Weapons: India Capitulates To Infantry Demands


January 27, 2015: In response to the growing combat losses because of flaws in the locally made INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) 5.56mm assault rifle, the Indian government seems likely to capitulate and allow the military to get a rifle that works. Unfortunately for nationalist politicians, this will probably be a foreign rifle, and the leading candidate is Israeli.

This all began in the 1980s when there was growing clamor for India to design and build its own weapons. This included something as basic as the standard infantry rifle. At that time soldiers and paramilitary-police units were equipped with a mixture of old British Lee-Enfield bolt action (but still quite effective) rifles and newer Belgian FALs (sort of a semi-automatic Lee-Enfield) plus a growing number of Russian AK-47s. The rugged and reliable Russian assault rifle was most popular with its users.

In the late 1980s India began developing a family of 5.56mm infantry weapons (rifle, light machine-gun and carbine). Called the INSAS, the state owned factories were unable to produce the quantities required (and agreed to). Worse, the rifles proved fragile and unreliable. The design was poorly thought out and it is believed corruption played a part because the INSAS had more parts than it needed and cost over twice as much to produce as the AK-47.

The original plan was to equip all troops with INSAS weapons by 1998. Never happened, although troops began to receive the rifle in 1998. By 2000 half the required weapons ordered were still not manufactured. Moreover in 1999 the INSAS weapons got their first real combat workout in the Kargil campaign against Pakistan. While not a complete failure, the nasty weather that characterized that battle zone high in the frigid mountains saw many failures as metal parts sometimes cracked from the extreme cold. Troops complained that they were at a disadvantage because their Pakistani foes could fire on full automatic with their AK-47s while the INSAS rifles had only three bullet burst mode (which, fortunately, sometimes failed and fired more than three bullets for each trigger pull.) What was most irksome about this was that the INSAS rifles were the same weight, size and shape as the AK-47 but cost about $300 each, while AK-47s could be had for less than half that. The INSAS looked like the AK-47 because its design was based on that weapon.

The Indians persevered, tweaking the design and improving the manufacturing process. Now, after nearly two decades the INSAS weapons are gaining acceptance. Nearly 400,000 have been delivered so far. Compared to most 5.56mm rifles on the market, INSAS has a price advantage and India is looking for export customers. But so far, only three small nations showed interest, and that was more for political reasons than for military ones. The major export customer (Nepal) got them at a huge discount and quickly found Nepalese troops demanding a replacement rifle because the INSAS was fatally unreliable.

In the decade following the Kargil debacle INSAS rifles also malfunctioned in several highly publicized incidents involving the leftist (Maoist) rebels increasingly active in eastern India. Responding to the continuing performance and reliability problems some changes were made but most Indian users want a better rifle. The military had been conducting a competition since 2013 and a winner (either the Israeli ACE or the similar Italian Beretta ARX-160) is likely to be selected in 2015.

The ACE is the current Israeli assault rifle and is one of a long line of excellent weapons. It is combat proven, comes in many sizes and calibers and, compared to similar INSAS models it is lighter and easier to use and maintain.  Beretta is an experienced weapons designer and manufacturer and they went to great lengths to make the ARX-160 a capable and reliable weapon. The fact that it and ACE are the last two weapons left in the competition demonstrates that. The Israelis have an edge in combat experience with their weapons and have been selling more weapons to India than Italy. This is supposed to be a corruption-free competition, so the size of potential bribes should not be a factor. The outcome of this will be interesting, but either way the current users if INSAS come out a winner and more likely to survive their next battle.





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