Weapons: Better Isn’t Best When Good Enough Will Do

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April 2, 2021: The Indian state-owned OFB (Ordnance Factory Board) recently worked out a partnership deal with the Russian JSC Kalashnikov Concern and the Russian government to jointly build a factory in India to produce at least 700,000 Russian designed AK-203 7.62/39mm rifles under license. The new IRRPL (Indo-Russia Rifles Private) firm would be 50.5 percent owned by the OFB, 42 percent by Kalashnikov and the rest by the Russian government. The first 100,000 AK-203s imported from Russia and the new IRRPL plant will assemble Indian-made and Russian-made components until Indian suppliers for all the components can be found. IRRPL currently has orders from the Indian Army and other Indian security agencies to keep the factory operational into the early 2030s. If IRRPL can maintain quality standards, their AK-203 will find more customers inside India and elsewhere.

The AK-203, along with a smaller number of imported German SIG716 sniper rifles, will replace the locally designed and built INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) rifles that proved to be a disaster when actually used in combat. There are also still a lot of elderly AK-47s in user by Indian police and other security agencies that need to be replaced by something at least as good as the AK-47 and preferably similar. The INSAS was also similar to the AK-47 but less reliable. The AK-203 is similar to the AK-47 but with additional capabilities users have already reported as satisfactory.

The delays in working out the AK-203 deal forced Indian military leaders to improvise. In 2019 India ordered 72,400 German designed, American built SIG716 7.62/61mm rifles for snipers, or “designated marksmen” in infantry units. These have been delivered and the Indian Army is trying to get money to buy more.

SIG716 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. The SIG716 is based on the AR-10 design, a 7.62mm version of the AR-15 5.56mm weapon that became the M-16/M-4. The AR-10 served as the basis for a growing number of similar sniper rifles. The SIG716 proved very popular with Indian troops and that encouraged the government to expedite the manufacturing of something in India that was similar in effectiveness and troop acceptance.

The AK-203 was a late candidate to replace the INSAS. This was because of flaws in the Indian procurement system. A decade ago, India conducted a competition to select a foreign replacement for INSAS. The competitors included the Israeli ACE, the latest version of a weapon selected in the early 1970s to become the standard Israeli infantry rifle. Another competitor was CCR (Colt Combat Rifle), an upgraded version of the American M-16/M-4 design offered by the M4 manufacturer. These two rifles performed best in the competition but neither could meet the Indian QR (Qualitative Requirements). In fact, no rifle could meet the absurd QR and eventually the QR was quietly abandoned and India ignored the ACE and CCR for the Russian AM-203 which never competed and almost lost the contract because the accountants pointed out that unless Kalashnikov reduced the license fee of $200 per rifle, it would cost more to produce the rifle in Indian than to import them from Russia. Kalashnikov cut the license fee in half and the deal went though, with each Indian made AK-203 costing about $1,100.

The Israeli ACE and the American M4 have an interesting common history. The earliest version of ACE had been selected in the early 1970s to replace an assortment of other, mostly older, weapons to become the standard Israeli infantry rifle. The planned 1973 introduction of ACE was disrupted by the unexpected outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. During that war the U.S. rushed over emergency supplies, including lots of M-16s. These cost Israel nothing because they could be paid for with the military aid the Americans provide to Israel. Israeli troops liked the M-16, especially the version sent, which had been tweaked to fix flaws discovered during nearly a decade of heavy use in Vietnam. ACE was still competitive, but the Israelis would have to pay for that out of their own budget. The one catch with American military aid was that it had to be used for any American weapons the Israelis wanted. In 1994 the M4, a smaller and improved version of the M-16, appeared and Israeli troops liked this one even more. The Israeli ACE was still around as it could compete with the M-16 for export contracts and often won.

Then there was the Indian developed INSAS. This rifle was an embarrassment from the start and got worse. By 2015, responding to the growing combat losses because of INSAS 5.56mm assault rifle flaws, the Indian government capitulated and allowed the military to get rifles that worked. Unfortunately for nationalist politicians, this usually means a foreign supplier. Israel provided its Tavor assault rifle to replace most of the INSAS 5.56mm assault rifles used by commandos but the government insisted on a locally made rifle to supply the much larger needs of the army infantry and police forces. Foreign designs were still allowed for replacing special needs. That included items like a modern sniper rifle and a new LMG (Light Machinegun). SIG got the sniper sale and another Israeli firm provided the new LMG (Light Machine-Gun). Meanwhile it was hoped that Indian procurement officials learned something from the INSAS disaster.

The INSAS saga 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 (but still quite effective) British Lee-Enfield bolt-action 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 and by far the cheapest to buy.

In the late 1980s India began developing a family of 5.56mm infantry weapons that included a 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 available because of inadequate production facilities. Then the situation for worse. In 1999 the INSAS rifles 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. Because of that, after nearly two decades the INSAS weapons were gaining some 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 wanted a better rifle, not an improved failure like INSAS. 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 when it came to obtaining relatively small orders from Indian special operations forces. Politics intervened again and superior American and Israeli rifles were ignored in favor of the AK-203. Fortunately, the AK-203 was a decent design which, if manufactured competently in India, would satisfy Indian users still armed with the INSAS.

The Indian AK-203 will use the older, but still effective, AK-47 7.62/39 round, instead of the smaller 5.56mm. The AK-203 was designed to quickly adapt to a different size round and the Indians decided that if the AK-203 was to be accepted by the many existing AK-47 users, the 7.62/39 round was acceptable. The AK-203 weighs 3.8 kg (8.4 pounds) empty (no magazine or special sights), uses the standard 30 round magazine, as well as special magazines holding up to 75 rounds. It is more accurate than the original AK-47 and is effective out to 800 meters. It has an adjustable stock and is as easy to maintain as the AK-47. The AK-203 is designed to easily install and use modern rifle sights. Getting the first 100,000 rifles from Russian factories will keep the Indian manufacturer honest because the troops will notice, and openly complain, about any performance differences between the Russian and Indian made rifles.

 


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