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Chandigarh: The Indian Army’s decades-long quest for close quarter battle (CQB) carbines, essential to counter-insurgency operations, persists at a juncture when they could well be critical to combating a possible surge in Kashmir’s insurgency, with the advent of Taliban cadres from Afghanistan.
Security and military sources in New Delhi fear that the recent Taliban successes in capturing vast swathes of territory across Afghanistan, following the US military’s withdrawal from the war-ravaged country last month, could adversely impact the Kashmiri insurgency over the coming months.
They say the remaining token American military force in Afghanistan is finally scheduled to depart by September 11. Alongside, most European troops too had already demobilised, with little or no ceremony that was in direct contrast to their heralded arrival two decades ago as part of the US-led force to rid Afghanistan of Al-Qaeda and render it a modern state.
But after achieving limited objectives over two decades, all these militaries are leaving Afghanistan on the brink of civil war and a possible Taliban victory, greatly endangering the region, especially India.
Consequently, senior Indian Army officers and security officials predict the arrival of battle-hardened Taliban fighters in Kashmir in what could be a replay of cataclysmic events which battered the state for years, from mid-1990 onwards.
Recent media reports, quoting security sources, also anticipated mercenary Taliban fighters, alongside other Islamist groups, being ‘diverted’ to Kashmir by Pakistan’s inter-services intelligence directorate, if New Delhi’s normally incendiary ties with Islamabad deteriorated further.
Hence, senior Indian Army officers said it was imperative for the force to be ‘adequately’ equipped in anticipation of such an eventuality, which primarily included inducting CQB carbines for ensuing counter-insurgency missions.
“For most militaries and security forces deployed on counter-insurgency manoeuvres, carbines are essentially their primary weapon of choice,” says Major General A.P. Singh (retired), who served with the Rashtriya Rifles, or RR, at the height of Kashmir’s militancy, till 2000.
Their lightness, shorter barrels, lesser ricochet and overall manoeuvrability, he says, make carbines versatile when employed in confined spaces and for ‘search-and-destroy’ missions.
The significance of CQB carbines
At present, the Indian Army uses modified assault rifles as carbine substitutes, which many infantrymen and Rashtriya Rifles personnel say, have reduced efficiency in close-quarter firefights, according to General Singh. Fired at relatively close range, carbines are even capable of penetrating protective body armour and headgear and are also the preferred weapon for tank crews.
However, for now, the Indian Army has little choice but to continue employing these alternatives, as repeated attempts by the ministry of defence (MoD) to acquire 5.56x45mm CQB carbines over nearly two decades had failed.
The Indian Army has been in want of these carbines since the late 1990s to replace its 9mm 1A1/2 sub-machine guns – local versions of the L2A3 Sterling guns dating back to World War II – which were being licence-built by the Ordnance Factory Board, or OFB, which had discontinued their manufacture long ago.
Following extended prevarication, the tortuous process to acquire these replacements finally began in 2008, with the MoD issuing a global tender for 44,618 CQB carbines. But this process was summarily terminated soon after, due to the Indian Army’s ‘overreach’ in formulating the carbines’ qualitative requirements or specifications with regard to their add-ons, like thermal-designated laser sights.
A follow-on tender ensued in December 2010 for an equal number of carbines, weighing under 3 kg and firing 600 round per minute to a minimum, 200m range. But after extended trials and evaluation processes lasting three years, this procurement too was scrapped over an insignificant technicality, bordering on the absurd in 2013, for which no one was held accountable, even though the shortlisted weapon had met all other operational specifications.
Thereafter, in early 2018 the carbine requirement was re-tendered yet again, but for an enhanced number of 93,895 units, in which the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE’s) Caracal International’s CAR 816 carbine was shortlisted seven months later for procurement via the MoD’s fast track procedure (FTP). In keeping with the Defence Procurement Procedure, all FTP purchases are mandated for completion within 12 months of the acquisition being launched. In this instance, the CAR 816 carbines contract, worth around $110 million, was scheduled for completion, including deliveries, by around August 2019.
No deal was signed, and the acquisition remained in limbo for another 11 months, till September 2020, when senior MoD officers expressed unspecified reservations over confirming the carbine tender and mulled ditching it entirely. This was despite the successful completion of multiple technical and field trial procedures and cost negotiations in which the CAR816 had bested the rival F90 model fielded by Thales of Australia, emerging as L1 or the lowest bidder.
Meanwhile, official sources said that the Indian Army, sensing that the carbine buy was once again headed for termination, continued to press for its swift purchase. The Indian Army’s Capability Development-4 or CD-4 Wing of its directorate general of weapons and equipment, for instance, that oversees all infantry weapon and equipment purchases, reportedly opposed the scrapping of the carbine tender on urgent operational grounds. The Infantry-8, the ‘equipment user’ wing of the directorate general infantry, too cited the Army’s pressing need for carbines for counter-insurgency operations, opposed the scrapping of the carbine tender.
Both these Indian Army wings are believed to have argued that initiating new carbine buys, even via the MoD’s FTP route, would take an additional 16 to 24 months to come to effect which, in turn, would deprive frontline Indian Army and Rashtriya Rifles units of the requisite weapons to efficiently combat the counter-insurgency threat.
The Ministry of Defence too has conceded that the vintage of Indian Army personal weapons like carbines, assault rifles and light machine guns has 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 Press Information Bureau declared in March 2018, in complete opposition to reality. “These weapons are an essential component of a soldier’s fighting equipment and (new ones) will provide a major fillip to the fighting capability of the troops,” the PIB had stated.
Further mystifying matters in the carbine procurement saga, industry sources have told The Wire, was the MoD’s inexplicable decision to prevail upon Caracal – despite having opted to cancel its CAR816 tender last September– to ‘hold’ the price it had quoted in 2018 for its carbines for another six months, till December 2021. Such eventualities are normally effected to potentially keep the tender ‘alive’, pending an eventual decision. However, it remains unclear whether this was a tactical move by the MoD to keep Caracal in ‘play’ for unfathomable reasons, in what is fast emerging as a ‘carbine whodunnit’, or was it simply an instance of bureaucratic prevarication to proceed decisively on an urgent purchase.
In the meantime, the carbine narrative recently took yet another unexpected twist.
In February 2021, the MoD issued a request for information to around 40 domestic and overseas vendors, including Caracal, for the planned procurement of 93,895 CQB carbines, once more, via the FTP route. The underlying catch in this riddle, however, is that no fresh request for proposal or tender can be issued – the mandated follow-on to an request for information – till the earlier one for the same weapon system – in this case Caracal’s CAR816 – was formally annulled.
And, if all this was not mystifying and confusing enough, the MoD has also launched a programme to locally source 360,000 5.56x45mm CQB carbines. In its January 2019 request for information for this purported project, the MoD declared its intent to procure these carbines from joint ventures between domestic vendors and overseas original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), as part of its ‘atmanirbhar’ initiative to indigenously further self-reliance in military equipment.
The request for information stated that it required these carbines with a 200m range to be as ‘light as possible’ and capable of ‘achieving accuracy better than five minutes of angle’. The projected carbines would also be required to comply with specified military or MIL standards and be able to operate across India’s varied terrain and climatic conditions.
Subsequently, in pursuit of this programme, the Indian Army facilitated a ‘firing demonstration’ in recent months for at least three OEM carbine vendors – other than the OFB – at the Infantry School at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh. These included Brazil’s Taurus Armas, which has a collaborative agreement with Jindal Defence to make small arms in Hissar and Israel Weapon Industries or IWI that is in a Gwalior-based joint ventures with Adani Defence and Aerospace and Turkey’s Sarsilmaz.
For the time being, however, senior Indian Army officers await the next chapter in the carbine chronicles, hopeful of a timely and positive outcome, in time to meet their counter-insurgency responsibilities.