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Is the Pakistan Army looking for a new rifle?

16 March 2016

A recent visit to Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF) by Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif has shed light on a requirement for what seems to be a new standard infantry rifle for the Pakistan Army.

Numerous photos released by Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) show General Sharif as well as other senior Army officers inspecting assault and battle rifles from a number of overseas vendors.

The rifles present during General Raheel’s visit included the FN Herstal SCAR [Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle], Česká Zbrojovka CZ-806 BREN 2, Zastava M21, Beretta ARX-200, and Kalashnikov AK-103. Representatives from each of the aforementioned companies were also present.

Various assault and battle rifles being presented to COAS General Raheel Sharif at POF. Photo credit: ISPR
Various assault and battle rifles being presented to COAS General Raheel Sharif at POF. Photo credit: ISPR

Currently, Pakistan’s mainstay rifles include the Heckler and Koch (HK) G3 battle rifle (7.62x51mm) and NORINCO Type 56 assault rifle (7.62x39mm), a licensed Chinese-built variant of the Kalashnikov AK-47. The HK MP5 submachine gun is also used by various entities in Pakistan’s security apparatus, particularly among its law enforcement agencies (LEA). Several other assault rifles, such as the FN F2000, are also in use with Pakistani LEAs and special operations forces but these are not standard-issue weapons.

Pakistan’s pursuit for a new standard issue infantry rifle is not a new story. At one point, especially in the mid-to-late 2000s, the Pakistan Army was interested in procuring 5.56mm assault rifles to replace ageing 7.62mm stocks. In fact, POF had even offered its own design (evidently based on the HK33) under the label of PK-08. This program collapsed. Though the reasons were not made public, it is possible that several issues made such a switch untenable.

First, the Army’s counterinsurgency (COIN) effort in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) saw it heavily depend on weapons using 7.62mm rounds, such as the Type 56 assault rifle. Like other countries engaged in COIN (including the U.S.), it is possible that the Army came to the conclusion that small arms using 5.56mm rounds did not offer enough stopping power on the field, even though they are lighter in weight and capable of carrying a higher number of rounds per magazine.

A second reason could be in relation to the fact that any mass-replacement of small arms ought to be done in a manner that results in maximum future utility. In other words, if the Army were to spend a large amount of money to replace existing small arms, it may be best served to acquire the latest and most adaptable designs available, as opposed to compromising due to cost or expediency. While such a move is certainly more expensive in the short-term, it may benefit the Army in the long-term in the form of a capable and fully reliable weapon which could be used with ease for many decades.

As per the ISPR video, it seems that the Army’s evaluation for a new rifle commenced in November 2015, which is when various vendors were contacted about the Army’s pilot requirements. Actual testing began in January 2016, which had coincided with winter-usage trials as well. Five weapon-types were selected for these trials: FN SCAR, CZ-806 BREN 2, Zastava M21, Beretta ARX-200, and Kalashnikov AK-103.

What seems to be a presentation about a new standard rifle program. Photo credit: ISPR
What seems to be a presentation about a new standard rifle program. Photo credit: ISPR

At this point, there are scarcely few details available about the program. For example, the Army has not disclosed whether this is the final testing-phase, especially since Heckler Koch (the original supplier of the Army’s G3 battle rifle) is not present. In fact, weapons from Turkey and China are also absent. That said, the presence of these rifles at POF may indicate that this is not a limited-scale program; rather, it will at some point involve discussions about technology transfer and licensed local manufacturing, which will be necessary in order to feasibly arm at least 500,000 Pakistani soldiers.

Each design has its merits and limitations. For example, the FN SCAR is a highly modular design that can be built into not only a 7.62x51mm battle rifle (SCAR H), but also a 5.56x45mm assault rifle (SCAR L) and even a personal defence weapon (PDW). The SCAR could also be configured (in its 7.62x51mm form) to function as a Sniper Support Rifle (SSR). Similarly, the CZ-806 BREN 2 can be chambered for 5.56x45mm and 7.62x51mm as well (though the later has not yet been produced by the vendor).

COAS Gen. Sharif holding a FN SCAR
COAS Gen. Sharif inspecting a weapon. Photo credit: ISPR

A single core design that could be built to meet multiple distinct requirements could be a major drawing point for the Army. In fact, such a system would not only meet the needs of the Army, but in time, it could be scaled for use by Pakistan’s LEAs, paramilitary, special operations forces, as well as the Army’s sister arms, i.e. Air Force and Navy.

The upfront cost of absorbing the capacity for local manufacturing will be a sticking point, but if POF succeeds in acquiring commercial offsets (such as being the source for certain parts and/or being permitted to export rifles to certain markets), any rifle could be a feasible acquisition. Given the scale of the program, most of the vendors may not be averse to being flexible with POF. Moreover, the Army (as well as other arms) will order new rifles on an incremental basis over the long-term, thus, the total program cost can be distributed over the long-term.

Hopefully, specific details will be made available during IDEAS 2016.