The million-plus Indian Army was forced to prune down its requirement for 800,000 rifles, estimated to cost about Rs 15,000 crores, to less than a third of it. The Indian Army has 450,000 infantry troopers. This reminds me of China’s People’s Liberation Army, which when fighting the Americans in Korea back in the 1950s sent in ranks of infantrymen one behind the other with only the lead soldier armed with a rifle. No sooner he fell, the man behind him would pick up the rifle and continue the fight. Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, who was a distinguished infantryman with the British Army before he became a somewhat less distinguished Viceroy of India, once wrote: “Let us be clear about three facts: First, all battles and all wars are won, in the end, by the infantryman. Second, the infantryman always bears the brunt; his casualties are heavier, he suffers greater extremes of discomfort and fatigue than the other combat arms. Third, the art of the infantryman is less stereotyped, and far harder to acquire in modern war, than that of any other arm.” In the 1953 bestseller Battle Cry by Leon Uris, a Marine recruit is punished for the transgression of calling a rifle a gun by being asked to do rounds of the drilling ground, naked and chanting: “This is my rifle, this is my gun. This is for fighting, this is for fun!” In military parlance, a gun can be anything that fires a projectile. A howitzer (which fires shells at high trajectories) is a gun, as is a cannon. The rifle is a specific weapon used by a soldier. It is a gun fired from shoulder level with a long spirally grooved barrel intended to make a bullet spin and thereby have greater accuracy over a long distance. It is what a soldier mostly uses to do his work. Stalin famously said: “The only real power comes out of a long rifle.”
I have always suspected that the lowly rifle doesn’t get the priority it deserves because big-ticket items for war are far more “sexy” and the attendant benefits that go with them. They also make very good parade ground and military show displays. When I was a young boy I used to be enthralled by the low swoop of the Hawker Hunters over the Secunderabad Parade Maidan as I am of the SU-30 MKI now doing a Vertical Charlie over Rajpath. But the rifle is what our soldiery lives and dies by. Our soldiers are mostly drawn from our rural areas, call it a coincidence, and hence the lethality of an infantryman seems low among our priorities. The development of the light automatic rifle was the consequence to a well-known post-World War II study of the pattern of usage of infantry weapons by US infantrymen in combat by Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall, a prominent American military analyst. Gen. Marshall’s study revealed that most infantrymen actually used their weapons very little, preferring to take cover most of the time and firing occasionally. The study also revealed that the infantrymen most likely to fire their weapons were those closest to a soldier firing a Browning automatic rifle. This was because when the BAR man fired, he was able to literally hose down a wide arc in front of him. When he did this the opposing infantry lay low and infantrymen by his side were able to rise from behind their chosen cover and fire their weapons. Quite clearly, this itself suggested a need for greater deployment of automatic weapons, if you had to get more fighting out of soldiers. The legendary American Gen. Douglas MacArthur typically put it into context when he said: “Whoever said the pen is mightier than the sword obviously never encountered automatic weapons.”
The Americans were first off the mark with their M-14 7.62mm automatic rifle, and most others soon followed. But we in India missed this switch completely. While we were expending our defence rupees on Hunters and Mystere jet fighters and even on an aircraft-carrier, the Chinese went in for better equipment and gear for its men on the ground. Thus, when the 1962 war was upon us, the poor foot soldier with .303 Lee Enfield single shot rifles and in flimsy clothing was left to deal with the Chinese juggernaut of foot soldiers equipped with automatic rifles and burp guns. Given the pattern of recent defence spending, it seems our strategists once again seem to have reverted to the old habit of spending all on the big and extravagant and least likely to be used, than on arms for the foot soldier who in the ultimate analysis, even today, still wins or loses battles for his country. Thus while debates have raged and money obviously made on the purchases of SU-30 and Rafale jets, 155mm self-propelled guns, nuclear submarines and aircraft-carriers, little thought was given to the foot soldier and his weapon.
The change in thinking, as far as rifles are concerned, was as a result of three observations. First was due to the fact that since the 7.62 mm round needed a bigger explosive charge to propel it at the desired 900 metres per second, the recoil as a result of this in automatic fire mode made the weapon virtually uncontrollable. Not only was the soldier unable to aim properly, but also quite often the recoil caused serious injuries. The second observation was that the infantryman did not need a marksman’s weapon firing accurately up to 800 metres. Statistical analysis by the US Army of rifle engagements in World War II and Korean and Vietnam wars revealed that 90 per cent of them were at a range of less than 300 metres and 70 per cent at 200 metres or less. Therefore, the emphasis on long-range accuracy of 300-800 metres was somewhat redundant. Since most engagements were at close quarters, it also suggested a weapon that could be fired from either the shoulder or hip.
The third observation related to wound ballistics. Studies commissioned by the US Army revealed that a smaller round or a slower round caused more damaging wounds. Ever since the US Army introduced the Eugene Stoner-designed M-16, a 5.56 mm calibre automatic rifle, in the later stages of the Vietnam War, the 5.56 weapon has been the Nato standard. The Russian AK-47 assault rifle, while a 7.62 mm calibre weapon, fires a lighter round at a lower muzzle velocity of 710 metres per second. The consequent drawback is its limited range, as at over 200 metres the AK-47 rounds begin to drop. Since the recoil is minimal, it makes it an extremely manageable weapon with the wound ballistic characteristics and ergonomic advantages of the 5.56 mm rifle. However, we decided to develop an automatic rifle of our own, the Insas 5.56 (Insas standing for a very grandiloquent Indian National Small Arms System). The Insas was not only very late in coming but came with serious performance drawbacks, particularly in cold conditions. The Indian Army’s performance quality requirements have typically been unrealistic and have hindered the development of an effective basic combat rifle. Among PQRs was a requirement that it should also be capable of being swung by its barrel like a club when the ammunition runs out! What we got was a rifle whose receiver and pistol grip are that of the Russian Kalashnikov; the butt, gas regulator and flash hider from the Belgian FN FAL; fore-end from the US Armalite AR-15; and cocking handle from the German Heckler and Koch!...