The army brass in 2012 decided they wanted a multi-purpose infantry weapon with interchangeable barrels — 5.56x39mm for conventional warfare and the 7.62x51mm for distant kills. Foreign weapons — CM 901 from Colt (US), VZ 58 from Ceska (Czech Republic), possibly SIG 716 or SIG 543 from Sig Sauer (Switzerland), the Israeli possibly Tavor X-95, and the Baretta ARX 160 from Italy — all came up short.
The Excalibur, indigenously designed & developed by the Armaments Research & Development Establishment, Pune and manufactured by the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB), was the Indian entry in this competition. Sure, ‘Excalibur’ is an odd name for an Indian 7.62mm infantry weapon. May be the Ordnance Factory Board hoped that its client, the Indian army leaders, besotted by foreign goods, wouldn’t notice it was not ex-British and would be entranced by the moniker. (Excalibur is the name of the sword stuck in a rock by Merlin, the wizard, that as the legend goes, attracted the young Arthur to pull it out and be crowned King of England — a feat that others failed at, whence Camelot, etc.) And, in any case, it was hoped by OFB that this name would magically win over the army brass who, alas, have proved they are immune to Excalibur’s allurements and appeal. At their annual conference in April 2016, the army commanders decided, in their wisdom or lack thereof that, no matter what, they were done with the Excalibur option and, in the face of the failure of the interchangeable barrels-based concept, that the service would go in for a foreign 7.62mm product as standard infantry weapon.
This despite the proven performance of the Excalibur in field tests in competition with the above-mentioned foreign weapons. A much improved derivative of the INSAS 5.56mm infantry weapon, the Excalibur can be fired in full automatic mode. It failed only twice in repeated and ceaseless firing of some 24,000-odd rounds, a miniscule failure rate level no foreign weapon was able to achieve. Excalibur also fared better in firing after being submerged for long periods of time in muddy water, etc., in other words it did better than any foreign gun in all-weather battlefield conditions the Indian army jawans are most likely to encounter.
But the army commanders, like other military leadership, apparently has a soft corner for “Western maal”. How else to explain their case in support of foreign weapons of 7.76×51 mm calibre that are able to kill an enemy soldier at 500 metres distance, which requirement controverts the modern-era basic logic of infantry weapon?
The whole point about an effective infantry weapon that seems to be lost on the Indian Army’s top leadership echelon is that it should incapacitate an enemy soldier for life, so that he thereafter becomes a social and economic burden for the enemy state to bear. If an enemy soldier is killed outright, there’s only the relatively minimal expense of disposing off the body and pensioning off the spouse. Then there’s the matter of the demoralizing factor — an enemy soldier with a grievous wound being carried away on a stretcher can psychologically unhinge other enemy troops in the vicinity. And there’s the factor of troopers being pulled from the frontlines to carry their injured comrades, thinning out the forward advancing line. This is the logic of the 5.56 mm item as close-in weapon capable of raking fire and gravely incapacitating an enemy at 100 meters, but not of killing fire.
For sure kills at a distance and for sniper missions, the Indian army has always used the Russian Dragunov SVD — derived from indisputably the finest infantry weapon in existence, the Kalashnikov. Had the US Army in the early 1960s the strategic wit to go for the light weight revolutionary plastic-bodied Armalite AR-15 assault rifle (designed by the legendary Eugene Stoner) in Vietnam, who knows, America might have won that war, and the AR-15 would have run the Kalashnikov close for the soldier’s affection worldwide. The US Army chose the heavier M-16 instead, which made a name for itself chiefly for being discarded at the first instance by American troops in the field, who’d pick up the Kalashnikovs from the Viet Cong guerrillas they killed.
So, tell me again, why are our army commanders keen on an imported 7.62??? Surely, not because they are unaware of the 5.56 logic.
But the army commanders’ collective desire has run smack into the defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s dogged insistence on the Indian military going seriously indigenous. So Excalibur is back in the picture, except the senior flagrank types in the army are trying their damndest to somehow kill off this option. Any indigenous armament has to run an obstacle course in MOD and against the armed services. Indeed, Excalibur’s troubles in many ways mirror the problems the Indian designed Arjun MBT is facing with the armoured combat arm. It has beaten every foreign tank, including the Russian T-90S in every field trial and test, and yet it’s being sidelined, and tanks are being imported from Russia. Parrikar is in the right to oppose the French Rafale and to fully support the Tejas Mk-I and Mk-II options. But where the M-777 light mountain gun is concerned, he has erred by preferring it to an equally capable artillery system available in-country.
Parrikar and the Modi government have to decide for once and for all whether they are serious about propelling forward an Indian armament design and development capability, or whether this is just rhetoric the PM can now again wax eloquent with. If the BJP regime is serious then they should institutionally shut down the import route in all its manifestations, and dismantle the military procurement system that, notwithstanding the DPP-2016 still favours the import option under cover of the “MAKE in India” policy. Make in India should be replaced with “MADE in India” and appropriate reforms rung in. But, who wants that?
Of course, getting rid of armament imports will leave a whole bunch of Generals, Air Marshals, Admirals, and officers downstream in the acquisitions loop crying in their cups — because they will be suddenly denied foreign trips, padded accounts, and scholarships for progeny, rich post-retirement jobs offered by Indian companies fronting for foreign suppliers, etc., which benefits political leaders and senior bureaucrats have availed of from the early days of the republic. But the military is catching up fast on this corruption front! (The eye-popping extent and scale of corruption in the Indian armed forces to match the extant corruption in the civilian quarters of the Indian government, is revealed in Josy Joseph’s book — A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India.)