A parliamentary panel recently wondered why India has not been able to produce a world-class automatic rifle but it appears that an advanced version of this has already been developed but is yet to see action as it is tangled in bureaucratic red tape.
Parliament's standing committee on defence, in a report tabled in the winter session last month, said it was "shocking that even 53 years of expertise has not enabled DRDO to develop a world class basic product like a rifle".
However, a advanced, deadlier version of the 5.56 mm INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) rifle, which has a greater kill capacity, has already been developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) but has not been inducted by the Indian Army as there are no official records of a demand being made for it, an official explained.
"When the INSAS rifle was initially designed, the army wanted rifles with a lower kill capability. Based on that demand the 5.56 mm rifle was designed," a DRDO official told IANS, speaking on condition of anonymity.
INSAS is a family of infantry weapons consisting of an assault rifle, a light machine gun and a carbine - all the same calibre.
The official said the first demand for a smaller calibre rifle came in 1982, when the army wanted to replace the 7.62 mm SLR (self-loading rifle) that had been in use for over 30 years.
The army, said the official, then wanted a rifle that would de-capacitate a solider instead of killing him.
"A low killing capacity made sense because in war, if you kill a soldier you have deactivated only one person. But if a solider is injured, at least two other soldiers will come to his aid and thus three of the enemy will be deactivated," the official said.
The DRDO developed the first prototype of the rifle in 1986. It was much lighter at 4.2 kg than the 7.62 mm SLR that weighed 5.7 kg, had a shorter barrel and could fire a three-bullet burst at a time compared to just one by the SLR.
The rifle was inducted into service in the mid-1990s after replacing the 7.62 mm SLR.
The rifle was used in the Kargil war but was prone to malfunctioning in the cold Himalayan conditions, getting jammed and its polymer magazine cracking.
As the army started getting involved in close combat with terrorists and the requirement changed to guns with a higher kill capacity, the official said, the army sought an update around three years ago.
"With the army now being involved in face-to-face fighting with terrorists, who are generally armed with AK-47 rifles, a high kill capacity is needed. The army asked DRDO to design a rifle to kill, and the enthusiastic scientists went on to modify the INSAS," the official said.
He explained that the longer barrel would give the bullet higher speed and greater power of impact.
"However, by the time the product was ready, and we approached the army around the end of 2013, we were told no such requisition was officially given," the official said.
The official also defended the INSAS, claiming that the problems encountered during the Kargil war were manufacturing issues - but agreed that the rifle is now outdated and upgrades are needed.
"The problems that came up during the Kargil war were quality related, and for that the ordnance factory (manufacturing it) is responsible. However the fact remains that the INSAS technology is now very old and upgradation is needed," he said.
However, the upgrades of the INSAS, or a new rifle can happen only if army asks for it.
"DRDO is working on other small calibre weapons, but a new rifle can be designed only when the army asks for it".
Another DRDO scientist cited lack of working in close collaboration as the reason for the shortcomings in the delivery.
"Between the time when we get a request and the time the product is ready after initial testing, the requirements change. If the army and DRDO work together, and we are updated about the change in requirements, the product can be simultaneously upgraded," the official told IANS.
"For example India is now almost self-sufficient in radars because the navy and DRDO worked very closely on it," he added.
Another DRDO official, meanwhile, added that other weapons and weapons system are being worked on, including a Joint Venture Protective Carbine (JVPC) or Modern Sub-Machine Carbine (MSMC) user trials of which are now underway.
Another rifle under production is a Multi-Calibre Individual Weapon System (MCIWS) with three 5.56 mm, 6.8mm and 7.62 mm barrels.
"A multi calibre weapon is also being worked on, which will have three barrels that can be changed within minutes, giving soldiers wider options," said the official. This rifle is expected to be ready for in-house trials by DRDO in another six-eight months.
(Anjali Ojha can be contacted at email@example.com)