Chandigarh: The Indian Army has, startlingly, been operating without a carbine, a fundamental infantry weapon for close quarter battle (CQB), since the mid-1980s, despite its continuing deployment on counter-insurgency (COIN) operations.
Repeated ineffectual attempts by the army since 2008 to procure a replacement for the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB)-licence built 9mm Sterling 1A1 sub-machine gun variant dating back to 1944 had all failed, pushing its overall requirement for CQB carbines to over 4,50,000 units.
Presently, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which is eagerly approving innumerable materiel imports to counter the People’s Liberation Army threat on the Ladakh border, is vacillating over a $110 million Fast Track Procurement (FTP) order for 93,895 5.56x45mm carbines from Caracal of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
In accordance with the MoD’s Defence Procurement Procedure-2016 (DPP-2016), the carbine contract was mandated to have been signed and the weapons delivered within 17 months, or by August 2019, following the request for proposal (RfP) or tender, for the weapon system in March 2018. .
But over a year later, the decision to either confirm or terminate the contract for the badly-needed and interminably-delayed carbines continues to swirl uncertainly around MoD and Army Headquarters corridors in South Block, even as COIN responsibilities intensify in Kashmir and elsewhere. Senior army officers told The Wire that the cost of the carbine contract was ‘paltry’ and ‘affordable’, considering the vast amounts the federal government was currently spending in procuring assorted defence equipment, munitions and high altitude kits, amongst other ordnance.
Caracal’s CAR.816 CQB carbine was shortlisted in October 2018 over the rival F90 model fielded by Thales of Australia, following testing by army teams in the two respective countries. Thereafter, both carbines underwent trials at the Rajputana Rifles Regimental Centre in Delhi Cantonment, firing OFB-made ammunition.
Later, the CAR861, weighing 3.3 kg with a 7.5 inch-long barrel and effective firing range of 500 m, priced at $1,150 per carbine emerged as L1 or lowest bidder; the competing F90 was costed at around $1,250 per unit, industry sources said.
“The continuing lack of a carbine for decades has adversely affected the army’s operational efficiency in COIN operations,” said a two-star officer serving with the Rashtriya Rifles in Kashmir. It is scandalous that despite repeated attempts to acquire one none has been forthcoming, he lamented, declining to be identified.
Compared to assault rifles, the smaller sized, relatively lighter-weight carbines – averaging around 3.5 kg each – are easier to deploy in close-quarter ‘search and destroy’ situations, where space is restricted. Carbine barrels are comparatively shorter in length, and unlike assault rifles the former have a lesser ricochet when employed inside confined spots. Fired at relatively close range, carbines are even capable of penetrating protective body armour and headgear. The preferred weapon for tank crews too is the carbine.
However, it took the army nearly 23 years after retiring the WW2 Sterling machine-gun to issue a global RfP in 2008 to around 40 manufacturers for 44,618 CQB carbines. But after the MoD’s Technical Evaluation Committee, comprising mostly service officers, appraised responses from around five vendors from Europe, Israel and the US, the tender was summarily terminated as the army’s qualitative requirements (QRs) for the carbine proved simply unworkable.
This was because the QRs encompassed the inclusion of advanced night and thermal-designated laser sights for fitment onto the carbines, an add-on to which the vendors strongly objected on the grounds that these were two separate requirements which were being clubbed being together as one. The tender’s absurdity was further accentuated when it emerged that the proposed sights were three or four times the carbines cost.
Consequently, all prospective carbine suppliers collectively declared that they would be not be accountable for the sights, as these would be variously supplied by other manufacturers. The MoD was forced to accept their concerns and summarily terminated the tender, instead of implementing the necessary changes and proceeding with the long pending carbine buy.
“The QR’s framed by the army’s Infantry Directorate were impracticable and simply unworkable,” said one of the five prospective carbine suppliers. They also displayed the army’s internal systemic inadequacies, laborious procedures and lack of clarity in formulating realistic equipment QRs, he added.
Two years later, the MoD issued yet another RfP in December 2010 for an equal number of carbines, as well as 33.6 million rounds of 5.56mm ammunition. Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) with its ACE carbine and Italy’s Beretta, with its ARX-160 model were shortlisted after trials lasting an incredible three years, till 2014. Industry officials at the time expressed amazement at the extended trials conducted at Leh, Rajasthan, the Infantry School and Centre at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh, Bakloh cantonment, near Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh and at Hoshairpur in Punjab.
More implausible delays followed.
The MoD’s Directorate General of Quality Assurance (DGQA), staffed largely by army officers, curiously objected to a special safety feature installed on Beretta’s basic reflex sights, falling off during a rigorous ‘bump’ test to check the weapon systems ability to withstand varying degrees of juddering.
Industry sources said this feature – a small, screw-like fixture – had been specially incorporated by Beretta to render the sights ‘eye safe’ for the user when employed in low-intensity mode to prevent retina damage. Beretta claimed its inclusion was merely a safety ‘force multiplier’ for soldiers handling the sights, but intransigent DGQA officials dismissed all clarifications and abruptly rejected the ARX-160.
This elimination left just IWI’s ACE carbine in the running for the tender, creating a ‘single vendor’ situation which the MoD normally eschews, preferring two or more suppliers for most tenders to obviate any wrongdoing. Unwittingly or deliberately, the DGQA had further deferred by several years the army’s urgent operational purchase at a critical juncture.
Subsequently, in mid-2015, the MoD set up a three-member committee of three-star army officers to evaluate the CQB carbine selection process, but their recommendations too were rejected, and the entire procurement was called off one more time in September 2016. In the meantime, the pressing need for a carbine mounted, as insurgent incidents in semi-urban areas of southern Kashmir were proliferating, as were soldier casualties.
Eventually, in March 2018, the MoD issued an RfP, its third in a decade for 93,895 CQB carbines, or 4,659 units more than the number tendered for earlier, but via the express FTP route authorised for completion in 17 months. Caracal’s CAR816 was selected six months later, but procurement still awaits closure.
Despairingly, the saga continued.
In January 2019, the MoD invited responses from domestic companies to its earlier October 2017 supplementary request for information (RfI) to supply all three services – but mostly the army – 360,000 5.56x45mm CQB carbines.
No tender has been issued since.
Meanwhile, the small arms profile of India’s Central Para Military Forces (CMPF) has quietly emerged as one superior to the army’s over the past decade. And though the number of carbines – and assault rifles – procured by the paramilitaries are fewer, there is a procedural lesson for the army in the relative swiftness with which the former had tendered for these weapon systems and evaluated, tested, acquired and inducted them into service in short time spans.
Since 2010-11, for instance, the Border Security Force (BSF) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRFP) have acquired some 34,377 ‘Storm’ MX-4 sub-machine guns from Italy’s Beretta with under grenade barrel launchers (UBGLs) and around 68,000 Kalashnikov Ak-47 variant assault rifles from Bulgaria’s state-owned Arsenal. Other CMPF buys include 2,540 Tavor X-95 carbines from IWI and over 12, 000 9mm MP-5 sub-machine guns from Germany’s Heckler & Koch, some of which have been further disbursed to special state police units deployed on COIN operations against Naxalites.
Ironically, instead of the CMPF emulating the bigger and battle-hardened army in its small arms acquisitions, like previously, the paramilitaries had clearly outpaced the latter in this regard. Senior army officers admitted that this was due largely to the CMPFs ‘less encumbered’ but swifter decision making processes compared to those of the MoD that had revised the Defence Procurement Procedure 11 times since 2002 in an ineffectual effort at improving efficiency.