NEW DELHI: The Army is getting ready to dump its indigenous INSAS rifles, which have suffered from glitches since their induction in 1994-95, in favour of new-generation assault rifles with interchangeable barrels for conventional warfare and counter-insurgency operations.
The humble foot-soldiers, often forgotten in the race to buy tanks, submarines and fighters, are also slated to get new close-quarter battle (CBQ) carbines, light machine guns (LMGs), specialized sniper rifles and anti-material "bunker-bursting" rifles.
However, Army chief General Bikram Singh has identified the acquisition of the new assault rifles for the 356 infantry battalions and some other "fighting and support arms" in the 1.13-million force as a "Priority-I" project, say sources.
Defence minister AK Antony told Rajya the Sabha on Wednesday that the project to replace the 5.56mm INSAS rifles was underway since "technological development has created more superior rifles over the years".
Sources say five foreign firms — Colt, Beretta, Sig Sauer, Ceska and Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) — are in the running to partner the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) in bagging the huge project that would eventually cost over Rs 10,000 crore.
Under it, initially 65,000 rifles will be bought directly from the selected foreign vendor, for an estimated Rs 4,850 crore, to equip the 120 infantry battalions deployed on the western and eastern fronts.
The OFB will subsequently produce over 113,000 rifles after getting transfer of technology (ToT) from the vendor. The project could become even bigger if the eight-lakh-strong paramilitary forces also induct these rifles.
"Technical evaluation of bids submitted by the five firms is over. The field evaluation trials will begin in early-2013. The plan is to begin inducting the new rifles by mid-2014," said a source.
The new rifles, weighing around 3.5-kg, will come with two barrels, apart from night-vision devices, laser designators, detachable under-barrel grenade launchers and the like.
The primary 5.56x45mm barrel will be for conventional warfare. The secondary 7.62x39mm one will be used for counter-insurgency operations due to "their higher rate of fire".
INSAS (Indian small arms system) rifles, weighing over 4.25-kg and with an effective range of just 450-metre, had replaced the earlier cumbersome 7.62mm self-loading rifles but they too have now become virtually obsolete. The Army had also been forced to import one lakh AK-47s, apart from using the ones seized in encounters, for counter-insurgency operations in J&K and the north-east.
The other procurement project already underway involves an initial purchase of 44,000 CQB carbines for around Rs 3,200 crore, with subsequent production of another 1,20,000 by OFB under ToT. "User trials of Beretta, Colt, Sig Sauer and IWI carbines are over now. The induction should begin by early-2014," said the source.
The process for LMGs and bipod sniper rifles will also kick off soon. The Army wants over 16,000 7.62x51mm LMGs and 3,500 sniper rifles, both with an effective 1-km range, for its infantry battalions to begin with. "The aim is to get light-weight weapons with more lethality and range," added the source.