Programmes Multiply but Struggle for Resources
On the fringes of IAV 2018 in Twickenham this week, MONS had the opportunity to discuss the current state of Indian armoured vehicle programmes with two representatives of that community. Their views are instructive in helping to make sense of a somewhat confused and fragmented situation.
Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) last year received a long awaited $371 million order for the upgrade of almost 700 BMP-2 IFVs. Meanwhile the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) programme – a $10 billion attempt to produce 2,600 new IFVs to replace the BMO-2 fleet – is a decade behind schedule and the vehicles are now apparently not expected to enter service until 2023-2027.
Also last year Larsen & Tubro received confirmation of a $700 million order (the largest ever placed with a private Indian firm) for 100 K9 VAJRA (Thunder) self-propelled howitzers. The indigenous content of these vehicles, which will be coproduced with Korea’s Hanwha Techwin, now stands at 50%.
On the main battle tank (MBT) front, the army will shortly be completing its acceptance of 494 T-90MS vehicles acquired in kit form from Russia, while an order for the construction of 700 T-90S BHISHMA under license is expected to be placed with OFB by midyear. This order may well become the first batch of T-90S MBTs to receive the BHSIHMA 2 upgrade, which supposedly takes the indigenous workshare on the vehicle from the current 74% to a staggering 96%. The upgrade comprises a digital architecture to ‘future-proof’ the vehicle, a panoramic sight and fire control system for the commander, an automatic transmission and an automatic target tracking capability. A similar upgrade has been completed for 1,000+ T-72 AJEYA MBTs.
The Future Ready Combat Vehicle (FRCV) programme, a likely $12-15 billion effort to replace the T-72 fleet with about 1,700-1,800 new vehicles, is broadly based on the Russian ARMATA (T-14 MBT and T-15 IFV) family, with the apparent intention of producing a series of variants on a common chassis. These are to include an APC and a self-propelled gun as well as armoured recovery and combat engineering vehicles. With a second RFI having only just been issued (the first abortive attempt at launching the inquiry process took place in 2015) it seems doubtful whether there is any chance at all of the ambitious 2021-2023 in service date target being met.
Meanwhile the beleaguered ARJUN MBT programme, despite having been extensively modified to a Mk II standard, with over 70 performance enhancements and a programme of further modification announced by the DRDO late last year, continues to falter. There are few signs that widespread adoption of the ARJUN by the army is imminent, despite DRDO optimism that at least two regiments will be equipped with the Mk II.
Indian armour programmes are ambitious. In this they are no different to similarly ambitious projects in other domains. They also share some – if not all – of the problems associated with those other projects.
Delays in decision-making at the political level lie at the heart of many of the armour industry’s issues currently. Private industry cannot cope with or cater for continued delays for no apparently good reason and lose enthusiasm to ‘go the extra mile’ when called upon to do so. State industries find it difficult to be flexible in their planning to adjust for unanticipated delays, leading to conflict and confusion as well as waste of effort and resources. The complexity and ill-founded premises of the Defence Procurement Procedure do much to contribute to the confusion on this front.
Corruption continue to be a problem, despite the government’s valiant efforts to eradicate it. To a degree it is unlikely to disappear entirely – but minimising its effects and punishing the more egregious transgressions is certainly possible and should be pursued more aggressively.
The ‘Make in India’ policy is a laudable and entirely understandable one. But shouting it from the rooftops without providing the resources to back it up – in the form of increased R&D spending or support and encouragement for the private sector – is not a guarantor of universal acceptance. The armour vehicle industry in India, while large, is not yet mature. It needs nurturing and assistance, not exhortation.