Many Bumps in Defence Ministry's Attempts to Buy the Right Light Machine Guns

Now, Israel Weapon Industries Negev NG-7 LMG is the frontrunner for the supply contract to the Indian Army.

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Chandigarh: The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is evaluating recent trial results in which Israel Weapon Industries (IWIs) Negev NG-7 light machine gun (LMG), fielded by PLR Systems owned by the Adani Group, has emerged as the front runner for the contract to supply the Indian Army (IA) 41,000 LMGs worth over Rs 2,200 crore.

Official sources said the ongoing appraisal of the gas-operated, selective fire 7.62x51mm NG-7’s, following field evaluation trials (FET) at the Infantry School at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh in early April, in which it bested two other models, would soon be completed. IWI is partnering PLR Systems based at Malanpur on Gwalior’s outskirts, in which the Adani Group acquired the majority 51% stake in late 2020; IWI owns the remaining 49%.

The NG-7’s rivals in domestically sourcing the IA’s requirement for 41,000 LMGs included the MG-M25 model from Bulgaria’s Arsenal – on offer from Pune-based Bharat Forge/Kalyani Strategic Systems Limited (KSSL) – and the belt-fed LMG, developed by the state-owned Ordnance Factory Board, or OFB. Anticipating contracts from the Indian military, as well as exports, KSSL had entered into a strategic alliance with Arsenal in early 2020 to locally manufacture small arms and ammunition.

Reliance Armaments Limited, headed by Anil Ambani, too was slated to participate in the LMG trials at Mhow with its self-designed weapon system, with some technical assistance from Czech manufacturers, but failed to do so for unspecified reasons.

Meanwhile, the IWI-KSSL-manufactured NG-7 has an edge in the proposed domestic LMG procurement programme, as in March 2021 the IA had already received 6,000 of 16,749 units it had contracted to import directly from IWI in Israel a year earlier, for Rs 880 crore. IA sources said the first consignment of NG-7s had already been issued to frontline formations deployed along India’s restive borders with China and Pakistan, and that the remaining 10,000-odd LMGs were scheduled for delivery by the year-end.

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The NG-7 was selected for outright purchase by the IA via the MoD’s Fast Track Procedure (FTP) in late 2019 over Arsenals MG-M25 and S&T Motiv K12 LMG fielded by South Korea’s S&T Daewoo following trials by an IA team in all three countries. The acquisition followed MoD approval for the LMG’s procurement in February 2018 to meet ‘urgent operational requirements’, after an earlier tender for them was terminated in August 2017.

At the time the MoD had called off the Rs 300 crore contract for 9,462 7.62x51mm LMG’s after IWI had emerged as the ‘sole vendor’ with its NG-7 following user trials between 2015 and early-2017. Thereafter, the MoD had terminated the tender due to procedural ambiguities centred around finalising contracts involving solitary vendors, thereby obviating possible claims of wrongdoing.

The NG-7s were eventually acquired in 2020 to replace the locally developed Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) LMG’s that had entered IA service in the late 1990s, but were declared ‘operationally inadequate’ a decade later. Senior infantry officers said the shortcomings of these LMGs included leaking oil, which often blinded the shooter, a firing mechanism that jammed, and a fragile magazine and butt, both of which often cracked during firing. The LMG’s bipod too was badly designed and prone to collapsing.

The INSAS 5.56x45mm assault rifles, which were inducted into service shortly ahead of the LMG, were also deemed ‘operationally wanting’ by the IA around 2010 and are likely to be replaced by licence-built Russian Kalashnikov Ak-203’s. But the contract for the latter has been continually deferred since March 2019, due to price differences and technology transfer issues. This, in turn, had forced the IA to import limited numbers of expensive Sig Sauer assault rifles from the US as a ‘stop gap’ measure to meet immediate operational needs.

Weighing 7.95 kg without the magazine and accessories, the Israeli NG-7 is capable of firing 600-750 rounds per minute in the semi-automatic and automatic mode respectively, to a maximum range of 1200m. It is also fitted with a Picatinny rail for optical devices and other accessories and can be fired from land vehicles, helicopters and naval platforms.

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Meanwhile, the proposed follow-on order to acquire 41,000 7.62×51 LMGs is being processed under the Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufacture or IDDM category of the DPP-2020, to further the governments Atmanirbhar initiative aimed at augmenting self-reliance in defence equipment.

The IDDM classification permits local companies to enter into collaborative ventures with overseas original equipment manufacturers (OEM) to licence-build the LMGs via a technology transfer. It mandates that 60% of the weapon systems components and sub-assemblies be locally sourced, while the remaining 40% can be imported.

According to the request for information or RfI issued for the 41,000 LMG’s-following similar ones dispatched earlier in October 2017, and once again, in August 2018, both of which came to nought – these LMGs would need to be ‘lethal’ to a range of 800m and achieve accuracy better than four minutes of angle to that same distance. Compatibility with modern sights and accessories and the capability to operate across all spectrums of Indian terrain and climatic conditions were additional specifications outlined in the RfI for the proposed LMGs.

However, in a rare instance of conceding the military’s obvious shortcomings, the MoD acknowledged in March 2018 that the efficiency of weapons like assault rifles, carbines and LMGs in use with all three services had been a cause of ‘concern’ for over a decade.

“The government has been conscious of the requirement to modernise basic fighting weapons for the soldiers and has therefore accorded utmost priority to these cases,” the MoD surprisingly admitted then in a Press Information Bureau statement.