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The Russo-Indian AK-203 Venture: A Case Study in Defense Pragmatism?

What does India’s decision to enter into a massive rifle production joint venture with Russia say about its priorities?

Krzysztof Iwanek
The Russo-Indian AK-203 Venture: A Case Study in Defense Pragmatism?
Credit: Indian Embassy Thailand via Facebook

In March 2019, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled an Indo-Russian joint venture formed with an objective to manufacture an assault rifle. Code-named AK-203, the gun has been designed by the Kalashnikov Concern and is thus one of the new generations of the AK family, the descendants of the famed AK-47. Press reports declare that as many as 750,000 rifles are to be produced this way, a vast majority of which are to be provided to the Indian Armed Forces. If these numbers are correct, the AK-203 is poised to become one of the main weapons of the Indian Army.

Its introduction will allow New Delhi to phase out its own rifle, the INSAS. The troubles with this indigenous gun are indicative of the larger woes of the Indian defense industry. INSAS was found to be an unreliable firearm, and in 2017 it was decided that it needs to be withdrawn. As if admitting that it is unable to produce the next-generation assault rifle on its own just yet, India decided instead to manufacture it jointly with the Russians.

The production of this rifle is to take place in India under Indo-Russia Rifles Private Limited. 50.5 percent of its stakes will belong to the Indian Ordnance Factory Board, and the remainder to Russian entities: Rosoboronexport (7.5 percent) and Kalashnikov Concern (42 percent; the concern in turn belongs to the Russian defense giant Rostec). This makes the joint venture a collaboration of public firms.

Knowing his PR skills, Narendra Modi is sure to turn a technological failure of INSAS into a political success in the AK-203. The Indo-Russian project is being showcased as a part of Make in India, one of the Indian government’s most important campaigns. An initiative unveiled in 2014, Make in India is aimed at bringing more FDI to the country and enhancing production domestically thanks to the engagement of foreign companies. The political narrative around the Indo-Russian project will certainly focus on how it will enhance production, not on the import of technology.

The ruling party may also reap another type of political grain from the same field. The factory will be running in Korwa, in the Amethi district of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Until recently, Amethi was considered a political fiefdom, a constituency traditionally won in elections by one political dynasty. The Nehru-Gandhi family has until recently reigned supreme over one of the two biggest parties in India, the Indian National Congress.

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Members of this family have also won the seat in the Parliament from Amethi nine times. Rahul Gandhi, until recently the leader of the Congress, contested from there ever since 2004 (and earlier the same had been done by his mother, Sonia Gandhi; father, Rajeev Gandhi; and uncle, Sanjay Gandhi). Amethi gave Rahul Gandhi three victories in the row (in 2004, 2009, and 2014), but its electorate was reportedly growing dissatisfied with the fact that despite serving as an electoral springboard for the leaders of India’s longest-ruling party, their region has not seen any special development.

It was Rahul Gandhi, as an Amethi-chosen Member of Parliament, who had laid a foundation of an ordnance factory in Korwa way back in 2007. At that time, it was a public enterprise only; the factory was run by the state Ordnance Factory Board. Although the Congress retained power for the next seven years, the factory failed to take off for a long time. While the production of carbines did eventually start there, the Congress and its alliance lost the 2014 elections.

The decision to locate the Indo-Russian joint venture in the plant happened later, under the watch of the BJP, Congress’ main political rival. If the new initiative gives new steam to the turbines of the Korwa factory (which it should), the BJP may steal the Congress’ thunder in the area. We should be still true to facts, however: it would be wrong to write – as the Russian state media portal Sputnik did – that the Indo-Russian joint venture has started a new factory. What will change is the appearance of a foreign entity and a new model of the gun to be produced, but the facility is already there, and it was established by a Congress government. While it is difficult to measure how important politically the decision to locate the new project in Korwa has been so far, the Indo-Russian initiative was announced barely a month before the commencement of 2019 elections, during which Rahul Gandhi finally lost the “family constituency” of Amethi to a BJP candidate, Smriti Irani.

The project bears some political significance on the international level as well, as it shows that despite growing cooperation with the United States, New Delhi does want to retain many aspects of its defense ties with Russia. The joint manufacturing of the AK-203 is arguably not the strongest card in the set here, however. The number of rifles to be produced is huge, but in both economic and technological terms, this joint venture is not a game-changer by any standards. The case of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system would be a much better example here.

But, just like with S-400, the AK-203 deal does not indicate that India is taking one side of the global order. In 2019, the BJP government also inked a deal with the German company SIG Sauer to purchase 72,400 SIG716 rifles. Both the SIG716 and AK-203 are to replace the INSAS, but it is the former that is to be used by the Indian Army on the frontline (as reported by Snehesh Alex Philip for the Print). Thus, while the Russian rifle will be used more widely in the Indian Armed Forces, it is the Western gun that is to serve a more prominent and significant role. This comparison is perhaps one of the symbols of the current state of defense cooperation between New Delhi and Moscow.