Weapons: Satisfying the Snipers


April 22, 2020: India has purchased 72,400 German designed, American built SIG716 7.62/61mm rifles for snipers, or “designated marksmen” in Infantry units. These rifles cost $1, 270 each, weigh 3.85 kg (8.5 pounds), are 940mm (37 inches) long and have a 406mm (16 inch) barrel. There is a ten-round magazine as well as an accessory rail for mounting scopes. The first 10,000 of these arrived in late 2019 and the rest are arriving in 10,000 rifle lots. The SIG716 is effective without a scope but extremely accurate with one. It as a free-floating handguard that leaves the barrel untouched by the shooter. There is a two-stage trigger, which is preferred by snipers.

The SIG716 is based on the AR-10 design. This was a 7.62mm version of the AR-15 5.56mm weapon that becomes the M-16/M-4. The AR-10 served as the basis for a growing number of similar sniper rifles.

India is also buying 700,000 locally (licensed) made, Russian designed AK-203 7.62/39mm rifles to replace the many AK-47s still used by Indian troops and paramilitary police. The AK203 and SIG716 are also replacing the locally designed and built INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) rifles that proved to be a disaster in combat.

The INSAS was an embarrassment from the start and got worse. By 2015, responding to the growing combat losses because of flaws in the INSAS 5.56mm assault rifle, the Indian government capitulated and allowed the military to get rifles that worked. Unfortunately for nationalist politicians, this usually means a foreign supplier. India provided its Tavor assault rifle to replace most of the INSAS 5.56mm assault rifles used by commands and infantry. American and Russian designs were selected to replace other needs. That left a few other problems, like a modern sniper rifle and a new LMG (Light Machinegun). SIG got the sniper sale and another Israeli firm provided the new LMG.

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) 7.62mm 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. That 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. Then, after nearly two decades the INSAS weapons were gaining acceptance. By 2015 nearly 400,000 had been delivered. Compared to most 5.56mm rifles on the market, INSAS had a price advantage and India was looking for export customers. No one was really interested. 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 the winners were the Israeli Tavor and ACE assault rifles.

The Tavor and ACE were similar to INSAS models but lighter and easier to use and maintain. The Israelis had an edge in combat experience with their weapons and have been selling more weapons to India than just about anyone else and was a major reason the Tavor prevailed.


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