Early December 2021, on the occasion of the visit of Russian President Putin to India and the inaugural India – Russia 2+2 dialogue, India and Russia signed a deal for manufacturing AK-203 Assault rifles in India. Under this deal, valued at over Rs 5000 Crores, the newly established “Indo-Russia Rifles Private Ltd”, a joint venture between the OFB- Rosoboronexport and Kalashnikov, will manufacture over 6 lakh AK- 203 Assault rifles over the next 10 years, with the transfer of technology to India. These rifles will be produced at a newly set up factory at Korwa, in Amethi District of UP.
AK-203 is a fifth-generation assault rifle of the famous Kalashnikov family, with the well-known AK-47 (designed in 1947) being of the first generation, followed by AKM, AK-74, AK-103, AK-107 preceding the current AK-203, to be made in India. A progressively improved variant.
AK-203 Assault rifle is of 7.62mm calibre, with 39 calibre length barrel, i: e to say that the length of its barrel is 39 times the calibre – 7.62 X 39 mm. This is how the barrels, of guns and rifles, are described and generally, all other factors being the same, the longer the barrel, the higher is the muzzle velocity.AK 203 is an automatic and semi-automatic rifle; it has an effective range of 500m and can fire up to 600 RPM. At 3.8 Kgs, it is shorter in length and lighter than the 5.56mm INSA (Indian Small Arms System) assault rifle, the current standard issue for the Indian Army, which it will be replacing. These rifles, an initial 70,000 of which will be imported from Russia, are likely to start getting inducted into the Indian Armed forces within a period of 2.5 to three years, i: e sometime around the latter half of 2024.
Lt Gen Anil Ahuja, who has commanded a Corps in the Eastern Theatre, tells Financial Express Online: “These rifles will be the most advanced in the series of assault rifles that the Indian armed forces have held since Independence. To briefly recapitulate: we initially had the Lee Enfield .303 bolt action rifles during the 1962 Sino- Indian conflict; which got replaced by 7.62 mm SLR (Self Loading Rifle), variants of which remained in service from the mid-60s to nearly end 90s (1998). These were the rifles that were used during the 1965 and 1971 conflicts and to some extent in the Kargil conflict. In the 80s, in keeping with the global trend then, a decision was taken to change the calibre of the standard Service Rifle from 7.62mm to 5.56mm. The concept being that it is better to incapacitate a soldier on the battlefield, making him a liability for others than to kill. With this, a family of weapons were developed by the ARDE/DRDO and manufactured by the OFB, which were designated as the INSAS (Indian Small Arms System). The 5.56 INSAS rifles and light machine guns (LMGs) started getting inducted into the armed forces around 1998. These continue to remain in service till now.”
“The INSAS rifles, which are sought to be replaced, are 5.56 mm calibre with a 45 calibre length barrel. At 4.15 Kgs, weight and 960 mm length, these are a little heavier and longer than the AK 203, despite being of smaller calibre. While these rifles are still suitable for conventional operations, but for the counter-terrorist operations and close combat, where you need an assured `kill’ the 7.62 calibre is better suited – a lesson learnt with nearly two decades of use,” Lt Gen Ahuja, former Secretary of the Defence Acquisition Council, explains.
According to him, “It is for this reason that around 2010 – 2011, the Indian Army contemplated acquiring, Multi Calibre Assault Rifle (MCAR) with an interchangeable barrel, i.e., to have one 5.56 and one 7.62 barrel for each weapon, which could be changed as per the operational requirement. It was however soon realised that no army has MCAR as a standard service issue and the idea was dropped by about 2015.”
“Due to the inordinate delay in finding a replacement for the INSAS 5.56, whose performance has been inadequate, and due to the inability to select a suitable replacement from amongst many assault rifles tried out – which included rifles from IWI, CESKA, Colt, Beretta, approvals were accorded in 2019 and 2020 to procure two tranches of nearly 72000 Sig Sauer 716 rifles each, from the US, under the Fast Track Procurement. While the first tranche has been delivered, the cost for the second order is still being negotiated. It would take nearly a year to start receiving the second lot, after the cost is agreed upon and the contract signed. The Sig Sauer 716 rifle is again of 7.62 calibre, same as the AK 203 but as against the 39-calibre length barrel of AK, Sig Saur has a longer 51 calibre length barrel. It also has a better range and rate of fire,” the Artillery officer says.
What is unique in Advanced Assault Rifles?
“Most advanced assault rifles today have provisions for advanced sighting systems. These include telescopic sights, holographic sights, laser aimer devices etc. Both Sig Sauer and the Ak 203 have provisions for mounting these sights on a slide, called the Picatinny rail. Many of these sights are already being manufactured indigenously and can be mounted on the chosen assault rifle,” Lt Gen Ahuja explains.
Why AK 203?
Sharing his view on this, the former Artillery officer says, “The decision to acquire AK 203 seems to have been driven by considerations of cost and for transfer of technology and for the advantage of these being manufactured in India.”
“Today, I have only spoken about the assault rifles for the Indian Armed forces, the rifles that are the standard issue for its soldiers. In addition to assault rifles, combat troops hold a range of other small arms: pistols, carbines, light and medium machine guns etc. The troops of the `Special Forces’ hold top of the shelf weapons available globally. Since these are required in much smaller numbers, the intricacies of procurement and the need to indigenise and manufacture in India are not so acute,” he observes.
Finally, “for a standard service assault rifle, the requirement is to have reliability, lethality, accuracy, optimum range and optimum rates of fire, lightweight, ruggedness and ability to withstand rough handling. The requirements of the battlefield will be dynamic and with the indigenous capability, once acquired we will be able to adapt and evolve.”