Ditching the Excalibur and every other indigenous armament project

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.)

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, corruption, Culture, Defence Industry, domestic politics, DRDO, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian democracy, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Indian Politics, Israel, Military Acquisitions, Russia, SAARC, society, South Asia, United States, US., Vietnam, Weapons, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Ditching the Excalibur and every other indigenous armament project

  1. Dr Karnad, if I may: While your entire thesis is correct, there are a couple of minor issues. The Excalibur is 5.56 x 45mm and is in service with the Manipur Police and other State Police Forces. I have at least 1 photo of the Excalibur on issue to Ghatak platoons before replaced by M4s and Tavors. 15 weapons modified on user feedback are sitting there awaiting the infantry directorate to collect them for certification trials. The weapon is fine. DRDO came up with a weapon with interchangeable barrels and of decent quality but IA rejects. Now rumour of 7.62 x 51mm. If the army is serious about this, Manohar Parrikar should say – “Fine – take an Ishapore SLR and start modifying it or take the DRDO rifle and convert it to 7.62 x 51 or the Ghatak 7.62 x 39 and convert it. No imports”. The latter weapon, rejected by the IA has been accepted by the CAPFs. Given that the performance requirements are the same, why did the IA reject ? Sounds fishy. Note something else, one of the complaints about the INSAS was that it didn’t fare too well in Siachen. Tell me, we’ve all seen photos of INSAS in use in Siachen but ever notice that the imported “superior” M4 and Tavor never see service up there ?

  2. andy says:

    In 2015 RM.Parrkar during the India Today conclave slammed the armed forces propensity for drawing up over reaching GSQR saying they were absurd and unrealistic and seemed to be sourced from Marvel comic books!

    In Sept 2015 it was reported that COAS General Suhag was fully supporting the Excalibur project as it was in line with GOIs Make in India.On Sept 1 2015 Suhag along with his DGI Lt.General Kulkarni personally conducted the Mud and Water test on the rifle which it reportedly cleared,both the officers suggested some ergonomic changes to render the rifle more user friendly.

    In April 2016 Suhag chaired an Army Commanders Conference where he reportedly asked the Commander’s to give feedback on how to fix the issues regarding the rifle including the change in caliber from the current 5.56mm.

    In the meantime following report emerged from Pakistan stating that the Pak Army was going to procure a new 7.62 caliber rifle.

    From the above narrative it is amply clear that the Excalibur rifle couldn’t be faulted on technical grounds and also that RM was hell bent on inducting an Indian rifle.So what could the Army brass do to make it languish? Simple ,Change the GSQR once again, this time by raising the bogey of Pakistani procurement of a higher caliber rifle,whence the Indian army would be at a disadvantage in a combat situation against enemy soldiers carrying a higher caliber gun,which reason should be scary enough for the civilian types.

    End result:’ foreign ka maal’ in the soldiers hands and ‘ foreign ka maal’ in the top brass pockets!

  3. andy says:

    As the following report on the failed winter trials of the Arjun MBT shows ,these Shylock’s will stoop to any level to get their pound of flesh,

  4. Maverick says:

    These rotten corrupted people will bleed our country till it is finished.Most of us know whats happening ,after all it is so obvious. Why can’t anything be done to fix this?

  5. KP says:

    Sometimes foreign “maal” has to be bought to get foreign support for some International Issue. Sometimes it may be to hide our human rights records. I remember the day Baba Ramdev was caned in Delhi, the then RM (Pranabda) cleared a $4 Billion deal for US Transport Aircraft. Therefore there may be a bigger issue at hand and our partners abroad need to be kept happy too.

  6. Well, I agree that India should buy only Ecxalibur Rifle and Arjun Tank.DRDO is also capable of making Artillery Guns.India can a gun comparable to M-777 by importing technology and materials from USA.That is what Baba Kalyani is doing.If India decides to Junk M777 and develop its own artillery gun, then America is not a blood sucking parasite which will jack up the cost of Imported materials and components!!!!!


    India can make an artillery gun comparable to M777 but HAL is right now developing a Light Utility Helicopter.

    M777 should be junked but Kamov should also be junked!!!!

    • Absolutely agree. HAL has the light utility helo and the LCH. And the military should be told: that’s it for imports.

      • Shaurya says:

        The Kalyani light gun has not even been tested. The ATAGS (12 ton) has just been fired. Need superior fire power in the mountains now!! LUH not ready by a long shot, Chetak/Cheetah are at beyond obsolescence levels. Need replacement for them now and cannot wait for LUH to evolve. Enough space for 2 R&O category choppers. When ATAGS and Kalyani light guns are ready, there is enough space for them too. So, both M777 and Kamov are urgent requirements that could not have been fulfilled through indigenous programs in the time frames these systems are needed.

      • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

        @veerpratap — I disagree. You are just trying to draw a fake equal-equal picture.

        Kamov is a necessity and M-777 is a luxury. Kamov comes from friends M-777 comes from enemies.

        What will you do with M-777. Will you heli lift the shells, crew, charges, WLR Swati, BFSR, DG sets and much needed fuel too? We have had to buy Chinooks only because we bought M-777. Tomorrow they will ask us to fight like Americans too. This all started in the Army with the bloody ensemble and in the civilian life with the mobile phone. If some idiot cannot get over his love for his mobile and his branded jeans then such an idiot cannot be allowed to dictate the future of 128 Crore people. Aise aadmi ka alag ilaaj hona maangta.

        If the Indian Armed forces could move tanks and BMPs to the finger area in Sikkim then they can bloody well move ATAGS and Dhanush. M-777 is not needed, or rather ‘needed’ only because of a few compromised idiots.

  7. Shaurya@ – Sorry, don’t buy this argument. These are the usual sorts of excuses I have heard in the highest circles of the armed services and MOD, rolled out by the military which the politician-bureaucrat use to justify imports. LUH, LCH, the Kalyani light gun, etc are all stuck at the fine tuning-testing-certification stage and would be speeded up immeasurably, if imports are banned. Further, a pvt sector company investing its own resources in developing a piece of mil hardware cannot be faulted for going slow if there’s no assured market for it.

  8. andy says:

    Almost 70% of the weapon systems developed by DRDO have been rejected by Indian armed forces.Isnt it intriguing that DRDO projects such as the Agni series intermediate range ballistic missiles (which are banned from the international export market) have been extremely successful, while others such as tanks, aircraft, helicopters and short range missiles (all of which are readily available in the international arms bazaar) are rejected by the defence forces for not being up to scratch?

    But then how can any weapons platform attain world class standards if it is not accepted by the military, if the designers do not get feedback, if the engineers and scientists are demoralised? The first generation of any weapon will have faults because weapons are tested in extreme environments. To repeatedly fail them at the first sign of trouble points to sabotage. We need affordable and rugged weapons that can be produced in large numbers incountry and easily replaced during wartime,not weapons that can be sanctioned by foreign countries during times of war ,if the war is not in line with the supplier countries Geo political aims.No foreign country should be capable of holding India’s national interest to ransom in such a manner.The sad part is ,our armed forces are allowing this by not taking pride in indigenous efforts and preferring foreign weapons over Indian.

    Instead of laying out fantastic ASQRs, then watching from the sidelines and ultimately gleefully rejecting indigenous efforts, wouldn’t it be better that the armed forces took these efforts under their wings and worked in tandem with DRDO to create and incrementally refine the weapon systems to world class levels?We have a precedent in the Navy which has built up some meaningful indigenous capacity in ship design.

    And think about it. If India can send a successful interplanetary probe to Mars, discover water on the Moon, build nuclear powered submarines and develop supersonic missiles such as the BrahMos, then the rejection of the home made rifle,which is not a hi-tech system like say a nuclear submarine, is clearly suspicious.

  9. andy says:

    If the Army doesn’t want Excalibur because of its 5.56 caliber round then let them have the 7.62 caliber Tirchy assault rifle(an AK47 clone)designed by the Ordnance Factory Tiruchirapalli in 2012 ,its designed to fire 800 rounds per minute but this led to jamming which can be easily rectified by reducing the fire rate to 650 rounds per minute.

  10. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    @Andy, I too had relied on my net experience to rank the Indian Navy higher than other branches. And in a general organizational manner they are – for example they had made available their ships for testing indigenous items very early on when all others were resisting the same products. Besides it seems like Indian Navy was also sought to be penetrated to a very deep level, which may have been averted. But seems like even the Indian Navy is not completely immune to influence.

    But ‘influence’ aside, even w.r.t. the other capabilities like getting involved in designing/guiding the development of their own weapons system has only progressed till float category primarily and some esoteric aspects of sonars. Nothing much in fight and move category. It is understandable that they take help for the CATOBAR but even till date we are importing engines for our ships. It is understandable that the Naval SAMs be longer ranged but there are a lot of smaller ships which are going to remain a permanent fixture. The Akash could have been remedied for deployment on these smalller ships but is not.

    Major General Mrinal Suman has written quite a bit in open source about matters of discipline and then there are ex-kinds who will themselves expose their intentions so we can know quite a bit from open source itself. But a lot needs to be questioned too. Why for example there were a sharp increase in the cases of accidents around 13-14. Why not today or prior to that. Bad luck could be an explanation but it would be somewhat un-professional to proffer bad luck as a reason. Pressure could be another, and operational pressure was discernible during that period but they could and should have cried foul when they were denied batteries. Instead the only news leaked during that period was about Mig-29K – where again it was exposed that the dependency on western sources was the reason. Why for example were the Ka-28 allowed to rot? And how is a certain Ex-Air Marshal contributing to helicopter purchases by Indian Navy? What domain knowledge does this Ex-Air Marshal bring to the table for the American company to hire him?

  11. andy says:

    ~!@#$%^&*()_+ @
    Underline the words “some meaningful capacity” and you will probably get the gist of what I was getting at.As for relying on ‘ net experience’ for rating anything, well it’s partially true but a Retired Lt.General on my wife’s side of the family and an ex Indian Navy Captain from my own family are my real world sources with whom I’ve had long and enlightening conversations related to their own branch of the Indian military.To be sure the Navy is not above board as you pointed out but still it’s better than the army or the air force which is the worst of the lot.

  12. Maverick says:

    The Army, unlike the Navy, does not take ownership of weapons development projects, so it has failed to build a formal (or even informal) cadre of engineers with experience in weapons R&D. So what usually happens is that specs are written by officers who have little expertise in these things. These people write what are jokingly referred to as “best of brochure” specs. They look at glossy brochures printed by arms vendors, and use their figures (figures that are often exaggerated/unrealistic except in the most ideal of conditions) to define unreasonable performance criteria. It happened with the artillery tender, with the assault rifle tender, and it will keep happening until they take the approach of the Navy and establish an R&D office of their own.

  13. Tama Shah says:

    Just a thought, since I know nothing of the “business” side of these things:
    If the Indian military do not want to use a made-in-India weapon that has proven its worth in all tests and trials, can such weapons be exported? After all, a lot of time and money is invested into the development of these weapons. You have spoken a lot (and, as far as I can understand, absolutely correctly) about exporting Brahmos. Can’t we do the same with other indigenously developed military products?

    • Have been advocating for the last 30-odd years (in my writings and books, including my latest one) the export of all manner of Indian-produced military goods, and not the Brahmos alone combined with military training, as a means of forging strong pol-mil links with countries in the IO littoral, Africa, Southeast Asia, and even Latin America.

  14. Venkat says:

    I would not like to question the competence of professionals to choose the caliber of the gun.
    1. The Army commanders need to explain to the Parliament why this flip flip on the most basic war machine. Beyond that 5.56 mm rifle has been developed after as per their requirements . In any other country Parliament would demote the whole bunch.
    2. it is a national shame if we have to import now.
    3. DRDO spent a decade trying to improve 5.56 mm rifle, got a good version called excaliber. Then specs are changed. After some time press will blame “DRDO is developing this gun since 1200 AD etc etc”

  15. Nilesh Salunke says:

    It is high time the Prime Minister steps in forcefully and makes it clear to the army…Indian rifle or none . It is confusing and demoralizing for a aspiring nation that we cannot have a Indian rifle inducted in our army ….Foreigner’s get a handle to say India’s space and other high technology claims of indegenization are a suspect if they cannot manufacture a relatively proven engineering product – Assault rifle . Mr. Prime minister if you are reading this then please know a adage – ENGINEERS DON’T MAKE MISTAKES …..THEY MAKE REVISIONS .

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