Conceived as an armored adjunct to the main battle tank for rapid manoeuvre warfare in the mechanized infantry mode the infantry combat vehicle is fast acquiring acceptability in the urban guerrilla warfare counter-insurgency format.
Created to induct ‘boots on the ground’ to capture and hold territory the intention was to ensure that both elements moved in close support of each other and were thus required to be both armored and able to maintain a cross-country capability in widely different types of terrain ranging from the sand-dunes of the deserts to the scrublands and riverine territory of the plains and even in the mountains where rudimentary roads are available.
It is a versatile weapons platform. India is well on its way to creating an indigenous Future Infantry Combat Vehicle in a public-private partnership project involving foreign participation as well.
Crucial to the creation of this kind of weapons platform are the qualitative staff requirements (QSRs) of the prospective user, the Army being pre-eminent. The user has to look and understand the nature of the terrain in which the platform has to be used.
Given the ever-widening ‘spectrum of conflict’ and war by proxy becoming the weapon of strategic choice Indian weapons acquisition processes must begin to cater to the requirements of counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism and make choices that can be deployed in any of the many types of warfare that are emerging.
The incorporation of modern anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) has already created a viable equation between the lightly armored infantry combat vehicle and the behemoth main battle tank with the former being able to execute a hit to kill with the first shot.
Equally impressive is what the Israelis have created: It can track and destroy an incoming missile and retaliate against the launcher.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation has developed a ‘technology demonstrator’ named the Abhay infantry combat vehicle.
It intends to pass the prototype design to the private sector to manufacture the end product for the Defence forces.
To ensure a large measure of indigenization in what is to be a Made in India category weapons platform the Government of India in 2013 had declined to accept the Russian offer of its BMP-3 infantry combat vehicle as a follow-on platform for the BMP-2 that was already in service with the Indian Army.
It would have meant a continued dependency on foreign sources for military wherewithal which is already as high as 70 per cent. The conditionality that India gives up its indigenous prototype in exchange for the BMP-3 also did not help matters.
The Abhay prototype has a total weight of 25 tons inclusive of the add-on explosive reactive armor (ERA) which helps to deflect or absorb the kinetic energy of an anti-tank shell or tandem-warhead missile.
It is powered by a made in India Greaves Cotton power-plant that produces a thrust of 550 horsepower. It carries a crew of three-commander, driver and gunner and seven fully equipped infantrymen through a hatch at the back.
The armor is much the same material as that used in the Arjun main battle tank-Kanchan which is a composite of metal and ceramics.
Its offensive capability lies in the set of two Konkur-M (or the indigenously manufactured French Milan) anti-tank guided missiles. one 40mm auto-cannon with 210 rounds of ammunition; a grenade launcher; and a coaxial 7.62 mm for anti-aircraft protection.
Among the requirements that the Indian Army has projected during the process of finalizing the qualitative staff requirements (QSRs) for their infantry combat vehicle was a panoramic 360 degree view of the battlefield from a hatch down position.
Besides giving the commander an all-round view of the battlefield and thus help in identifying and engaging enemy tanks and mechanized vehicles it would prevent the commander being exposed to gunfire in an urban setting.
This is what happened during the Indian Peace Keeping Force operations in Jaffna in Sri Lanka where Indian tank commanders would have to raise the hatch to be able to reconnoiter the landscape and look for the hidden Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and thus become victims of gunfire from surrounding buildings.
The other major requirement was that the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle must be a true amphibian capable of swimming across water bodies without having to stop to attach snorkels to disperse the exhaust gases from the engine while the vehicles “walks” across the river bed.
Flotation and propulsion in water should be an integral part of the fighting platform. Indian battle tanks are not intrinsically amphibious and have to stop to install exhaust pipes to be able to cross water bodies.
When that happens the tank is vulnerable to attack by enemy tanks in a hull-down defence perimeter that is laid down in known vulnerable areas to keep the intruder at bay as long as possible.
If there are amphibious infantry fighting vehicles accompanying the tanks they can swim ahead and search and destroy the hidden enemy and open the way for own tanks to cross the water body and open a wide beachhead in enemy territory.
Indian armor, it needs to be recalled, became bogged down initially at the Basantar River in the Shakargarh salient during the Indo-Pak war of 1971.
The riverine track was heavily mined but Indian armor eventually made a breakthrough when 2nd Lieutenant Arun Khetrapal led a section of three tanks through the minefield.
The daring paid off. The tanks missed the mines and were able to outflank the Pakistani armor. In the ensuing battle the Pakistanis lost ten tanks.
It was a blow that brought a large chunk of the Shakargarh bulge under Indian control before the Pakistan army accepted Indian terms of surrender.
Battles of this kind raise debates about the vulnerability of armored vehicles to mines. Both tracked tanks and tyred vehicles are vulnerable to this threat.
An attempt to circumvent the threat is seen in the “mine-protected vehicles” that have been inducted by the Indian Army and police forces deployed against the Maoists in the Red Corridor across central India.
But protection is dubious given that many “mine protected vehicles” have been blown to smithereens with large packs of explosives in remotely-triggered improvised devices (The MPV is designed to withstand about 15kg of explosive. The Maoists used as much as 50 kgs.)
In the private sector Tata Motors has produced the Kestrel armored personnel carrier in collaboration with DRDO. It has been designed around a concept of being able to induct a larger number of personnel into the battle zone.
Thus it has space for 12 infantrymen and the internal architecture is designed to cushion, as far as possible, the effect of a mine blast.
This has been sought to be achieved by strengthening the floorboard and suspending the centerline seats from the roof of the infantry combat vehicle.
Other features have been incorporated to make for riding comfort over bumpy terrain. However, the 8X8 rubber wheels may not allow cohesive action along with tanks in a minefield infested terrain.
The claim is that the Kestrel is still able to move forward on flat tyres. But going by the effect of the explosives, mines do not just puncture tyres, they more often than not, blow the axles away.
The security forces be they the Army; the paramilitary forces like the BSF, the Central Reserve Police and Indo-Tibetan Border Police that also need infantry combat vehicles to fight terrorists and Left Wing Extremists must incorporate the lessons in mine warfare that have been learned both on the varied terrain on the subcontinent as well as in counter-insurgency operations in the hinterland.
KPS Gill of the Punjab Police had innovated a tractor into an armored personnel carrier to conduct searches in the sugarcane fields during the Khalistani separatist movement.
There are five contenders for the billion rupee contract for developing and supplying more than 2000 modern infantry combat vehicles to the armed forces.