Modernisation of the Mechanised Forces: Way Ahead

Sub Title : Out of the box thinking is required to drive the endeavour

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2021

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

Page No. : 58

Category : Military Technology

: December 2, 2021

Modernisation of the mechanised forces must be looked at as a National Capability Projection Project. The present structures and procedures are not  suited to execute such programs . There is a need to break away from the confines of DAP 2020 and go about the endeavour with out of the box thinking so that the project can be driven with the earnestness it deserves

The modernization of the Indian Mechanized Forces is something which comes up for discussion and debate in a familiar cyclic pattern. The debate  is invariably torn between upgrading the existing inventory  or  going  in  for new acquisitions. This analysis covers the entire spectrum of  platforms and is not confined to a particular arm. While the option of upgrading will be briefly examined, focus in the main will be on new acquisitions. With RFIs having been issued for not only the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) and the Future Ready Combat Vehicle (FRCV) but also the Light Tank, some clarity appears to be developing.

The current  inventory comprises the T-90, Arjun Mk 1, T-72 and a few T 55 tanks and the ICV BMP II. T-90 tanks when inducted were in the ‘State of Art’ category and are today bordering ‘contemporary status’. The T-72 tanks inducted first in 1979 are in ‘vintage category’ and  the T-55s are in ‘obsolete category’. The mechanized infantry is equipped  with the BMP II, first inducted in 1984-85. Though technology infusion has been continually done, the vintage clearly indicates that incremental infusion may not be the right prescription to be future combat ready. The desired optimal mix of 25-30% equipment with state of art technology, 40-45% contemporary mainstay equipment and 25-30% obsolescent technology stands totally skewed.

To secure National interests, it is imperative that adequate capability be developed to counter a wide spectrum of threats ranging from conventional to asymmetric but defence procurements have also to be seen in light of budgetary constraints. Thus, there is a need to attain the right balance and examine various options that are available.

Acquisition or Upgrades

Resources being finite investments required for new technologies and platforms are inevitably substantial though these eventually result in reduced overall life cycle costs as also provide better capabilities. In comparison the maintenance costs of aging platforms keep rising while mission reliability keeps decreasing. New platforms  entail comprehensive application of state of art and futuristic technologies, through protracted R&D, making the process both time and cost intensive, whereas for an upgrade it is piecemeal capability enhancement using contemporary technologies. A new platform  warrants overhauling of the entire production and sustenance process, whereas an upgrade only adds modern technology to existing in-service platforms by replacing obsolete technology.

Modernisation plans need an optimal balance between procurement of new platforms and upgrading the existing inventory with the aim of having a  right mix of state of art and contemporary equipment. It is  thus a process of options and trade-offs and  hence it is not surprising that proposals for new platforms are resisted in view of time and cost constraints while upgrades become a preferred option not only because of cost and time factors but also because they are an easy option for the decision makers.

In our context upgrades along with mid-course life enhancement measures have been  continuously planned and resorted to, be it medium repairs as well as overhauls for the T series tanks or the BMPs. Upgrades in the form of night enablement, ballistic fire control systems, communication systems, engine horsepower enhancement programs, improved armour protection and even an active protection system are some projects which are in different phases of execution. Interestingly besides being in different operational and timeline phases they are also driven through multifarious routes of procurement i.e.  a mix of revenue/capital as well as a mix of solutions through private industry, PSUs and Ordnance Factories. T -90 upgrades on the other hand have had a tumultuous trajectory  due to user preferences for a particular upgrade and  the decision makers reluctance to allot adequate budget for the same.

Given the aging fleet, which is skewed towards a contemporary and obsolete profile and the fact the Indian Army has been proactively working on Future Infantry Combat Vehicle and Future Ready Combat Vehicle, it would be best to go in for an inventory overhaul. However, the current RFIs which are looking at around 1770 FRCVs, 1750 FICVs and about 350 Light Tanks need to be strategized into a program synergizing operational, technical, logistical and sustenance issues from womb to tomb and not be driven by piecemeal progression of each platform.

Lessons from the US Experience

The Indian Army’s aborted attempts for finding a replacement for the BMPs and tanks, with whatever intent and vigour they were taken up with, are nowhere near to the attempts made by the US Army to replace its fleet. It would therefore be prudent to learn from their experience to put on track our modernization program. Salient aspects of  the US experience are comprehensively and exhaustively covered in the updated Congressional Research Service report of July 2021.

The mainstays of the US Army have been the M-2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, the M-1 Abrams Main Battle Tank, inducted in early 1980s and the Armoured Multi-Purpose Vehicle M-11. Prior to the program to develop the New Generation Combat Vehicle, which was launched  in 2018, there were two previous efforts to modernize these combat vehicles. The first was the Future Combat Systems Program, which ran from 2000-2009 and included a family of light and mobile crewed and autonomous vehicles. Envisioned as a family of network manned and unmanned vehicles as well as aircraft for the future battlefield, it was cancelled by the Secretary of Defence in 2009 because of overly ambitious requirements, failure of development of key critical technologies, frequently changing requirements from the Army leadership and schedule delays and a complicated industry led management approach resulting into cost over runs.

The next attempt was in the form of a Ground Combat Vehicle Program which ran from 2010-2014 focusing on the replacement primarily for the Bradley but being relevant across the entire spectrum of Army operations incorporating lessons learnt in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite a tight watch on acquisition strategies, platform capabilities, operational needs, cost efficiency and technological specifications the program was forced to be terminated in Feb 2014, being infeasible.

Post the above two  programs being aborted the focus shifted to upgrading existing platforms as opposed to developing new systems. This was a result of combination of budgetary constraints as well as user ambivalence. As these vehicles had, over a period of time, already undergone numerous upgrades there were increasing constraints on further ability to upgrade. Delays in modernization were also being  adversely commented upon by all concerned. This led to the launch of the New Generation Combat Vehicle Program in 2018. This was a deliberate effort based on lessons learnt and after identifying core priorities rather than being overly ambitious. It had a well-defined constitution of eight cross functional teams under the Modernization Task force for establishing the Army Futures Command to consolidate the entire modernization process. The intention was to leverage expertise from Industry and Academia, identify ways to progress various prototype development options and demonstrations thereof and identify opportunities to expedite the complete acquisition process from development to roll out.

Based on the above the New Generation Combat Vehicle Program soon transformed into the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle Program and added more platforms – five in all- for development in a defined and timebound manner. These are the following: –

▪   Replacement for M-2 Bradley- Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle.

▪   Replacement for M-113 Vehicle – Armoured Multi-Purpose Vehicle.

▪   Replacement for M-1 Abrams Tank-Decisive Lethality Platform.

▪   Light Tank – Mobile Protected Firepower.

▪   Three versions Light, Medium and Heavy of Robotic Combat Vehicle.

Surprisingly, this program, which had unfolded in 2018 went through a period of uncertainty wherein the RFP issued in Mar 2019 had to be withdrawn and another one issued in July 2020. The reasons  for the same are  relevant in our context too and bring forth certain important lessons. The notable ones are: –

▪   The operational requirements were  characterized as aggressive with prototypes expected to be fielded in an unrealistic or unrealizable time frame of 2026 by the Army, the Industry did not support this idea.

▪   Need felt  to redraw the operational requirements to integrate relevant, critical but yet to mature technologies

▪   Army’s intention to award contracts to a single vendor. Out of a  list of five to seven vendors expected to participate only three participated and ultimately only one was left in the fray. The acquisition strategy needed refinement.

▪   Acquisition strategy redrawn to shift the initial cost burden to the Army with an aim to motivate more vendors and regain Industry trust.

▪   A sequential plan to commence with the digital prototype, preliminary design, detailed design, prototype building and testing and production and fielding to ensure success.

▪   Significant and again relevant – reduction of foreign barriers to competition since certain proven technologies on OEM platforms existing beyond the US shores needed to be integrated to fit into both cost and time estimates.

The program has now rolled out with clear directions in terms of decision-making authorities, stakeholders, requirements, specifications, deliverables, budget and timelines and is termed as a unique approach to system development particularly in terms of system specifications and requirements.

Way Ahead for Indian Army Modernization

There are important lessons and takeaways  from the US experience. The start point is that there has to be clear intent and directions both from the user and the decision maker. There is a need to cut across stakeholders and out of the box thinking which looks beyond and not remain confined to the standard acquisition procedures.

The salient aspects of this thought process should become the pillar of the modernization endeavour and evolve into an acquisition strategy. Significantly the following aspects merit analysis: –

  Family of Platforms Concept. The existing concept of looking at each platform separately  needs to be broadened to include a family of platforms. This is essential not only from evolving and standardizing operational and critical requirements but also from the viewpoint of inter-operability, augmenting and complimenting individual platform capabilities, developing common technologies, evolving a uniform logistics and sustenance philosophy besides many other advantages. The platforms which need to be developed are: –

▪ Future Ready Combat Vehicle.

▪ Future Infantry Combat Vehicle.

▪ Light Tank.

▪ Wheeled Armoured Personnel Carrier.

▪ Recce & Support Vehicle.

▪ Unmanned Ground Vehicle.

Employment Philosophy. This needs to be evolved basis perceived and emerging threats and adversary capabilities. All stakeholders be it the line directorates, Military Operations or Operational Commands need to converge in this regard. This will dictate structures and organization for employment of these platforms and also bring about clarity in the need of equipping various combat forces.

Qualitative Requirements. The US experience amply brings out the pitfalls in the form of ambitious parameters, changing requirements, technology immaturity and development timelines which are not realistic. This is something which sounds more than   familiar and hence a very pragmatic and cautious approach needs to be adopted. The onus is not that of user alone but all stakeholders including R&D, Industry and Academia to be truthful and candid in spelling out the requirements keeping critical capability gaps and corresponding maturity timelines in mind. An integration plan to adopt and upgrade technologies as they mature should be factored in with defined deliverables. Defining the need of compatible munitions and drones across all platforms is another feature. Similarity and inter-operability of fire control, communication and guidance systems to name a few besides development of common philosophy power trains, suspension, transmission protection and other such systems has to be the norm. Combination of weapon systems and lethality to complement the capabilities is another important factor.

  Acquisition Strategy. This is an important facet if not the most important. How will the program be delivered? To put it bluntly the present structure, procedures and thought process are nowhere suited to execute such a program. Standalone RFIs/RFPs taking the options of Strategic Partnership, Make I or II, Design & Development through DRDO or any other instrument contained in DAP 2020 will not work. This is to be taken up as a National Capability Projection Project under a Special Purpose Vehicle sanctioned by the CCS. A cross functional team duly empowered constituting of User, R&D, QA, Finance, Industry, Academia, Think Tanks and Project Management Experts needs to be constituted with oversights built in. The key imperatives are clear delineation of program decision making authority whether it is for modifying, adding or eliminating specifications, requirements, disqualifications and many others with a sole purpose to drive the program and be overall beneficial to oversight activities. Conventional strategy be it policy, procedures or structures will clearly not work.

  Logistics and Sustenance Framework. The requirement for such heavy platforms needs to be evolved on a womb to tomb concept and also the life cycle costs of acquisition. With a family being thought of, commonality of inventory, support infrastructure, maintenance philosophy and other supporting platforms for say Artillery, Engineers, Air Defence, AMC, EME have to be factored in this acquisition strategy.

In Summation

There is an urgent need to work out the basic requirement of the family concept of platforms and operational requirements. Factors such as Optional Manning, Capacity, Transportability, Protection, Lethality, Mobility, Inter-Operability, Sustainability with emerging technologies such as Active Protection, Artificial Intelligence, Directed Energy Weapons, Advance Target Sensors, Loitering Munitions and Onboard Drones need to be deliberated and finalised.

A calibrated approach while developing and refining the acquisition strategy would be to work collaboratively on a preliminary design graduating to a detailed design leading to prototype building and testing and ultimate production. At the same time the trust of the Industry has to be maintained during  the development phase with appropriate hand holding and assuring them that they will not be given a short shrift.

Clarity of the requirements, timelines, a mechanism to execute, clear road map to be followed, maintaining  enthusiasm of participating industries, budgetary support for the phased program and a very strong oversight mechanism are required. It is also to be clearly understood that it is not possible for any single organization to drive this and at the same time the existing diffused structure is just not capable of undertaking the endeavour. It will also be necessary to break the boundaries and confines of the existing procedures as given in DAP 2020 and some out of box thinking is required  to seriously drive the mission. Therefore, a national project on the lines what has done the country proud viz the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program should be replicated and initiated as Integrated Armoured and Mechanized Platforms Development Program with all stakeholders under a unique umbrella so that the coming decades see an indigenous, formidable and credible capability build-up of the Indian Army.