By Alok Kumar Gupta and Honey Raj*
India has been endeavoring to move faster towards self-reliance in the field of defence production. This would also help India to mark its presence in global supply chain of international arms market. Thus, India has rightly articulated the meaning of its ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ as “Make in India for the World.” India seems to be well on track to its avowed ambitions.
Accordingly, it its quest for Self-reliance in the defence sector, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) has given its final approval to set up a manufacturing facility to produce over six lakhs AK-203 assault rifles in India. The deal was finalized ahead of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s two days visit to India on December 6 and 7, 2021. It also ensured the inaugural 2+2 ministerial dialogue.
During the visit and the said ministerial dialogue the deal was sealed, with following advantages:
- This deal has brought an end to India’s hunt for a reliable Assault rifle;
- It will not only procure the weapons but would also lead to its production in India.
- It would replace the ageing Indigenous INSAS Rifles.
- The manufacturing and acquisition of AK-203 rifles will strengthen the operational effectiveness of the Indian Army in rough terrains.
The Project is a joint venture of Indo-Russian Rifles Private Ltd (IRRPL), the erstwhile OFB (now Advanced Weapon and Equipment India Limited (AWEIL), Munitions India Limited (MIL) of India, and Rosoboronexport (RoE) and Kalashnikov concern of Russia.
Acquisition of AK-203—The Bottlenecks:
India has been facing number of bottlenecks towards transition from INSAS to AK-203 assault rifles. There were two major issues along the path to its acquisition:
- Concerns over the caliber of the new rifle and its pricing;
- Snail pace of decision-making on the part of the government.
INSAS Assault Rifles—’Weapons of Choice’ for Indian Army:
INSAS rifles were developed by the Defence Research and Development Organizations (DRDO) in 1998. DRDA’s Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE) developed it and was manufactured by the state-run Ordnance Factory Board (OFB). It was inducted as the Indian military’s standard-issue assault rifle. The INSAS rifle is being used in all branches of the military and paramilitary forces. However, its unreliability, inefficiency, and low quality of components such as magazines have hindered the armed forces operational capabilities.
The INSAS was first used in the Kargil war in 1998. This war was fought in the high altitude of the Himalayas. Here, the following inherent weakness of the rifle became obvious:
- The rifle was getting jammed after a period of usage, this put the lives of Indian soldiers at risk;
- Because of the cold weather the polymer plastic magazine was getting cracked;
- There was a problem of oil being spread in the eyes of the operator;
- The rifle sometimes went automatic of its own thereby emptying the magazine.
These issues were later fixed, and a modified version called ‘Excalibur’ was invented. This rifle went through several tests like firing the rifle after submerging in water and mud for half an hour, a user reliability test, and checking the number of stoppages after firing 24,000 rounds. The ‘Excalibur’ seemed to have passed all the tests with flying colors.
Indian government, however declared in June 2017 that the ‘Excalibur’ failed the test due to concerns related to quality issues and ineffectiveness of the firepower. The Indian Army too rejected the indigenous 5.56 mm ‘Excalibur’ rifle having failed to meet the required firepower as demanded by the ground forces. It was believed that the 5.56 mm ‘Excalibur’ rifle would replace the INSAS rifle, but the major shortcomings compelled the forces to reject it.
The New Approach:
After years of trials and errors of the indigenous INSAS rifle, the Indian government in 2018 finally decided to move ahead with a new approach. The plan was to start the process by importing a new batch of weapons and then absorbing the technology to indigenously produce them. The process would satisfy the armed forces immediate demands and give a boost to domestic manufacturing and production under the ‘Make in India’ program.
Zeroing-in on AK-203:
India and Russia signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) for AK-203 rifles in February 2019. Subsequently, the IRRPL was set up. The Ministry of Defence already floated a request for a proposal to the joint venture for the supply of 6.71 lakh rifles but the final deal has been held up due to the high pricing of each rifle. The price of each imported rifle was expected to be around US$ 1,100 including the cost of the transfer of technology and setting-up of the manufacturing facility. Further, the difference emerged between the two countries due to royalties being asked by Russia which was approx. US$ 200 per rifle or US$ 130 million for nearly 650,000 units to be produced in India.
However, after years of hectic negotiations, the two countries have finally agreed on the pricing of each rifle and the royalties to be paid to the Russian government. The Army Chief Gen. M.M. Naravane had stated in January 2021 that “Negotiations are at an advanced stage” and all the issues and the differences have been sorted out. According to the reports, the expected cost of each rifle would be around Rs.70,000 or US$ 962 and Rs. 6,000 (US$ 82.5) would be paid to Russia as royalty for the licensed production of the AK-203 rifles.
Salient Features of AK-203:
The basic minimum when it comes to equipping armed forces with assault rifles as one is familiar with is the AK-47. It’s the most recognized assault rifle in the world. The variance of the Kalashnikov rifle has been the mainstay of the Indian armed forces for decades. With the indigenous INSAS rifles being deemed unfit by the Indian government as well as the Indian Army, and AK-47 bowing out of the service in a phased manner, the question remains which weapon is going to replace them? Perhaps, India’s quest for a lethal, reliable, and accurate assault rifle is AK-203. The AK-203 has been designed and developed in Russia by Kalashnikov Concern.
- The INSAS rifles have a calibre of 5.56×45 mm which is inadequate for stopping power. On the other hand, AK-203 has a calibre of 7.62 ×39 mm which can cause the death of the enemy with a single bullet.
- The INSAS weighs 4.15 kg without magazines which makes it difficult to carry on account of being a heavy load for the defence forces. The AK-203 is comparatively lighter and weighs 3.8 kg with empty magazines.
- The AK-203 has double the firing range up to 800 meters as compared to the INSAS rifles of only 400 meters.
- The firing rate of AK-203 and INSAS rifles are nearly equal to 700 & 600-650 rounds per minute respectively.
- The important thing about the AK-203 rifle is that it can function in all weather and never gets jammed.
- The AK-203 rifle is fitted with night vision devices or long-sightedness devices which makes it easier to locate and annihilate the enemy.
Russia is a time-tested friend of India. The Defence ties between the two have been the bedrock of bilateral relationship for decades. Despite all odds, India’s relation with Russia has been strengthening. The AK-203 assault rifle deal has added another feather to the longstanding relationship. The new defence deal has several strategic implications for both countries. The AK-203 deal has been a significant part of the Indian government to shed off its slow and inefficient procurement history.
Modernizing the defence forces is another major objective of the deal. Technology-transfer as major ingredient of defence procurement deals is becoming strong hallmark of Indian arms procurements. This is surely in line with an objective towards crystallizing India’s quest of becoming self-reliant (Atmanirbhar). The indigenous production will create employment, economic activities, generating revenues, and would facilitate arms export in future.
On the other hand, Putin’s short visit to India has signaled to the world and especially China that despite rapid turmoil in international affairs, India-Russia bilateral relationship is constant and deeply bonded. The bonhomie and trust between Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin will continue to make this strategic partnership increasingly robust. There may be divergences between India and Russia on some issues, but the convergence will always be bigger and will have ‘divergence mitigating’ capacity.
*Honey Raj is a Research Scholar at Department of Politics and International Relations, Central University of Jharkhand, Ranchi.