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Chandigarh: After repeated attempts at acquiring close-quarter battle (CQB) carbines in recent years, the Indian Army (IA) has yet again revived plans to procure this critical weapon system it has been operating without for nearly three decades in its counter-insurgency operations.
On Friday, the IA reissued its request for information (RfI) to Indian vendors for the planned procurement of 425,213 5.56x45mm CQB carbines, worth an estimated Rs 3,500 crore, in order to gather information from potential domestic suppliers.
The deadline for responding to the RfI is October 21, following which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is expected to dispatch a tender or request for proposal (RfP) to a select group of vendors sometime in November, to progress the ill-fated carbine purchase that has seen numerous such earlier attempts come to naught. The re-released RfI requires the shortlisted vendor to commence carbine deliveries within eight months of the contract being inked, and complete them all within five years.
Defence industry officials, however, told The Wire that finalising the carbine buy, after the RfP, would necessitate navigating at least eight supplementary complex procedures before the contract was signed in accordance with the Defence Acquisition Procedure, 2020 (DAP 2020), and could easily take another 2-3 years to conclude. These additional processes included solicitation of bids, their technical evaluation, field trials at high altitudes, the plains and the desert region, staff appraisal of trial reports, technical oversight assessments and benchmarking of carbine prices.
This would be succeeded by the opening of commercial bids and commencing negotiations with the lowest, or L1 shortlisted vendor, financial approval for the contract from the Cabinet Committee on Security headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and eventually signing the deal, possibly around 2025-26. Hence, the IA would begin receiving the CQB carbines only around mid-2027 and complete their induction 60 months later by 2032, or around a decade from now, official sources said.
According to the RfI, the proposed CQB carbines would be required to weigh around 3 kg, without their magazine and accessories, measure no more than 800 mm in length in an extended condition, and possess an effective strike range of 200m. Fired from a fixed mount at a range of 100 metres, the carbines would need to attain a 15cm x 15cm accuracy grouping in 9 of 10 shots, and 60% exactness in a 24cm x 24cm cluster whilst firing a magazine in short bursts of 2 to 3 rounds in a similar mode.
Mounted with a Picatinny rail to accommodate sights and other accessories, the carbines would also need to have removable vertical forehand grips and be fitted with detachable 120 mm long bayonets. They should also be capable of operating in extreme climatic conditions, varying between minus 10° Celsius in high-altitude Himalayan regions, and 45° Celsius in desert areas, in addition to having an overall operational life span of 15 years, or 15,000 rounds, whichever ensued earlier.
To be procured under the Buy (Indian) category of the DAP 2020, the CQB carbine bids by local vendors would incorporate collaborative ventures with overseas original equipment manufacturers. Such partnerships or joint ventures are permitted under the DAP 2020.
The IA’s carbine procurement saga, in the pipeline since 2008, has been catastrophic, riven with procedural and bureaucratic lapses on the part of both the IA and the MoD, for which no accountability has ever been apportioned or even considered. For years prior to this, an internal debate had raged within the IA’s Infantry Directorate over formulating the proposed carbines qualitative requirements (QRs), or specifications, to replace its legacy 9mm 1A1/2 sub-machine guns- local versions of the L2A3 Sterling guns dating back to WW2.
These were being licence-built by the erstwhile Ordnance Factory Board, but their manufacture had ended in the late 1990/early 2000s. Sustained efforts in the intervening period by the government-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to design a carbine for years, too had failed.
Following extended prevarication, the tortuous process to acquire these replacements finally began 13 years ago, with the MoD issuing a global tender for 44,618 CQB carbines in 2008. But this process was summarily terminated soon after, due to the IA’s ‘overreach’ in determining the carbines QRs with regard to their add-ons like thermal-designated laser sights.
A follow-on RfP was issued in December 2010 for an equal number of weapons. After extended trials, lasting an incredible three years, this contract too was jeopardised over a small, screw-like safety feature installed by one of the shortlisted carbines to render the sights ‘eye safe’ for the user when employed in low-intensity mode, to prevent retina damage.
A three-member senior IA committee failed to resolve the matter, resulting in the entire carbine procurement being called off once more, at a juncture when insurgent incidents in Kashmir were mounting, as were IA casualties.
Subsequently, in March 2018 the MoD issued yet one more RfP, its third in a decade, for 93,895 CQB carbines this time, in which the United Arab Emirates Caracal International’s CAR 816 carbine was shortlisted seven months later for procurement via the MoD’s Fast Track Procedure (FTP), over the rival F60 model fielded by Thales of Australia, following field trials.
Under the FTP route, through which the CAR 816s were to be procured, the $110 million tender was to have been completed within the mandated 12-14 months or by August 2019. But 13 months later, in September 2020, the MoD opted to ditch the deal for unknown reasons, and is believed to have still not formally terminated the deal.
“Processing the carbine purchase via the FTP indicated the urgency of the buy, but that had bafflingly been blocked,” said a senior army officer. It’s simply incomprehensible, he added, declining to be named, as he was not authorised to comment on procurements.
Senior army officers said the absence of carbines has become critical in recent years, as the force was increasingly being deployed on counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir, where Pakistan has stepped up militant infiltration into the restive region ahead of winter. The army is also deployed against China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, where the lack of a carbine is reportedly being felt.
Presently, the Army is employing assault rifles as a substitute for carbines, which many infantrymen claim reduces operational efficiency. Compared to assault rifles, the smaller-sized, relatively lighter carbines, are easier to deploy in close-quarter battle situations, similar to the ones that prevail in counter-insurgency operations
Carbines have relatively shorter barrels, and unlike assault rifles, have a lesser ricochet when employed in confined spaces. Fired at relatively close range, carbines are even capable of penetrating body armour and headgear and, army officials said, would prove more efficacious under the new rules of engagement along the LAC that were revised following the death of 20 Indian soldiers after a clash with the PLA in Ladakh’s Galwan region in mid-June 2020. The amended RoE now give local army commanders along LAC the ‘freedom to initiate adequate and proportionate responses to any hostile acts by the PLA’, in which CQB carbines would prove highly effective, army sources said.
Perhaps, this time round the MoD and IA will up their glacial procurement pace and finally plug the crucial yawning operational gap soldiers face by acquiring the CQB carbines.