India has finally given up on INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) the locally developed and manufactured 5.56mm assault rifle Indian troops despise and want to replace. Until mid-2016 the government was determined to go through with keeping the INSAS by replacing it with the MIR (Modified INSAS Rifle, also known as Excalibur). Technically MIR is still being worked on but India is now asking for foreign firms to submit proposals for a 7.62x51mm caliber assault rifle and agree to have 185,000 of them manufactured in India under license. This was to be MIR 2, a version of MIR firing the AK-47 (7.62x39mm) round. This means India is also trying get an assault rifle that will double as a sniper rifle. The original 5.56mm MIR was supposed to be ready in 2017 but that proved to be another missed deadline.
This new call for foreign assault gun designs is in response to continuing complaints from soldiers and other security personnel fed up with the poor performance of the locally made INSAS. In early 2015 the government tried to placate the troops by pretending that the despised INSAS would be replaced, in two years, by the MIR. On paper there are some improvements, like full auto-fire (INSAS can only do single shot or three round bursts), folding butt stock, Picatinny rail (for all manner of accessories), more reliable and effective magazines and more ergonomic design (making MIR easier to handle, clean and use). But it’s still the much criticized (by users) INSAS. Over a year of additional complaints, and reports of poor performance by MIR prototypes, led the politicians to consider alternatives. Generally Indian military procurement bureaucrats will eventually do the right thing, but only after they have tried all other possibilities.
The government weapons design capability has a long and consistent history of failure and disappointing promises. Few INSAS users believed MIR would be much of an improvement over INSAS and would instead serve more as another source of cash for corrupt officials. While buying foreign weapons uses a lot of valuable foreign exchange it is more closely monitored and has proven to be less corrupt. In 2010 the government had agreed to allow the military to get a rifle that works and that meant a foreign rifle. The leading candidate was Israeli. But that competition was mysteriously cancelled and many troops believed it is all about corruption, not getting the best weapons for the military.
This sad situation 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 (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, easy to use 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 was 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 some 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 more and was less effective. 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 2014, after nearly two decades the INSAS weapons had gained some acceptance. Nearly 400,000 had been delivered but troops who used INSAS frequently in combat were also the ones most dissatisfied with it. Meanwhile INSAS was cheaper than most other 5.56mm rifles and India went 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 wanted a new and better rifle. The military had been conducting a competition and a winner (either the Israeli ACE or the similar Italian Beretta ARX-160) was to be selected in 2015. Instead of selecting a foreign weapon that would be available immediately India announced it was going with MIR (code named “Excalibur”), which was (and is) still in development and could not be delivered to the troops until late 2017 at the earliest.
Many Indian troops were looking forward to getting the ACE, which 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 was 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 were the last two weapons left in the competition demonstrates that. The Israelis had an edge in combat experience with their weapons and have been selling more weapons to India than Italy. Many Indians suspected that the outcome of this completion would be interesting, but few thought Indian troops would instead be offered an “improved” INSAS. For many Indian security personnel MIR fills them with dread and fears that their chances of surviving their next battle have not improved much, and may have gotten worse because of MIR.