Procurement: Indian Tavor Shocks The World


June 2, 2017: In early 2017 a new weapons manufacturer, PLR (Punj Lloyd Raksha), was created in India. A unique feature (for India) of PLR was that it was a joint venture with an Israeli firm that had long made rifles and machine-guns that were very popular with Indian troops. But India has always insisted that their military favor Indian made weapons, even though the locally made stuff tended to be more expensive and less effective than foreign models. Licensed manufacture of foreign designs, usually involving Russian weapons, has been going on since the 1960s. But the Indian made items were always seen, by Russian and Indian users, as inferior. What made PLR unique was that it is the first Indian manufacturer of military small arms that is expected to be capable of producing the foreign designs well enough to be exported. This sort of thing has already been demonstrated with non-military products and the Israelis believe it is possible to do it with military items as well. The Indian small arms market alone is worth $5 billion a year and the export market for Israeli quality weapons is potentially even larger. Initially PLR will manufacture the Israeli Tavor assault rifle as well as sniper rifles and light machine-guns and is already considered a front runner for several major Indian Army contracts.

Israel has been doing joint ventures with India for some time and always had problems with their Indian partners not being able to match Israeli standards. The main reason for this was that India long insisted the joint ventures be with state owned weapons manufacturers and developers. Since the late 1990s India has been forced to admit that Indian private manufacturers could match quality standards the state owned firms never seemed capable to achieving. Thus JLR became the first time India allowed a foreign firm to jointly manufacture foreign weapons in India that met the standards Indian troops were demanding (and rarely got from locally made stuff.) At the same time India is allowing privately owned firms to bid on more military contracts and is finding that the resulting products are usually superior in terms of quality, cost and meeting delivery schedules.

The creation of JLR also marked the government admitting that the state owned and run defense industries were unlikely to every improve enough to compete with privately owned firms, foreign or India. The formation of PLR was not unexpected because Indian troops have long pointed out, often to the media and in detail, the superiority of foreign weapons, particular Israeli models that have been purchased in small quantities, usually for the elite troops.

Thus by 2011 Indian special operations troops began receiving thousands of Israeli Tavor assault rifles. India is one of ten nations that have bought the Tavor since 2006. Israel introduced the Tavor (or TAR-21) in 2004 to replace the 5.56mm Galils, M-16s, and the 9mm Uzis its security forces had been using. The TAR-21 is a bullpup design, which places the ammo magazine behind the pistol grip and trigger. This makes for a shorter and lighter weapon. The Tavor comes in several sizes. The most common ones are regular (72 cm/28.3 inches long, 3.67 kg/8.1 pounds), and commando (64 cm/25.2 inches, 2.95 kg/6.5 pounds). The Tavor has a rail on top, for mounting all manner of sights, as it becoming standard, mainly because it makes the weapon so much more effective. The Tavor succeeded by being more rugged, compact and comfortable to use. It eventually proved more reliable than the competition.

In contrast Indian government agencies began, in the late 1980s 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. By 2015, after nearly two decades the INSAS weapons were gaining acceptance. Nearly 400,000 had been delivered by then. Compared to most 5.56mm rifles on the market, INSAS had a price advantage and India was 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 locally manufactured Tavor is one result of all that.

India was so impressed with Tavor that it quickly bought 3,070 of the commando version of the Tavor for its special operations units. But when these arrived in 2005, Indian troops immediately began having some reliability problems. Israeli troops had similar complaints, and it took over a year to get it all sorted out. Otherwise, the Tavor was well received by the troops. However, because Israel can't afford to just junk hundreds of thousands of Galils and M-16s, the Tavor will be issued as the older weapons wear out. So it won't be until the end of the next decade before everyone is using the Tavor.

Meanwhile, Israel continues to push Tavor as an export item and India was the largest potential market. The Tavor design was based on years of feedback from troops, so if corruption (bribes for purchasing officials) doesn't become a major factor, the Israeli weapon should show up with a lot of foreign armies in the next decade. Indian infantry and special operations troops were fed up with Indian made small arms and PLR was seen as a solution.


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