Lacking expertise

Future Infantry Combat Vehicles

India appeared to be set to become “self-reliant” in a major land warfare weapons platform-the infantry combat vehicle-going by the concerted efforts of both the public sector Defence Public Sector Undertaking and several private sector engineering firms to win the contract for 2600 Future Infantry Combat Vehicle.

The contenders were short listed to two from four Indian elements, three of the private sector ones with foreign collaborators in tow. But what was expected to have been completed in eight months has stretched to nearly two years. What was supposed to be a breakthrough via the newly inducted category named “Make (India)” has gone down the same route as have several other major defence acquisition projects under a Defence Procurement Procedure tweaked so often that it has become dog-eared and unproductive.

It is not that everything would have been hunky-dory if the process had been completed and the winner of the contract would have proceeded with developing the “technology demonstrator” constructed by the Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (VRDE) into a prototype and posthaste begin serial production.

The project has enough substance in numbers to give what the private sector always craves for-massive returns on investments. Now things are stuck apparently because one of the contenders objected to the Tata subsidiary being a part of the process because its foreign collaborator, Rheinmetall of Germany, was involved in a kickback scam in another project floated by the Indian Ordnance Factories Board, the chairman of which was arrested for malfeasance.

Technology demonstrator

The benchmark was supposed to be the Abhay infantry combat vehicle designed and developed as a “technology demonstrator” in what was claimed to contain several indigenously developed systems.

Nonetheless the inclusion of a clause in the tender that between 30 to 50 per cent of the proposed FICV must be indigenous systems and subsystems was itself a cause for worry to those who had hoped that the new category of “Make” products in the Government policy document would have a higher content of indigenous equipment.

It would have been reassuring in that it would demonstrate that the Indian industry was competent enough to produce weapons for the Indian armed forces that are less amenable to restrictive trade practices and embargoes practiced by foreign arms manufacturers when it suits them.

As things stand if even fifty per cent of the end product is Indian, the rest of the half still keeps India in the danger zone more especially now that the UN Arms Trade Treaty has been adopted and has been laid open for signatures and ratifications that will vest discriminatory powers with the manufacturers for intrusive inspections and freedom to withhold supply of spares.

As a technology demonstrator, the Abhay has done its bit. It has shown that by constructing an infantry combat vehicle based around what is now practically an indigenous product-the Greaves Cotton powerpack (the company has a 150-year-old footprint in India), the 550 hp engine achieved a thrust-to-weight ratio of 25 horsepower per ton for a vehicle that has a total weight of 24 tons which is creditable but the option of adding explosive reactive armor (ERA) for greater protection would render it slower and less maneuverable.

Most importantly it could affect the vehicle’s ability to swim across a river rather than “walking” along the river bed with a snorkel to keep the air-breathing engine from being choked by its own smoke.

That would mean a major change of battlefield scenario where the FICV was supposed to rush into the river and swim across it to the other bank and create a beachhead for the rest of the mechanized infantry to drive in and enlarge captured territory and retain the cardinal principal of warfare -momentum.

With ERA the FICV may have to stop on the bank of the river, its crew would fit the snorkel to prepare to drive into the river, a time-consuming process and an invitation to enemy artillery and armor to take potshots at sitting ducks. If the DRDO can demonstrate that the “technology demonstrator” will swim without preparation then we have a winner on our hands. Otherwise, one major qualitative staff requirement would have been breached and the Indian Army, not known to be kind to Indian indigenous efforts, will do the rest.  

Maybe not, because the private sector is also involved and that is where retired military personnel are soaked up for obvious reasons.

Modern features

The Abhay technology demonstrator is to be the basis on which the combo public/private Future Infantry Combat Vehicle is to be constructed with improvements, innovations and bright ideas that might occur to the pair that is finally entrusted with the task of converting a technology demonstrator into a full-fledged fighting vehicle.

Several indigenous features that set Indian tank Arjun apart from the rest have been incorporated in the Abhay like the hydropneumatic suspension that makes for a comfortable ride over rough terrain. Another is the Kanchan composite armor that was developed for the Arjun tank.

The final manufacturers will have to produce two prototypes using steel on one and composite armor on the other to check which is more acceptable to the Indian Army. There could also be a choice of how many of the 2600 FICVs will be tracked and how many wheeled given the diverse geology of the Indian hinterland where the mechanized infantry is required to operate.       

The FICV is intended to replace the BMP-2 that has been around since the early 80s. The Russians have offered the BMP-3 as a replacement which can be an upgradation (including the swim capability) of a proven system with all the advantages of a commonality of a large number of parts with the new version.

The Government of India is believed to have turned down the Russian offer and there has been no progress in the much-touted public-private participation in defence production in this project which is such a prize catch, given the large numbers that are to be ordered.

Whatever that has stymied the project and delayed it by nearly two years has put the brakes on what is clearly a licensed produced deal and one cannot but ask whether the 50-70 per cent that is to be imported technology will be high-end or low-end.

Much the same has already happened in licensed production of foreign weapons system in arrangements between the Defence Public Sector Undertakings over the decades. It appears that to the DPSUs has been added the private sector on whose coattails will come the foreign investor instead of the straightforward deal of the past years.

India has hitherto not allowed the private sector to be involved in weapons and lethal equipment production. So it needs to be clarified whether the weapons on board the FICV will be indigenously produced or bought off the shelf as add-ons which leave the weapons platform as vulnerable as we were during the Kargil crisis. We had to run for munitions from pillar to post and had to pay through our nose for shells for the Bofors howitzer.

The FICV will be armed with both cannon and anti-tank guided missiles. Already the use of the indigenous Nag is being ruled out for the FICV as being too heavy and only fit to be used from the NAMICA which is a derivative of the BMP-2. Is this a way of dumping both the BMP-2 and the Nag simultaneously?