India invests big on security at army camps, but equipment acquisition process should be expedited

A spate of terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, including last week's attack on the Sunjuwan army camp in Jammu, appears to have jolted the defence ministry out of its slumber. The ministry approved a Rs 1,487 fund to boost security and fortify its bases, to plug the gaps and and protect them from terror attacks.

Some media outlets have said approval from the ministry came even before the attack on the Sunjuwan camp, but that's unlikely given that such news gets flashed forthwith. For instance, after the terrorist attack on the Patahnkot air base in January 2016, the defence ministry had appointed a committee headed by lieutenant general Phillip Campose, the then vice chief of army staff, to review the security set-up at the military bases and suggest ways of improving it.

The committee found gaping holes in the security set up at many installations, and submitted its report to the then defence minister in May 2016, which should have been given top priority. On 18 September, 2016, terrorists attacked an army post in Uri, and 17 army personnel were killed and 19 others were injured.

It took yet another terror attack, this time at the Sunjuwan army camp in Jammu on 10 February, for the Rs 1,487 crore fund to finally be released. It's likely that in the immediate aftermath of the Sunjuwan attack, the defence minister and prime minister were briefed about the security issue, following which the funds were sanctioned. In case the attack hadn't taken place, it's possible that the funds to strengthen "perimeter security" may not have been sanctioned for another few months.

According to media reports, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on 13 February, 2018, has also accorded "initial approval" for procurement of 7.4 lakh new assault rifles and 16,500 light machine guns (LMGs), collectively worth an estimated Rs 15,934 crore.

Representational image. Facebook/ Indian Defence Club

Representational image. Facebook/ Indian Defence Club

However, it needs to be pointed out that what has been approved is the acceptance of necessity (AON) to the proposals. The army, navy and the air force require 43,732 new LMGs. The initial acquisition of 16,500 will meet the operational requirements of troops deployed on the borders with Pakistan and China. Media reports quoting MoD sources also say that a concurrent proposal is "being processed" for the remaining LMGs under the 'Buy and Make (Indian)' categorisation through a tie-up between an Indian vendor and a foreign armament company.

The 7.4 lakh 7.62 x 51mm assault rifles for all three services are to be made under the 'Buy and Make (Indian)' categorisation, through both the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and private companies at an estimated cost of Rs 12,280 crore. Significantly, the army had projected for new assault rifles and CQB carbines 12 years ago to replace the 5.56mm INSAS rifles, which face multiple faults, and the obsolete 9mm carbines. The shortfall in the overall requirement of 3.76 lakh 5.56 x 45mm CQB carbines are to be made under the Make in India project "at a later stage", as per MoD sources.

In addition, the DAC has also approved the procurement of 5,719 sniper rifles for the army and air force at an estimated cost of Rs 982 crore from the global market under the 'Buy Global' categorisation, the ammunition for which will be initially procured and subsequently manufactured in India. The new 8.6mm sniper rifles, with an effective kill range of 1,200m, will replace the vintage 7.62mm Dragunov sniper rifles with 800m range that were acquired from Russia in 1990.

For the procurement of 16,500 LMGs, the DAC has approved the fast track procedure (FTP) to be acquired from the global market at a cost of Rs 1,819 crore, to ensure the project is wrapped up within a year. This appears to be highly ambitious considering that FTP will require floating of request for proposal globally, processing the responses, extensive trials, selections, etc.

And besides, procurement of small arms in the past has been nixed because of single vendor situations despite global tenders having been floated. No government wants to go ahead in a single vendor situation — despite mounting deficiency and obsolescence of weapons held by the forces —over fears of Opposition's allegations. What is meant by wrapping up of the project within one year is unclear, but the defence minister will need a magic wand if these 16,500 LMGs are indeed in the hands of the forces within one year.

It's also ironic that while DAC has approved the procurement of 16,500 LMGs on FTP for acquisition from the global market, as also of 5,719 sniper rifles under the 'Buy Global' categorisation, it has not considered the same for the new 7.62x51 mm assault rifles. This is a failure to appreciate that modern assault rifles are equally, if not more, essential for infantry soldiers considering that the number of LMGs are limited in infantry, where by and large troops carry assault rifles.

It should have procured at least part of the 7.4 lakh inventory of 7.62x51 mm assault rifles (ideally about 2-3 lakh) through FTP from the global market under 'Buy Global', and make up the balance requirement through 'Make in India' instead of getting the entire requirement from 'Buy and Make (Indian)' categorisation, through both the OFB and the private industry, which will take a considerable number of years.

This has presumably been done to bring in OFB from the back door despite its pathetic record in not meeting the small arms requirement of the forces; in spite of being in existence since 1908, brought under the DRDO in 1958, and currently employing some 1,64,000 personnel.

The public may get the impression that woes of the infantry are over with these announcements, but only the LMGs may materialise in a year or so. The new assault rifles could take another 8-10 years going by past experience, while the follow up process includes issuing of request for proposal (RFP), formal tenders for technical and commercial bids, in-house technical studies, selection of developing agencies (DAs) to develop prototypes, extensive field trials, production and fielding.

If the hiccups in procurement of small arms is any indication, red-tape and allegations by those who have not been selected as DAs and the constituency that works to keep the forces under-equipped, will mean it's anybody's guess about when will these weapons be used on the ground.

How many defence ministers change during this time period isn't something that can be predicted. But the minister in charge will have to really press the system to ensure the projects fructify in 5-6 years. It's ironic that the project for making up the void of 3.76 lakh 5.56 x 45mm CQB carbines is still being waived off as "at a later stage".

There is need for a holistic review of equipping infantry soldiers and going in for packaged provisions, not piecemeal. The need is not only small arms but a look into the whole gamut of surveillance (both day and night), communications, protection and survivability. The Rs 1,487 crore to boost security of army camps does include night vision, radars etc but does not cover all infantry.

Besides, the 10 months given to complete the security of army camps may be difficult considering the acquisition process. The ammunition for the sniper rifles to be imported is planned to be imported initially and subsequently manufactured in India. Strict quality assurance will be needed for such indigenous ammunition, considering that the silent Uzi carbines imported a decade and a half ago with initial imports of ammunition, didn't remain silent once indigenous ammunition was used.

The defence minister has certainly given a push to the arming of soldiers at the frontline, and to fill the voids in perimeter security of the army camps. The need is to pressure the system to complete these projects expeditiously.

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Updated Date: Feb 15, 2018 12:00:10 IST

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