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Can the Govt's Latest Effort to Acquire Crucial Carbines Pay Off After Multiple Failed Attempts?

The defence ministry came out with its latest 'request for proposal' on November 29. Industry experts say it could take two to three years to ink a deal while forces continue to struggle with operational inefficiency.

Chandigarh: The Ministry of Defence has invited responses by February 21, 2023, from 20-odd local vendors to its ‘restricted’ request for proposal to supply 4,25,213 close quarter battle carbines to the Indian Army and the Indian Navy, worth an estimated Rs 3,500 crore.

The request for proposal requires the 5.56x45mm carbines, of which 418,455 units are for the Indian Army and 6,758 for the Indian Navy, to incorporate 60% of indigenous design and content into them, under the ‘Buy Indian’ category of the Defence Procurement Procedure-2020, under which the tender is being executed.

According to the November 29 request for proposal, the overall order will eventually be split between the two lowest bidders – or L1 and L2 – with one of them producing 2,55,128 carbines and the other the remaining 1,70,085. However, in the event of the L2 or second lowest bidder failing to meet the cost and terms and conditions of the L1 vendor, the entire lot of CQB carbines would be supplied by the latter, L1. But the initial bids, the request for proposal declared, would need to be submitted by each vendor for the entire quantity of 4,52,213 carbines.

Industry officials said all rival potential vendors would be permitted to enter into collaborative ventures with overseas carbine manufacturers but would need to declare their respective tie-ups whilst submitting their bids to the MoD in response to the request for proposal.

The request for proposal follows the September 23 request for information, also to local manufacturers for the planned procurement of carbines weighing 3-3.3kg with an effective range of not less than 200m and capable of a cyclic rate of firing 600 rounds of locally made ammunition, per minute. The request for information comebacks had facilitated ‘fine-tuning’ the request for proposal, as it had taken many vendor responses into consideration before its issuance last week.

Also read: Indian Army Attempts, Once Again, to Acquire Crucial Close Quarter Battle Carbines

The 95-page request for proposal further requires the prospective carbines to score nine hits out of 10 shots fired from a fixed mount at a target 100m distant. Firing one full magazine in short bursts of two or three rounds, also to a 100m range, would need to register a 60% hit rate, the request for proposal stated. The carbine would also be fitted with an open sight with a 50-200m range and a detachable, 120mm long bayonet.

Mounted with MIL-STD1913 Picatinny Rails to accommodate sights and other accessories, the carbines with a fixed butt would need to be no more than 650mm in length and capable of being employed in temperatures varying between minus 20 degrees and plus 45 degrees Celsius. Furthermore, they would be required to be stored in variable temperatures of minus 51 and plus 71 degrees Celsius and in conditions of 90% humidity at 30 degrees Celsius.

Alongside, the selected vendor (or vendors) would be required to train Indian Army and IN personnel in operating and maintaining the carbines, in addition to furnishing overall product support for them for at least 15 years, the request for proposal stated. All competing carbines would undergo technical, maintainability evaluation and user trials, and their delivery to the two forces would commence within eight months of the contract being signed and concluded 90 months later.

Industry officials said the principal indigenous vendors furnished with the request for proposal included Adani Defence and Aerospace, which had a tie-up with Israel Weapon Industries (IWI), Bharat Forge/Kalyani Strategic Systems which has a collaborative agreement with Thales Australia and  Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), which recently concluded a technology sharing arrangement with Italy’s Beretta.

Jindal Defence and Aerospace entered into a joint venture with Brazil’s Tausus Armas in 2020 to make assorted small arms, SSS Defence and ICOMM entered into a partnership agreement in October 2022 with Caracal International of the United Arab Emirates, were some of the other request for proposal recipients.

Ironically, Caracal was shortlisted in late 2018 to supply the Indian Army 93,895 of its CAR 816 CQB carbines for around $110 million via the fast track procedure (FTP) in response to the MoD’s tender earlier that same year, after it emerged as L1 or the lowest bidder over its rival model fielded by Thales Australia after both weapon systems qualified in trials.

Caracal’s CAR816.

Under the FTP,  this carbine procurement was to have been completed within the mandated 12-14 months period, or by August 2019. But 13 months later, in September 2020, the MoD opted to ditch the deal for unknown reasons and only recently is believed to have formally terminated the deal for the CAR 816 CQB carbines.

Lack of operational urgency

Alarmingly, the army has been operating without a carbine for over two decades after the licensed production of its legacy 9mm 1A1/2 sub-machine guns, local versions of the L2A3 Sterling guns dating back to World War-II by the erstwhile Ordnance Factory Board, had ceased. Periodic attempts to acquire CQB carbines 2008 onwards had come to naught, plagued as they were by procedural and operational hurdles by both the Indian Army’s Infantry Directorate and the MoD.

In many instances the former was culpable for framing over ambitious qualitative requirements, or specifications, for the proposed carbines; the latter was enmeshed in complex bureaucratic entanglements, which led ultimately to scrapping numerous tenders and re-issuing requests for proposal, only to once again terminate them yet again.

“The complete lack of operational urgency in acquiring CQB carbines by the Indian Army has been responsible for this grave lapse that continues to persist,” said a senior defence industry official involved in the carbine purchase. Besides, issuing the carbine request for proposal, he cautioned, was just one of the numerous steps in their procurement as it would be succeeded by at least eight supplementary intricate processes before the tender was eventually clinched. It could take two to three years to conclude, he warned, declining to be named for fear of MoD reprisals.

Also read: Army Once Again Revives Plans to Procure Close-Quarter Battle Carbines

These additional procedures included technical evaluation of bids and extended field trials under varied environmental conditions at high altitudes, in desert terrain, coastal areas and on the northern plains. Staff appraisal of trial reports, possible technical oversight assessments and benchmarking of carbine prices would follow.

The commercial offers would then be opened and negotiations opened with the two lowest bidders which, in turn, had the potential to further complicate the entire process, as multiple financial considerations and delivery schedules would need to be navigated. Finally, financial approval for the CQB carbine buy from the Cabinet Committee on Security or CCS headed by the Prime Minister would be needed before the deal was inked. Eight months later, the Indian Army and the Indian Navy would begin receiving the carbines, which industry officials estimate would be sometime around 2026 or thereabouts, and deliveries would only be completed around 2031-32.

Senior army officers said the absence of carbines had become a critical operational gap in recent years, as the force continues to be deployed on counter-insurgency operations (COIN) in Jammu and Kashmir, where Pakistan has stepped up militant infiltration into the restive region. The army is also actively deployed against China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh since May 2020, where the lack of a carbine is reportedly being felt.

Presently, the army employs 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 use in close quarter battle situations, similar to the ones that prevail in COIN 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 protective headgear and, army officials said would prove more efficacious under the new rules of engagement or RoE 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, should it become necessary despite previous bilateral confidence-building protocols, 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. Provided, of course, they are made available.