Decoding the Trials Enigma: Nuts and Bolts

Sub Title : The trials process needs to be streamlined to enable rapid capacity building

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2021

Author : Lt Gen Sanjay Verma, PVSM, AVSM, VSM** (Retd)

Page No. : 27

Category : Military Technology

: March 27, 2021

Capability building for the Indian Armed Forces is sluggish and inefficient due to various reasons. Delays and problems in trial evaluation of equipment desired to be inducted is amongst the foremost of these. As the  dynamics of each trial are unique a copybook solution is not readily available. However, a concerted effort needs to be put in to streamline the process of trials and make it as fast as possible

Defence acquisition and capability building incessantly remains embroiled in an environment of uncertainty, ambiguity, suspicion, tardy processes and unimaginable delays. Sometimes it is actually a marvel to trace the trajectory of a case and link it to the end result. While, as in any activity, there are a large number of processes and procedures, interestingly in Defence procurement the ability and potential for hurdles to creep up remains at a high probability across the spectrum. Successful conclusion of one stage is no assurance to its gaining momentum.

In May 2020, the Hon’ble Finance Minister unveiled a slew of economic reforms for various sectors including Defence with an aim to revitalise the economy in a Covid stressed environment and focus on Make in India towards fulfilment of the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat. Amongst the various reforms viz enhancing FDI, corporatisation of OFB, negative import list, separate capital budget  for domestic capital procurement etc was also included the need to set up a project management unit to support contract management in defence manufacturing along with a reference to ‘Realistic setting of qualitative requirements and being more efficient in trying and testing procedures’.

The Dynamics

This is not the first time that trials and testing procedures have come under scrutiny- these have perennially been under the scanner. This gains more relevance as the trial and testing activity is intrinsic and specific to each Service be it the Army, Navy or Air Force since the user is prime in acceptance of the equipment. In case of the Army the nuances are somewhat unique due to operational and geographical diversity vis a vis the other Services where the systems are platform based be it an aircraft or a sea vessel.

Trials continue to be an ‘Enigma’ in that seldom has there been a trial which has been conducted as per stipulated timelines or not mired in complications, complaints and allegations. Hence there is a need to holistically examine the entire activity to ascertain what is it that really plagues the process and what are the actions required to unravel and remedy the ‘Trial Enigma’.

The Process

In the procurement cycle, the ‘trials’ phase is distinct and pivotal in fructification of the case. Out of the twelve essential processes in the acquisition cycle, ‘trials’ or ‘field evaluation’ are the sixth process following the ‘Technical Evaluation’ and after the trials ‘Staff Evaluation’ takes place. Timely completion of trials and  following basic tenets like scope of trials, evaluation of parameters, fairness, transparency and accurate compilation of trial report are essential for successful staff evaluation.

The Capability Development or the erstwhile Weapons & Equipment Directorate is the nodal directorate to coordinate and facilitate all trial related activities. Trials are conducted basis the trial methodology which is part of the Request for Proposal (RFP) and the detailed trial directive issued thereafter. Field Evaluation Trials (FET) generally comprise user trials and technical trials to include quality, maintainability and electromagnetic compatibility.

The erstwhile DPP and the DAP 2020 provide more than adequate flexibility and latitude in the scope of trials to facilitate the process, whether it is in terms of accepting vendor certification, simulation testing, permitting minor modifications, confirmatory trials and validation of every parameter in all possible types of terrain. In spite of adequate enabling provisions there are   challenges being faced in conduct of trials.

The Challenges

  • Organisation/Structure of Trial Team. Constitution of user trial team has to be done de-novo for each trial in the absence of a designated trial establishment, which at times results in lack of institutional memory and a professional approach towards trials. Further various trial teams, testing facilities and laboratories are dissipated geographically.
  • Ambitious General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQR). The GSQR parameters are drawn up based on Request for Information and at times without mapping to the cost or timelines for availability. No vendor will negate any desired parameter compliance in this query. The challenge is in producing the prototype itself for trials and the actual trial evaluation of these parameters, which is time consuming and difficult.
  • Delay in Submission of Trial Equipment by Vendors. This can be termed as the bane of trials. Vendor is supposed to submit the equipment for trials immediately on intimation of technical committee compliance which is a paper exercise to validate vendors overall credentials. This is mentioned in the Request for Proposal. However there have been cases where there have been delays of upto two years for submission of the trial equipment.
  • Trial Plans Sequential rather than Concurrent. The conduct of user trial, DGQA, MET, EMI/EMC etc are contingent on availability of number of trial equipment. In low cost equipment, more trial equipment can be asked for, however, for expensive systems this is a limiting factor. This leads to sequential trials which results in more time being taken cumulatively.
  • Multiple Locations and Myriad Terrain and Weather Dynamics. Despite flexibility in provisions, there is always a tendency to conduct trials in all possible terrain types and weather conditions. This leads to delays due to the need to move equipment and waiting for the right weather window. Further if confirmatory trials are involved the delay further increases.
  • Provision for Confirmatory Trials. Provisions for confirmatory trials exist in the event of non- compliances in one or more of the parameters by any vendor so that equipment can be made compliant by minor modifications etc. However, repeated confirmatory trials take a long time and in fact there have been a number of trials where these have taken as much as two to four years, with various vendors taking time to carry out modifications.
  • Compartmentalised Approach. DGQA, MET, EMI/EMC and User Trials are held in a silos within each vertical. The dynamics within each vertical add to the delays. Various functionaries are also at geographically different locations.
  • Severity and Scope of Trials. The quality parameters are to be evaluated as per JSS 55555 and EMI/EMC parameters as per MIL STD 461.The GSQRs and RFPs state adherence to above parameters without at times going into details of requirement and applicability of each test both in terms of scope and severity. In absence of any clear articulation by the user and in the GSQR/ RFP, the evaluation is done on all parameters with the most severe testing. This leads to a time penalty and also creates the vulnerability of rejection of the equipment for  a parameter which may not be required.
  • Complaints/Allegations/Representations. Complaints / allegations and representations by participating vendors, non-participating vendors, and vendors eliminated in the procurement process are a matter of routine. Escalating these complaints to the highest levels is the common practice. The examination of these and disposal has been enunciated in ‘Guidelines for Handling of Complaints’ issued by MoD Acquisition Wing. However, due to repeated and the sheer number of complaints, a lot of time is wasted.
  • General Staff Evaluation Approvals. This is the culmination of the trial process and the entire evaluations are collated and presented for approval. Though it is an academic exercise, but experience validates the fact that there is considerable delay in this activity.
  • Intangibles. Besides the above tangible issues there are certain intangibles which crop up despite the trial process having gone through as stipulated. Mention of these is relevant since many cases have come to a halt due to questioning of the basic trial directive, raising issues on non-compliances and their criticality, third party audits of the process, contemporary technology mapping and vendor credibility, well after having gone past these milestones much earlier in the process.

Way Ahead

Undeniably trials are a key activity in the capability development process and ensure that the capabilities fielded are tested and evaluated and found suitable for deployment and operations envisaged.

The Industry too rightly has been raising certain issues over trials primarily due to mounting costs and the perpetual cloud of uncertainty. It is often proposed that there should be an initial limited evaluation for critical functional and quality parameters followed by determination of L1 and then an exhaustive evaluation. But the challenge is in the evaluation of these critical parameters only!!! So, the key takeaways as far as remedial   measures are concerned are as under: –

  • Centralised trial establishments with integrated testing facilities should be built. A dedicated trial establishment suitably equipped with professionals and supporting infrastructure is the ideal way. The Army as an interim step in this direction has started assigning trials to ‘Trial Wings’ with the training establishments. Professional approach and institutional memory will be ensured.
  • Augmentation of testing facilities by way of allocation of Rs 400 Cr to Defence Testing Infrastructure Scheme is a welcome step and should be expedited. Creation of these through offsets may also be considered.
  • Composite trials to include user and all other technical trials should be insisted upon. Some trials in this manner have been initiated.
  • A lot more diligence at the preparatory GSQR stage with open discussions is the way ahead. The need is to incrementally look for enhanced parameters in a defined timeline and numbers. So, at the stage of freezing the QRs not only the industry but all stakeholders have to be candid and forthright and sift as to what is aspirational and what is achievable in a given time frame and within budgetary constraints and the user has to factor in all these aspects and be flexible.
  • Theatre specific parameters are a reality and shying away from these on operational pretext needs a hard look. The experience of Swathi Weapon Locating Radar and Akash Missile Systems adequately brings out how successfully developed platforms for plains have been improved and upgraded for higher altitude deployment. Looking for a single platform as the only solution which fulfils all parameters whether it be in plains, deserts, high altitude or the Rann of Kutch is fraught with risk of failure, protracted trials, delays and obviously the huge cost penalty.
  • State of readiness of equipment for trials A realistic assessment should be clearly ascertained. There should be provisions in the RFP to stipulate a date for submission of equipment.
  • Provisions to do away with TEC as a separate process is something which should be immediately considered.
  • Trial plans need to innovatively evolved to make them concurrent as far as feasible rather than sequential. Certain successive elimination trials can be instituted wherein the commencement of next phase of trials is contingent on compliance of an earlier phase. This will speed up trials and the participating vendors will also be clear about their status.
  • Vendor certification should be emphasised upon and accepted with provisions and flexibility to validate the same in a later time frame if warranted.
  • Controlled environment simulation should be looked into. It is feasible and the optimum way.
  • Confirmatory trials should be restricted unless no vendor is meeting all the parameters. Now the user will have to take a hard call on this. The issue is to be looked at holistically. After the efforts put in the scheme right from RFI stage, the intent should be to procure the equipment as fast as possible.
  • The defining of qualitative parameters as well as EMI/EMC protection envisaged needs to be clearly thought of and spelt by the user. The evaluating agencies are experts and need to conduct these technical tests and no compromise is acceptable. However, the scope of the tests and severity has to be thought of and stated upfront to enable speedy and meaningful evaluation.
  • Complaints /allegations/representations hold up decision making. This is something where a ready solution is not easy to come by considering the complexities but nonetheless efforts should be made in a collegiate manner.

Trials are a complex process. Users are being duly sensitised and there is undoubtedly  continuous improvement in the processes due to efforts by all concerned. As the dynamics of each trial are unique a copybook solution is not readily available. A pro- active engagement amongst all stakeholders before the trial directive is issued and resolution of issues before trials begin holds the key to all problems and will ensure smooth conduct of trials, for which the industry as well as the user has to be forthright and upfront.