliers). This showed how the proven 7.62x39mm round was preferred in counterinsurgency operations in remote valleys and steaming jungles. Adding insult to injury, unlicensed AKM clones are churned out by the very same state-owned factories responsible for the INSAS. Not even the INSAS’ carbine, the impressively named Excalibur, enjoyed any success.

A 7.62x51mm INSAS during tests in June 2017.

India’s special forces chose the Israeli Tavor over it. In 2016 Israeli Weapons Industries announced licensed production of its bullpup rifle was being transferred to a local private sector firm in India. This  while the army tried to get a “future soldier” small arm called the F INSAS off the ground. It’s been 10 years and the F INSAS initiative is dormant.

Beginning in 2010 the Indian army made it clear the INSAS was due for replacement and held tenders to accept foreign bids. The prevailing doctrine for light and compact rounds had changed–the 7.62x51mm was desired once again. The same used on FAL’s and the first generation of authentic battle rifles.

India’s state-owned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) that monopolizes small arms production throughout the country tried pushing for the Excalibur, to little avail. In 2016 it attempted the same with the MCIWS, a low-cost attempt at a modular rifle resembling the Daewoo K2, that was conveniently ignored.

The Belgian FN FNC is an unacknowledged ancestor of the INSAS.

The army rejected the OFB’s gallant effort with an INSAS carbine chambered for 7.62x51mm in June 2017. Its main complaint, after a series of tests, rang very familiar: quality issues with the complete firearm and poor handling.

The Indian military’s failure to coordinate with state-owned manufacturers for a vital piece of kit is a problem greater than an unpopular rifle. It reeks of gross incompetence and a shocking lack of imagination for the INSAS to fail on such a vast scale. The embarrassment is unavoidable when smaller countries like Myanmar, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, and Finland built nearly the same rifles to acceptable standards.

The assault rifle used by Myanmar’s armed forces, the EMERK, was developed with assistance from Israel and Singapore in the late 1990s. Its resemblance to the INSAS isn’t coincidence–both are copies of the original 5.56mm Galil.

Besides, if a 7.62x51mm rifle is such a priority the OFB can knock out an HK417 clone in record time. After all, Turkey managed to switch from its licensed G3 rifles to the MPT-76 with ease. Their new rifle is an HK417 with a few modifications.

But what does the Indian Army want?

The special forces are content with their new TAR-21’s. The troops in Kashmir have their AK-47’s. Given the army’s size, 800,000 strong with larger pools of reservists and militias, it will always depend on a varied selection of firearms. If a new rifle is going to be adopted, it starts with a small test batch, followed by 20,000-40,000 on order, then a six figure amount for full-scale local production.

The Finnish SAKO M95 is an ambitious redesign of the original Valmet M62 that’s based on the AK-47. All use the same 7.62x39mm round. There was an attempt to make interchangeable barrels a permanent feature on the INSAS, but this was discontinued.

Rather than waste years creating tenders and reviewing proposals, the least costly solution is to rebuild the existing INSAS for the new desired round. This involves swapping the barrel assembly and the lower receiver to accept a 7.62x51mm box magazine. An ambidextrous pistol grip together with either a side folding or collapsible stock improves its handling. Perhaps the upper receiver can be modified to support the optics used by NATO armies. A last touch could be the replacement of its orange handguard with a milled horizontal foregrip with space for an optional bipod or LED flashlight.

It’s a conversion that isn’t too difficult to pull off because what’s described above is the Galil ACE.

The Serbian Zastava M21 is a successful example of reinventing the AK-47 to fit NATO standards. It’s a vision of what the Excalibur carbine could’ve been.

Of course, it seems the Indian army is eager to keep testing foreign rifle models in the foreseeable future. To think this entire charade has to take place because either the defense ministry or the generals can’t acknowledge the fact that their soldiers always liked the AK-47.

So if nothing comes to fruition, there’s always the Russian AK-103. Or an Indian copy of it.

Indian soldiers and their weapon of choice.

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