Quest for rifles
After the debacle with the INSAS since the aftermath of the Kargil War, the need to replace the trouble-ridden standard issue of the Indian Army grew more and more urgent. Multiple proposals came out such as the improved INSAS 1B/C but still didn’t find favor with the armed forces. An idea for a multi caliber weapon grew out of the need to cover the wide variety of roles the Indian Army had to conduct. The army had a vast surplus of 5.56 NATO rounds (from the INSAS), 7.62 Russian (from several AK variants) and they also needed a battle rifle (7.62 NATO) for extended range engagements (especially in the Himalayan terrain) as well so a weapon system that can interchangeably use all three rounds seemed like a perfect idea at that time.
Therefore, a series of trials started in 2011 in the search for a possible multi-caliber rifle contender, with an initial order for 65,000 and a technology transfer to OFB to produce the remaining required orders for the forces (starting with an 100,000 rifles). Multiple competitors responded to the tender, including;
- Baretta Italy [ARX 160/200]
- IWI [Ace1]
- Colt [Combat Rifle]
- CZ [807 Bren]
However, the deal eventually failed to materialize due to multiple factors such as the excessive costs of the rifles as well as a huge inventory of accessories that would need to be interchanged in order to switch between the different calibers (for example, a longer barrel might be used with the 7.62 NATO ammunition in order to engage enemy forces at extended ranges). Multiple tests were conducted with prototypes (none of the multi-caliber rifles were in active service with any army) before it was eventually scrapped in 2015.
Indigenous efforts down the drain
In 2014 however, ARDE (a DRDO laboratory) set out to design its own multi-caliber weapon system termed as the MCIWS (multi-caliber individual weapon system) in order to fulfil the capability gap felt by the Army. However, by the time DRDO was ready with a serial production spec (September 2018), the Indian Army decided on other plans (an emergency purchase of 7.62 NATO SIG 716 Tread-I followed by a joint venture with Russia for the 7.62 x 39mm AK203 as well as a purchase of 5.56 NATO Carbines for counter terrorist operations).
One possible explanation is that the Army realised the old adage “Jack of all trades, but master of none”. Having a single multi-caliber rifle not only made it expensive due to the high cost of additional conversion kits, but the continuous change of systems in the rifle itself will make the rifle not apt for any one situation but instead a compromise for all situations. Having a specialised rifle for each scenario was not only cheaper in the long run but also meant that the Army had the best equipment for each scenario they face.
Paradigm shift in rifle round specifications
DRDO decided that they should adapt to the new circumstances instead of admitting defeat. The new direction that rifles are moving towards is the new 6.8mm round. This is the new round that the US Army wishes to replace their existing M4s with. The benefits are that it is lighter than the 7.62 round but still maintains a relatively impressive kill range and stopping power while creates a larger impact than the 5.56 NATO. The introduction of composite casing also reduces the overall weight of the round, so a soldier can carry a large ammunition load compared to the 7.62 rounds. Therefore, DRDO is now redesigning the MCIWS to just accommodate the 6.8mm caliber.
There is a slight problem with this idea, however. India has already turned the curve over its much-needed weapons procurement. The first lot of 72,000 SIG 716 have already been delivered with another 72,000 on its way. The AK203 is in the final stages of its completion and would start production within the next two years. This is too little time for a brand-new experimental rifle to be tested and fielded.
Desi futuristic rifle
So, the best strategy for DRDO is to think about upgrades to the existing developmental plan in order to create a rifle that could replace the SIG716 and AK203 in about 1 – 2 decades time. The following are a few upgrades that could bring the MCIWS II into the next decade.
Current & Data Railing
(Currently not available with AK203/SIG716.)
Beretta showcased a new picatinny rail system in its ARX 160 rifle that draws current from a battery pack in the buttstock to power sighting systems and other accessories. The benefit of this is that future sighting systems could be lighter as they don’t have to carry their own power systems and so the overall weight of the rifle will decrease.
Data could also be transferred from sensors such as integrated camera to a central system through the railing where the rifle could be patched to display system. This would help the soldier to make indirect shots with high accuracy, useful in situations like CQB where a soldier can see around a corner and take shots without exposing himself. The central computer system of the rifle could also be linked to Wi-Fi/bluetooth, enabling new capabilities such as controlling the gun turret of a UGV or a shot counter that can indicate rounds left on the rifle.
(Some specs available with SIG716, not yet on AK203)
The new AAR needs several modifications over the existing design to make it over the SIG716. An introduction of a free-floating hand guard helps in accuracy as any changes in temperature or pressure to the hand guard does not affect the barrel as there is no additional weight of the hand guard on the barrel. The lengthened rail also allows for more accessories to be attached to the rifle and the positions can be customized for the user’s comfort. Just as seen on the SIG716, since the lengthened flip up sights are as far as from each other as possible, it increases the accuracy when firing without sights as well. M-Lok on the handguards is another improvement that can be done. It already exists on the SIG716 and can be used to attach smaller picatinny rails, so the additional weight of a full railing is removed (negative space railing).
A wide enough handguard can also allow for an integral suppressor which sits inside the barrel and helps to reduce the overall profile of the rifle, especially critical in CQB operations where the operator needs to move through confined spaces. One more design change that can come about is modularity; the ability to change the size of the barrel and hand guard lengths for different types of operations such as switching from a long barrel for sniper roles with a long hand guard to handle larger sniper rifle scopes to smaller barrels for CQB missions.
Universal Grenade Launcher
(Currently not available with AK203/SIG716)
Foreign futuristic rifle attempts
A futuristic rifle planned by the Koreans (K11), Chinese (ZH-05) and the US (XM-25) which used a rangefinder to send data to programmable air burst ammunition did not end up making much impact on an operational level. Both the US and Korean rifles were too expensive, hard to maintain and heavy while the Chinese system seemed more like a propaganda piece than a legitimate system to be inducted into their ground forces.
A more realistic approach will be to introduce a modular grenade launcher to existing rifles that can improve the rifle’s capabilities. One new technology coming up in grenade launchers is the integration of a magnetic flux generator to fire a projectile without the traditional use of chemical explosives creating a more efficient and precise launch system. This has already been showcased by DARPA with its Magneto Hydrodynamic Explosive Munition (MAHEM) project. This UGL can also be used to launch air-burst munitions as well as mini quadcopters as well (something already being worked on by DRDO).
Hey check out our comprehensive analysis on the ParaSF’s rifle hunt.
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