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Why the Indian Army's Search to Find Sniper Rifles Seems Neverending

While the Army is taking delivery of some 750 Sako TRG-42 sniper rifles from Finland, it recently dispatched a restricted request for proposal for nearly 5,000 more.
A sniper uses the Sako TRG-42. Representative image. Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Chandigarh: The Indian Army is taking delivery of some 750 Sako TRG-42 sniper rifles from Finland and around 355,000 rounds of specialised .338 Lapua Magnum rounds for an estimated $7-8 million, as a follow-on procurement of both weapon systems and ammunition it had twice imported recently.

Industry sources said the bolt-action TRG-42 .338 inch (8.6x70mm) rifles acquired under the army’s ‘emergency provisions’ for employment by its Parachute Regiment followed the previous procurement of some 32 identical rifles for its Special Forces in 2018, alongside some 70,000 Lapua Magnum rounds.

This limited sniper rifle buy was succeeded in 2021, by the purchase of yet another 370-odd TRG-42s and over 420,000 identical Lapua Magnum rounds, also via the forces emergency procurement proviso, for use by its Parachute Regiment.

Shortlisted after trials in 2017-18 over Accuracy International’s AWM rifle model from the UK, the TRG-42s were needed urgently to supplement the Army’s legacy 7.62x54mm Soviet-era semi-automatic Dragunov SVD Designated Marksman Rifles (DMR).

Designed in the 1950s, the Dragunov rifles, with a 1,200m kill range, first entered Indian Army service in the mid-1980s and for nearly four decades thereafter bridged the engagement gap between a service rifle and a dedicated sniper rifle. But a large number of the 6,000-odd Dragunovs that were currently in the army’s inventory needed upgrading or replacing, with the TRG-42s merely a ‘stopgap’ measure to plug an immediate operational void, official sources said.

Dragunov SVD with scope and magazine removed. Photo: u HUJ był/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Multiple attempts by the Army from 2009 onwards to acquire sniper rifles for deployment along India’s disputed borders with Pakistan and China had failed, due principally not only to the force’s questionable and nebulous qualitative requirements (QRs) for the weapon system but also unrealistic delivery schedules.

And to add to the Army’s enduring sniper rifle shortfall woes, the weapon system featured on the Ministry of Defence (MoD)’s December 2020 list of items whose import was embargoed forthwith under the government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative aimed at securing self-sufficiency in armaments.

Consequently, the MoD dispatched a restricted request for proposal (RfP) to around 30 local vendors on October 18 for 4,849 sniper rifles and 7,841,575 rounds of .338 Lapua Magnum ammunition worth an estimated $60-70 million. Industry officials said these recipients included only those vendors who had responded to the MoD’s request for information dispatched in June 2022 for the planned sniper rifle procurement.

According to the RfP, 4,549 bolt-action sniper rifles intended for the Army, 212 for the Indian Air Force (IAF) and 88 for the Indian Navy (IN), were to be procured under the ‘Buy Indian’ category of the Defence Acquisition Procedure, 2020. If locally designed, the rifles would need to have an indigenous content of 50%, and if not, this proportion would increase to 60%, the RfP stated in what will be the first-ever instance of the Indian military sourcing a sniper rifle domestically.

Calling upon prospective bidders to file their responses by January 11, the RfP outlined its requirement for a sniper rifle capable of firing .338 Lapua Magnum rounds to a distance of not less than 1,200 metres to an accuracy of no more than 1 minute of angle or 1MoA. The MoA factor that’s frequently used to delineate the accuracy of firearms, sights and ammunition, correlates to the minute hand of a 360-degrees clock face, with each minute denoting 1/60th of a degree. Getting this dimension exactly right whilst sniping is critical, as even a minuscule miscalculation or deviation from the 1MoA can result in the shooter missing the target.

Furthermore, the 119-page RfP requires the rifle, including its muzzle break that prevents recoil, to measure 1,250mm, weigh no more than 9 kg along with its bi-pod, empty magazine and telescopic sight and be equipped with a MIL-STD 1913 Picatinny Rail for mounting accessories.

The rifle’s butt stock would also need to be fitted with an adjustable cheek-rest, while the weapon system would be required to operate in temperatures varying between -20° C and 45° C, in addition to possessing a ‘minimum’ service life of 10 years or 5,000 rounds, whichever came earlier. The vendor would also be required to provide 10 years of product support for the rifles, alongside instructing their maintenance crew, amongst myriad other requirements the RfP detailed.

But delivery schedules for the shortlisted sniper rifle were highly demanding and somewhat implausible, requiring all 4,849 rifles to be supplied between 6 and 48 weeks after the contract for them was signed.

The RfP stipulated that the first lot of 800 rifles needed to be delivered within 6-12 weeks, the second batch of 1,200 weapons in 13-24 weeks, the third consignment of 1,400 pieces between 25-36 weeks, and the fourth and final delivery of 1,449 rifles in 37-48 weeks. The proposed delivery schedule for all 7,841,575 .338 Lapua Magnum rounds, technology for which would need to be imported as there was none available locally, too stipulated a parallel timetable.

‘Highly difficult’

Industry officials and a cross-section of prospective sniper rifle vendors, however, were highly critical of the extraordinarily ‘severe and challenging’ delivery schedules and of the MoD ‘linking’ the rifle and ammunition procurements. They maintained that the MoD tender was possibly the largest ever in the world for sniper rifles which, considering their esoteric employment, were made in small numbers, almost individually hand-crafted and meticulously tested. Manufacturing sniper rifles en masse in such industrial volumes would make it ‘highly difficult, if not impossible’ to secure 1MoA levels of accuracy, stated a potential vendor.

Besides, combining the sniper rifle buy with that of Lapua Magnum ammunition, he maintained was an ‘impossible ask’. Worldwide, he stated there was just one such vendor who manufactured both rifle and Lapua Magnum rounds, with the latter production executed by two separate entities in the same industrial group.

“It is impracticable to expect indigenous vendors getting into designing and producing sniper rifles for the first time to also take on contractual risks, equalling half the $60-70 million contract, to produce the ammunition too,” he declared, declining to be named. In all probability, he added, the Lapua Magnum rounds requirement had been included in the RfP by the MoD to preclude ‘past bungling’ by the Army, in which it had taken delivery of the weapon system, but without any ammunition.

A Royal Dutch Marine ejects a shell casing from his Accuracy International .338 Lapua Magnum sniper rifle. Photo: Cpl R. Logan Kyle/United States Marine Corps, Public Domain,

Even technically, other probable vendors pointed out that the RfP had failed to include a night sight, critical for snipers – who normally execute their lethal skills at dusk, or under cover of darkness. Acquiring a night sight later, they argued, would necessitate ‘mating’ it with the rifle, invariably a complicated operation involving certification by the manufacturer, which entailed fulfilling a host of complex technicalities.

Also not included in the tender was a Military Spotter Scope for the sniper’s buddy with reticle markings or cross-hair aiming point, which normally matched, if not surpassed, the sniper’s telescopic sight to assist the shooter in effecting immediate corrections. A sniper team normally comprises the shooter and the equally critical spotter, or buddy, who determines and judges the wind direction and speed, providing the shooter with all the necessary data to ensure a successful hit. But in India’s military, this practice was not followed.

A history of poorly thought QRs

Ironically, in July 2019, the MoD scrapped its 2018 RfP to overseas manufacturers for 5,719 8.6x70mm sniper rifles and 10.2 million rounds of ammunition, after bids by four vendors had failed to meet the Army’s QRs for the weapon alongside ‘unworkable’ delivery schedules. The four vendors then were PT Pindad (Indonesia), Rosoboronexport (Russia), Barrett and MSA Global (the US).

This RfP had also required sniper rifle vendors to supply 5.26 million rounds of .338 Lapua Magnum ammunition off the shelf, followed by technology transfer to the erstwhile Ordnance Factory Board and private sector companies to locally manufacture an additional 4.60 million rounds.

“It’s commercially unviable for any manufacturer of this kind of advanced ammunition to transfer technology for merely 4.6 million rounds,” said a senior executive from one of Europe’s leading sniper rifle makers. It’s simply naïve for the MoD and the army to make such demands which are almost certain to be turned down, he added on condition of anonymity.

The proposed delivery schedule of the rifles at the time had also posed logistic problems, as it required the shortlisted original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to deliver the first lot of 707 rifles within six months of the contract being signed, and the remaining 5,012 supplied in batches of 1,200 units each over the next 30 months.

“No sniper rifle manufacturer produces such large numbers in the time stipulated in the RfP,” said the above-mentioned executive. The RfP, he said, was badly conceived, leaving the MoD no choice but to withdraw it. The latest RfP for 4,849 sniper rifles, he also warned, was merely iterating the earlier error with regard to both the delivery timetable and supplying ammunition. Both could well jeopardise the entire procurement yet again, he cautioned.

Formerly, another sniper rifle tender in 2009-2010 via the MoD’s Fast Track Procedure, which mandates a 12-month deadline to conclude the procurement, was similarly terminated, due to the Army’s QRs that failed in mandating accuracy standards at a minimum range of 800m and absurdly required the weapon system to be fitted with a bayonet.

It was incomprehensible to the handful of OEMs to determine why a sniper rifle, purposed for exclusive employment at extended distances needed a bayonet that is normally used by infantry soldiers in close combat. The highly nebulous RfP also failed to differentiate between a bolt-action and semi-automatic sniper rifle model, which is usually fundamental to such QR determinants.

The Indian Navy, on the other hand, was more professional in its approach and in late 2016 had acquired 177 Sako TIKKA t3 TAC 7.62x51mm bolt-action sniper rifles from Italy’s Beretta for around $3 million. Selected over UK’s Steel Core Designs Thunderbolt SC-76 model, the Sako rifle upgraded the Navy’s Marine Commando (MARCOS) firepower and included 100,000 rounds of 7.62x51mm expert Match grade ammunition. In recent years, the secretive MARCOS have been increasingly deployed on anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Malacca.

A Sako Tikka T3 rifle. Photo: Millermaster/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Meanwhile, some 3,500-4,000 Indian Army snipers – around 10 per infantry battalion – remain little better than amateurs compared to their Western, and even Chinese counterparts. They lacked adequate training, suitable weaponry and supplementary paraphernalia like accurate imported Match ammunition, hand-held laser range finders, night sights and related hardware, essential to accomplish this highly skilled and deathly mission. Army shooters were routinely issued locally-produced ammunition, which experts dismissed as ‘wholly inaccurate’ and one that defeated the very purpose of sniping.

As The Wire has previously reported, retired military officers have rued that India has made no attempt at building up the ethos of sniping in the Army or any other security agencies.

Also Read: Snipers Only Shoot to Kill

It also remains to be seen whether the domestic sourcing of sniper rifles is ably vindicated. A cross-section of possible vendors stated that in all likelihood, all the rifles participating in the selection trials would be imported. The shortlisted rifle would then be acquired in limited numbers in knocked-down kits and assembled locally, as the selected vendor gradually indigenises and certifies the processes.

Is it time for the MoD to get real and learn from its past errors? Perhaps, if it is listening.

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