NEW DELHI — After canceling a $1 billion 2011 global tender to buy assault rifles, the Indian Army will hold trials of the Indian-made Excalibur assault rifle — but analysts and Army officials said they doubt the rifle will go into production soon.
Defense analyst Rahul Bhonsle, a retired Army brigadier general, said the Ministry of Defence may eventually have to float a fresh tender in the Buy and Make (India) category for the assault rifles.
"At present, indigenous design capability for a next-generation assault rifle has not been demonstrated by the Defence Research and Development Organisation [DRDO]; what is in the pipeline is an improved homegrown Indian Small Arms System [INSAS]," Bhonsle said. "At the same time, the Army's inability to derive viable qualitative requirements [QRs] for the same is also one of the challenges faced by the DRDO. After evolving viable QRs, a Buy and Make in India [weapon] may be a good option."
In 2011, the Indian Army floated a global tender for the purchase of 66,000 assault rifles, which included transfer of technology to the state-owned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB). The tender was canceled in June because none of the competitors could meet the QRs, an MoD official said.
The competitors included Italian company Beretta, US company Cold Defense, Israel's Israel Weapon Industries, Switzerland's SIG Sauer and the Czech Republic's Ceska Zbrojovka.
The rifle would replace the INSAS 5.56mm assault rifles, which the Army has not found satisfactory. The INSAS has been used since the 1990s, though there have been Army complaints of technical failures. One complaint was that the inferior quality rounds had caused a number of guns to jam.
Arun Sahgal, director of The Forum for Strategic Initiative and a retired Army brigadier, said the Excalibur rifle could be pushed on the Indian Army. "As per inputs, this rifle does not meet critical standards but is being pushed by the Infantry Directorate and the hierarchy to cover up the mess they created in producing shoddy QR and an over-ambitious request for proposals."
On the testing of the homemade rifle, Sahgal said, " It appears that Army and OFB are on the same page as far as Excalibur is concerned, but testing agencies such as the Directorate General of Quality Assurance and other certifying agencies are resisting introduction of a sub-standard rifle. There is every likelihood of re-tendering with improved and more down-to-earth QRs, which I am told are being finalized."
But Anil Chait, a retired Army lieutenant general, is optimistic about the Excalibur rifle.
"The Excalibur is a 5.56mm rifle designed by the DRDO, and the prototype produced by the OFB, as reported, is presently undergoing testing," Chait said. "If found suitable in all respects, it has every prospect of becoming the next rifle for the Indian armed forces."
An Army official said the Excalibur is only a retrofitted version of the INSAS assault rifle.
"Assault rifles are to be used mainly in the counterterrorism role and requirements entail short barrel, short range, rapid automatic-burst fire with high reliability," Bhonsle said. "On the other hand, for conventional battles a long-range, accurate, semi-automatic or automatic weapon to ensure fire discipline with a higher lethality over ranges of 400 to 500 meters is necessary. Optical or night sights are also envisaged. Post-2011 tender, there appears to be a view in the Army after trials that the concept of having a single weapon for both roles is not feasible."