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Indian Army yet to receive Israeli assault rifles

By Rahul Bedi, IANS

New Delhi : More than five years after a $20 million contract was signed, the Indian Army is yet to receive the 3,070 Israeli 5.56 mm Tavor 21 assault rifles (TAR-21s) for its Special Forces (SF).

Military sources said the rifles were in the process of being shipped to India and likely to arrive some time in the next few weeks. Thereafter, it will take some months before being inducted into service, in all likelihood by the yearend.

The TAR-21s have a modified, single-piece butt and new sights supplied by Israel’s International Technical Lasers, making them a “trifle heavier” with the addition of a 40 mm M 203 under barrel grenade launchers (UBGLs) supplied by Turkey.

The rifle’s 5.56 mm ammunition is being supplied by Singapore Technologies.

The deal for the TAR-21s, including ammunition, was originally clinched in 2002 with Israel Military Industries (IMI).

But after IMI’s bifurcation, the contract was taken over by Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) that acquired control of the company’s small arms division.

India’s ministry of defence (MoD), however, continued its dealings with IMI and two years ago invoked contractual obligations claiming damages for the delayed deliveries – further deferring their arrival besides leading to turbulent negotiations.

Official sources said these “glitches” had eventually been resolved “amicably” and a letter of credit for the TAR-21s delivery was opened around end-2006.

The contract has provision for India to buy an additional 1,500 TAR-21s at the same cost within 12 months of the original deliveries being completed.

“It is unclear whether the army would invoke this clause, considering IWI’s extended time lines” an official source said.

In 2005, IMI had supplied 350-400 TAR-21s, without UBGLs, for around $1.5 million to India’s Special Frontier Force (SFF), a quasi-military commando unit based in northern India that is deployed primarily by the country’s two principal security agencies for special missions.

Military sources said the SFF’s TAR-21s would subsequently be fitted with UBGLs.

The Special Forces, however, found the TAR-21s “operationally unsatisfactory” following problems with their foldable butt and entered into discussions with IMI – and later IWI – to effect changes and for additions like UBGLs.

All these were successfully tested last year in Israel and the consignment cleared for delivery.

IMI-IWI, meanwhile, has also entered into partnership with India’s state-owned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) to locally build under licence the TAR-21’s 9 mm version – called ZTAR – for use by India’s Special Forces parachute regiments. The OFB-produced ZTAR is undergoing user trials.

As part of the same contract, IMI has also supplied around 130 Galil 7.62 sniper riles and some 450,000 rounds of ammunition to the SFF and the army’s SF for around $1.4 million over two years ago.

The Indian Army’s seven Special Forces battalions – that will increase to 10 by 2010 – the equivalent Garuda force of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy’s Marine Commandoes all need to be equipped with specialized equipment, a large proportion of which will need importing.

The initial Special Forces raisings in effect were converted parachute regiments and were trained by the Israelis in anti-insurgency operations, official sources said.

US Special Forces have been closely involved in exercising with India’s Special Forces units that are still awaiting the arrival of some 20 pieces of specialized American equipment more than four years after negotiations opened.

The army’s proposed additional SF battalions are expected to include two aviation special operations squadrons. But, without suitable equipment “focused” to their esoteric role, they remain “incomplete”, a retired Special Forces officer stated.