New Delhi: Of India’s three armed services, the Indian Navy (IN), is undoubtedly the most efficient in its timely procurement of assorted defensive and offensive weaponry and systems to counter critical proliferating enemy threats, like the armed mini-drone attack on the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Jammu, late last month.
Anticipating threats to its surface platforms and shore installations from similar drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) the Indian Navy had, in timeliness ordered Israeli SMASH 2000 Plus computerised fire control and electro-optic sight systems in December 2020, to augment the accuracy of rifles against small invading unmanned aircraft systems or UAS.
The tender with Israel’s Smart Shooter, for an undisclosed number of these systems – each costing around Rs 10 lakh – was signed following around six months of negotiations, a record time frame in India’s defence procurement procedure that normally takes years to conclude.
The delivery of the SMASH 2000 systems, which integrate target acquisition and tracking algorithms with image processing software, to pinpoint and hit their objective at ranges of up to 120m, began earlier this year, and is continuing. Initially, the systems would be installed on Kalashnikov Ak-47 assault rifles that are currently in the Indian Navy service, only to be transferred later onto licence-built Ak-203 rifles expected to eventually replace them.
“The Indian Navy had anticipated the incipient danger from armed drones and undertook timely procurement of systems in advance to be able to neutralise them, when needed,” said a senior Ministry of Defence (MoD) official. Surprisingly, negotiations between Smart Shooter and the Indian Army (IA) for SMASH 2000 systems were ongoing despite it periodically facing direct danger from weaponised drones, quadcopters and even UAVs, the official said, declining to be named.
The SMASH anti-drone systems are not the Indian Navy’s sole acquisition to have been executed swiftly in comparison to interminable delays in the Indian Army procurements to meet urgent operational requirements. MoD officials who have dealt with all three services over years, said that the Indian Navy had the most ‘practical, pragmatic, result-oriented and least adversarial approach to equipment acquisitions and problem resolving’. It was also the least hierarchical and more relaxed in its dealings with the ministry, guided entirely by its objectives.
In 2016, for instance, the Indian Navy had acquired 177 sniper rifles, completing the entire import process in under 24 months. In stark contrast, the Indian Army had initiated its demand for similar rifles in 2009; but over years it had floated, scrapped and then re-issued several tenders for them without concluding the purchase till now.
Delayed weapons procurement process
Presently, the Indian Army’s critical sniper rifle procurement, intended to replace the Soviet-era Dragonov SVD model that first entered Army service in the mid-1980s, has been further postponed after the rifles were placed on the MoD’s proscribed list of 209 military platforms, equipment and related systems, which are to be progressively sourced indigenously.
But in the interim, in what has become routine practice of executing ‘intermediate’ equipment purchases, the Indian Army inducted 24 .338 Scorpio TGT sniper rifles from Victrix Armaments of Italy and M95 rifles from Baretta of the US in February 2019. This followed sustained sniping by the Pakistan Army across the Line of control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir, which continues and remains a persistent danger and threat.
In enviable deviation from Army’s behaviour with regard to materiel acquisitions, the Indian Navy displayed quiet and dogged efficiency in technically evaluating, testing and eventually, in late 2016, acquiring 177 Sako TIKKA T3 TAC 7.62x51mm bolt action sniper rifles, selected over UK’s Steel Core Designs Thunderbolt SC-76 model, for its Marine Commando Special Forces (SF). The overall $2.98 million contract also included 100,000 rounds of 7.62x51mm match grade ammunition.
The Indian Navy’s detailed timeline in summarily finalising this purchase too is revealing.
Its request for proposal (RFP), or tender, for these rifles was issued in early 2014, followed by user trials at a firing range in New Delhi’s outskirts in late 2015. Beretta was shortlisted around March that year and price negotiations launched thereafter, which concluded successfully a few weeks later.
“Once again, the Indian Navy’s sniper rifle buy was a conscious and pre-emptive procurement for rapidly emerging threats locally and overseas, following the force’s increased anti-piracy deployments in the Gulf of Aden and off India’s eastern and western seaboards,” said the MoD official, cited above. It had prudently anticipated the need for these essential weapon systems well in time and rapidly obtained them, he added.
The Indian Army’s bid, on the other hand, to acquire sniper rifles, needed more urgently on the LoC, is riddled with incompetence. In 2009 it floated a tender for around 1,100 sniper rifles under the fast track procedure (FTP) which mandates a 12-month long deadline to conclude procurements. Incredulously, the RFP failed in mandating accuracy standards at a minimum 800m range and absurdly required the rifles to be fitted with a bayonet.
It was totally incomprehensible to the handful of vendors to determine why the rifle, purposed for employment at a distance of over 800m, needed a bayonet that is normally used by infantry soldiers in close combat. The unclear RFP also failed to differentiate between a bolt action or semi-automatic sniper rifle model – a critical QR (qualitative requirement) determinant for sniper rifles.
Expectedly, the RFP was cancelled after at least one round of trial firings in the respective vendors’ countries including Israel and a tender re-issued in September 2018 for 5,719 sniper rifles and 10.2 million rounds. This too was scrapped ten months later, in July 2019, after four leading overseas rival vendors failed to meet the Indian Army’s unrealistic qualitative requirements (QRs) and delivery schedules.
This RFP required one of four shortlisted original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of sniper rifles from amongst PT Pindad (Indonesia), Rosonboronexport (Russia), Barrett and MSA Global (USA), to transfer technology for the .339 Lapua Magnum ammunition to India’s state-owned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and indigenous private sector companies to locally manufacture an additional 4.6 million rounds.
Industry officials at the time said it was ‘commercially unviable by all and any standards’, for any manufacturer of such specialised ammunition to transfer technology for merely 4.6 million rounds. The proposed delivery schedule for the 5,719 rifles, which were being acquired under the ‘Buy and Make’ category of the MoD’s defence procurement procedure, 2016, too posed logistic problems. It required the shortlisted OEM to deliver the first lot of 707 rifles within six months of the contract being signed, and the remaining 4,472 supplied in batches of 1,200 units each over the next 30 months.
“No sniper rifle manufacturer produces such large numbers in the time stipulated in the RFP,” said a senior official from one of the OEM’s competing for the tender. The Indian Army fails to realise that such expert weaponry is not mass produced on an industrial scale, he added, declining to be named. Of the intended 5,719 rifles, 5,507 were for the Indian Army’s special forces and the remaining 212 for the Indian Air Force’s Garud Commando force.
Official sources told The Wire that the ‘amplified’ sniper rifle ammunition QRs and impractical delivery targets were of a piece with numerous other Indian Army RFPs that had been routinely criticised by successive parliamentary defence committees, as impracticable. The April 2012 Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, for example, revealed that as many as 41 of the Indian Army’s tenders for diverse equipment had been withdrawn or terminated due to ‘implausible’ QRs.
Former defence minister Manohar Parrikar too endorsed this proclivity on the Indian military’s part in 2016, when he stated that its QRs for equipment and platforms appeared to be straight out of “Marvel comic books”. Many of the technologies demanded and conditions stipulated for varied equipment were “absurd and unrealistic,” the late defence minister had stated.
Indian Navy’s utilitarian approach
“The Indian Navy’s approach to platform, equipment and assorted systems procurement is practical, pragmatic and realistic,” said Amit Cowshish, former MoD advisor on acquisitions. They do not have an adversarial and hierarchical approach to procurements and are interested only in securing their goals within existing financial and administrative realities, he added.
The Indian Navy had also taken the lead in introducing the concept of military platform and equipment leasing that is increasingly finding favour now with both the Army and the Air Force.
It leased the 5,000-tonne Project 670A Skat (Charlie-I) – class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) INS Chakra – from Russia for three years till 1991, when such concepts were not even a concept in the country’s military. Thereafter, it once more leased the more advanced Project 971 ‘Akula’(Schuka-B) – class SSN for ten years in 2012, which too was called Chakra. This boat returned to Russia in June, some ten months before its deadline expired, because of recurring maintenance problems. Chakra will now be replaced in 2025 with a more advanced Russian SSN of the same class, following yet another lease concluded in March 2019 for $3 billion via an inter-governmental agreement or IGA. Indian Navy sources said the new SSN is also likely to be named Chakra.
And during the end of 2020, the Indian Navy leased two non-weaponised General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) Sea Guardian medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs from the US to monitor the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), once more ushering in a new and utilitarian concept of equipment induction by India’s military. Leased initially for a year, the UAVs were delivered to INS Rajali in Tamil Nadu, 77 km west of Chennai, and were the first piece of military equipment to be thus hired under the new provisions incorporated in the Defence Acquisition Procedure-2020 (DAP-2020) within weeks of its release last September.
Thereafter, the face-off in Ladakh with China’s People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, prompted the Indian Army to lease four Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron UAVs in February under ‘emergency powers’ granted by the Union government to the military last summer after the Himalayan showdown erupted. Industry sources further said the three-year lease period for these UAVs could be extended by another 24 months.
The Indian Navy was also first off the mark in issuing a request for information (RFI) in April 2021 regarding its planned lease of 24 twin-engine utility helicopters and related ground support equipment (GSE) for five years to implement assorted tasks, aiming to meet critical rotorcraft shortages for deployment on frontline warships.
The immediate and practical reason behind this move was the continual postponement by the MoD of the 2017 programme to indigenously source 111 twin-engine Naval Utility Helicopters (NUHs) to replace the legacy licence-built Chetak (Aerospatiale Alouette III) that were indicted into service in the 1960s.
Consequently, the Indian Air Force has followed suit by opening talks with France to lease one Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft for training purposes. The planned lease of the aircraft, which would be operated by the Indian Air Force, but maintained by the French Air Force, is likely to be succeeded by India leasing five additional A330 MRTTs to augment the reach and combat capability of its combat aircraft fleet.
In conclusion, the Indian Navy had, over the years, successfully ‘customised’ its procurement procedures to meet its capital and revenue needs and relatively optimised its operational efficiency. “The Indian Navy’s mantra is to pragmatically and expediently come to terms with the MoD’s complex procurement procedures, whilst simultaneously remaining focused on its objectives,” said Cowshish. It appears to operationalise its experience at sea to navigate even the MoD’s choppy waters, he added.
Perhaps, the Army and the Air Force could look beyond themselves and try and emulate the Navy’s successes, despite its shrinking annual outlay.