On Tuesday, in a signal of army chief General Dalbir Singh's determination to arm his soldiers with a 'Made in India' rifle, his infantry chief visited an Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) facility near Kolkata that is fabricating a batch of 200 Excalibur rifles. The army will formally trial-evaluate these later this year.
With Gen Dalbir Singh throwing his weight behind the Excalibur, the army has begun informal trials on the prototype rifles, to eliminate any chance of failing the formal trials when they are held. So rigorous are the army's trials that four of the world's best rifles - Italian company Beretta's ARX-160; the American Colt Combat Rifle; Israel Weapon Industries ACE-1, and the Czech Republic's CA-805 BREN - failed to pass a three-year-long evaluation.
On his visit to the Rifle Factory, Ishapore (RFI) on Tuesday, Lieutenant General Sanjay Kulkarni, the infantry director general, put the prototype Excalibur through the "water" and "mud" tests, in which the rifle is fired after being fully immersed in those substances. The Excalibur handily passed these tests, which all four foreign rifles had failed to clear.
Kulkarni is also learned to have suggested certain ergonomic changes, which would make the Excalibur more comfortable for jawans to carry and fire.
The Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) has confirmed to Business Standard that the army has pulled out all stops to institutionally oversee the project, something that the navy has often done, but is unprecedented for the army. A number of army shooters are stationed at Ishapore where they carry out extensive test firing daily.
If the Excalibur performs well in trials, the OFB will mass-produce it to equip more than half the army's 12 lakh soldiers. With the Excalibur priced at about Rs 60,000 each, 6 lakh rifles would cost about Rs 3,000 crore, half the cost of equipping the army with foreign rifles.
The OFB says the Excalibur would not need a new production line. It will be built on the INSAS production line that is still active, building the older rifle for central armed police forces (CAPFs) and paramilitary forces (PMFs).
However it is prestige, not economics, which has made the army chief throw his weight behind the Excalibur. American infantrymen carry the US-made M-16 rifle as their basic weapon; Russians carry the Russian AK-74M; and China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) has indigenously built its new QBZ-95 rifle. Now the Indian Army is gearing up to equip its jawans with the Excalibur.
This will require the Excalibur to overcome the negative legacy of its predecessor, the INSAS (an acronym for Indian Small Arms System). The army has criticised the INSAS rifle, complaining that its components fracture under difficult field conditions, its barrel gets deformed, and its modern, see-through magazine (made of polycarbonate material) frequently develops cracks.
Another complaint arose when the INSAS was used in counter-militancy operations in Kashmir and the northeast. The army complained that the lighter, 5.56 mm INSAS was not killing militants, as the 7.62 mm AK-47 rifle was with its heavier bullet. In fact, the army had itself demanded a 5.56 mm INSAS rifle, in line with a NATO philosophy that wounding an enemy soldier was better than killing him, since that tied down additional soldiers in evacuating the casualty.
Furthermore, the Excalibur incorporates a "direct gas-tapping angle", which reduces its recoil, or the "jump" when it is fired. The rifle has a foldable butt for easy carriage, and a modern "Picatinny rail" on the barrel - a standardized bracket for mounting telescopic sights, night vision sights, laser aiming modules, bipods or bayonets.
Kulkarni followed up his Tuesday visit to Ishapore with a visit on Wednesday to the Armament R&D Establishment (ARDE) in Pune, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) laboratory that has developed the Excalibur, as also the INSAS.
Tushar Tripathi, the OFB's Director, Weapons, says the Excalibur fires in two settings: either single shot or automatic, in which bullets stream out of the rifle for as long as the trigger is pressed and there is ammunition in the magazine. This abandons the INSAS' feature of a "three-round burst", which complicated the design.
The OFB is also providing holographic and laser sights with the Excalibur for firing at night. Bharat Electronics Ltd is currently developing these.
With the rifle tender already scrapped, the army is also scuttling the procurement of a carbine. This tender, floated in 2010, asked for 44,618 close quarter battle (CQB) carbines, with another 1,20,000 being built by OFB. However, after three years of trials that concluded in 2013, the army controversially ruled that only the Israeli carbine met its requirements, leading to protests from other vendors.
Now OFB has been asked to manufacture 100 carbines, to the design evolved by ARDE, for trials later this year.