India’s Small Arms Inventory: Requires Upgradation and Standardization

By Ritika Behal

The existing inventory of Small Arms clearly reflects our inability to develop an indigenous next generation of small arms successor of all variants. Rather than depending on Govt agencies in design and development and production, we need to adapt PPP model with our Small Arms manufacturing Factories for current technology, standardization and to cater for the alarming deficiencies.

The current Indian inventory of Small Arms (SA) is estimated approximately 5-6 million; approximately 1.6 million for Defence, 1.3 million for Paramilitary and 1.5 – 2 million for Police Forces, mostly vintage design.

At present, the generic holding pattern of serviceable Small Arms by the Armed Forces comprises of handguns, assault and sniper rifles and machine guns as depicted in the Figure.

Since independence, the Indian Armed and Paramilitary Forces have been juggling with a host of Small Arms.

The assortment of weapons is due to focus on importing rather than indigenous development, staggered purchase cycles and decentralized purchase. Certain mix of weapons is also necessitated by the operational requirements of the weapons.

Thus, the need of the hour is to focus on building these Small Arms in the country itself.

Given the market size of the small arms in the coming years, it definitely provides a lucrative opportunity for the Indian industry to tap upon.

Further, estimations depicts that the total projected requirements for Small Arms for the next 15 years is likely to be around 2 million pieces and estimated to be worth USD 10-12 Billion.

Understandably, the Small Arms have a life of approx. 20 years. And, taking the overall requirement of in hand SAs for the Military and Paramilitary Forces to be approx. 3.0 million, we need a production capability of approximately 1.5 Lakhs per year for the replacement cycle to ensure that our Forces are always equipped with latest technology SAs.

With an annual production capacity of approximately 0.90-1.0 Lakhs Small Arms of all types, the Ordnance Factories are unable to meet even the annual replacement requirement of the military, not counting the other civil requirements including Police Forces.

Estimations depicts that the total projected requirements for Small Arms for the next 15 years is likely to be around 2 million pieces and estimated to be worth USD 10-12 Billion.

Imports leading to non-standardization of Small Arms Inventory

The Indian Defence Service’s the basic weapons inventory of Small Arms is hybrid and of vintage design.

Over the years, small arms in the Indian Armed Forces have been procured from multiple countries including of Russia, USA, Israel, and Germany, amongst others.

This in turn has resulted into a mixed inventory in terms of design. 

Similarly, the weapons are of different caliber, for example there are assault rifles of caliber 5.56 x 45mm, 7.62 x 39mm and 7.62 x 51mm.

Rather, it would not be wrong to say that the present holding is heterogeneous with over 40-42 different types of Small Arms as shown in the below given Table.

Source: Data Compiled by thedefencespace DS from Various Open Sources

Moreover, majority of these have been imported through fast-track procurements owing to the absence of own design and development capability, to meet the current and urgent requirements of the Armed Forces.

These imports not only burden the country as being a costly affair but also as seen have resulted a mixed inventory in terms of design, thereby putting enormous pressure on logistics and continuous imports.

Majority of the small arms have been imported which not only have burdened the country as being a costly affair but also as seen have resulted a mixed inventory in terms of design, thereby putting enormous pressure on logistics and continuous imports.

Issues and Concerns with Current Small Arms Inventory

At present, the main concern in Small Arms segment is on five counts: Vintage Design, Design Capability, Production Capability, Quality & Cost and Heterogeneous/Hybrid Inventory which needs to be addressed immediately, if India is looking out to become self-reliant coupled with having substantial and state-of-the art small arms inventory.

Some of these issues and concerns are discussed in subsequent paragraphs.

  1. Quality Issues – It is necessary to have a technical specifications and uniformity in the products manufactured. Many times the components used are not of good quality or properly tested due to which with the quality issues emerges out of it, for example – jamming of components like the hammer (linked to the trigger) and the breech block; the stoppage of the moving parts of a barrel (over-riding); barrel bulges components were scratched or cracked, poor ejection of cartridge case, Gas leaks; blemishes in the barrel and low rate of firing; damage to various parts like piston extension, breech block, trigger guard etc. have been repeatedly reported by Users. It has been seen that many DRDO and OFB developed Small Arms such as Ghatak assault rifle in the past have failed the Army’s stringent trials.
  1. Cost Factor – Over the years, India has spent billions on the import of Small Arms, despite the fact that in-hose development of small arms would be a more cost-effective affair. Though, DRDO/OFB developed Small Arms met with limited success but then efforts should be taken from Government’s end to involve private sector in manufacturing or improving these. Look at this, the ‘Trichy Assault Rifle’ manufactured by Ordnance Factory Tiruchirappalli and ‘Ghatak’ Rifle manufactured by Rifle Factory Ishapore, West Bengal cost over Rs 50,000 each. On the other hand, the AK-203 will cost Rs 75,000 each.
  1. Standardization – Products with uniform features and technical specification should be introduced in all the services. Indian Defence Forces also need to standardize the SA caliber and ammunition to reduce the overall logistics. The defence and Paramilitary Forces already has a very heterogeneous inventory with Indian security agencies are relying less on domestic production of arms and more on modernization through imports. The products from different foreign manufacturers have nothing in common in terms of ammunition, spares and training for performing similar security roles, thus making the Indian small arms inventory “a bowl of assorted weaponry”. Manufacturing small quantity of ammunition for the assorted inventory may not be cost effective and, hence will have to be imported. Also, it puts enormous pressure on logistics. We need to have interoperability (similar caliber & ammunition) of weapons across the defence and paramilitary forces. Nowadays, there is a new thinking that armies should standardize their assault Rifles and Carbines on a single cartridge for ease of logistic and production issues. However, the current dispensation does not believe this to be a significant issue considering the operational requirements for varied combat scenarios necessitates the forces to equip themselves with different caliber weapons
  1. Hybrid Inventory – Hybrid inventory increases the logistics, wastage, wear and tear of the weapon system without offering any additional advantages. The cost of changing the entire army (sic), training, ammo, spares, and transition would be staggeringly huge, time consuming and waste of resources.
  1. Vintage Design – Majority of the holding of SA with the Armed Forces is basically NATO design and of course most of it are based on 1960-70 design and thus reaching obsolesce

      6. Lack of Indigenous Production Capability – The inventory of small arms clearly reflects our inability to develop an indigenous next generation of small arms successor. The OFB/DPSUs do not have the technology for delivering the next generation of SA and also do not have the capability to produce the huge quantities required for replacement or to make up the deficiencies. Despite in house requirement and assured orders, the design and production agencies have not been able to meet the forces huge requirement, which has resulted in India spending billions of dollars on SA import.

    7. Design Upgradation – Notably, the technology involved in manufacturing of Small Arms is neither critical one nor a rocket science. And, the Indian industry is capable and competent enough to go ahead in manufacturing of Small Arms though of course with partnership with OEMs which are ready for partnership and sharing of technology transfer. Since, they do not have requisite experience in developing a complete system, where they lack.

    8. Qualitative Requirement (QR) Issues – There is no base line QR within the Armed Forces and PMF for items of common use such as small arms. They don’t arrive at standard quality, design or specification which leads to often dropping the project in the mid-way itself.

Production of Ak-203 Assault Rifles – A boost the ‘Make in India’ initiative

After decades of voicing concerns that the induction of a modern assault rifle is an urgent operational necessity, the Government finally narrowed down to Russian manufactured AK-203 (a variant of the Kalashnikov family of AK-100 rifles), as the basic weapon for the vast majority of the Indian Armed Forces.

Earlier on 6th Dec 2021, both the two countries also signed the final agreement for the procurement of AK-203 assault rifles paving way to produce over six lakhs of these small arms. A joint venture company – Indo-Russian Rifles Pvt. Ltd. (IRRPL) was formed which will now soon commence with the manufacturing the rifle in India.

The JV and plans to produce 100% localisation of the production of AK-203 Kalashnikov Assault Rifles in India.

The Ordnance Factory Board at Korwa in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh has been selected as the main JV partner who will manufacture the rifles which will own the controlling stakes of 50.5%, while the Russian partners – Kalashnikov and Rosonboronexport are to own 42% and 7.5% stake respectively.

Noteworthy, the JV has been licensed to produce 6.01 Lakh AK-203 assault rifles chambered for 7.62×39 mm.

About 1 lakh rifles will come directly from Russia and the remaining will be manufactured by the Ordnance factory at Korwa.

These AK-203 rifles will replace the in-service INSAS rifles inducted over three decades back. Each rifle is expected to cost close to Rs 70,000 (USD 962) and Rs 6,000 (USD 82.5) per rifle would be paid to Russia as royalty for licensed production of the AK-203.

This would add up to around Rs 4 Crores (USD 55 Million) for the 5.01 Lakh units to be produced at the Korwa Ordnance Factory.

The manufacturing of the AK-203 rifles in India is expected to boost the ‘Make in India’ initiative in defence manufacturing as it is aimed to achieve 100% indigenization of the rifle as per the project understanding consisting of all raw materials and processing know-how, within a span of 5 years.

Way Ahead

The leverage that producing weapons indigenously offers is well known.

However, despite in-house requirement and assured orders, the design and production agencies have not been able to meet the huge requirement of Small Arms with Military and Paramilitary Forces, which has resulted in India spending billions of dollars on Small Arms import.

Moreover, the Army’s frequent changes in weapons and calibers is another reason for this shortage.

What makes the situation even worse is the fact that the Indian Armed Forces do not have standardized on a single rifle caliber and are now equipped with an assortment of three major calibers and multiple weapons firing them.

Also, the need of the hour is that the Government should come forward and support and incentivize the private sector entrants in the segment.

This is the only way to reduce import burden of such as basic equipment.

In recent years, private companies such as Adani Group which has entered the Small Arms business with the acquisition of a joint venture share of Punj Lyod through a joint venture in which Israeli manufacturer IWI holds a 49% stake of a facility in Gwalior.

Besides, other private companies such as SSS Defence, Kalyani Group, Jindal Group too that have entered the Small Arms arena and are looking for orders.

Also, the Government should stop looking at emergency purchases or FTP cases of Small Arms on the pretext of direct procurement to fill the immediate gap.

Rather, it should encourage private sector to come forward which have proved their mettle in past and allowing them to participate in tenders for Small Arms in future.

Lastly, it can resort to implementation of Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model for Small Arms manufacturing for current technology and to cater for the alarming deficiencies.

This will not only promote indigenization but would also create the much-needed defence industrial base and generate economic spin-offs.

The Government should keep in mind that if the industry is not given a chance, it will only undermine the ‘Make in India initiative’.

The above issues can be overcome only by way of active participation of the private sector.

The technology involved in manufacturing of small arms is neither critical nor a rocket science, however, so far, the government is yet to allow private players to play a strategic and leading role in manufacture of small arms in spite of the Indian private industry’s willingness to invest and play a major role in defence indigenization.

The Government should also emphasize and promote public-private partnership which would not only create the much-needed defence industrial base but also generate economic spin-offs.

And, of course, the necessary security and regulatory provisions can be insisted.