The BAE Systems M777 ultralight field howitzer at the Defexpo 2010 in New Delhi. India is buying 140 of these under the US Foreign Military Sales programme for some Rs 3000 crores.
By Ajai Shukla
Defence & Security of India
Volume 3, Issue 5, April 2011
The current crisis of equipment obsolescence within the Indian Army has been brewing since the sharp cuts in defence expenditure during the economic crisis of the early 1990s. From its highs of more than four per cent of GDP during the late 1980s, when India had pursued an activist security and foreign policy (Sri Lanka, Maldives, Operation Brass Tacks, Operation Chequerboard, Siachen Glacier), defence expenditure plummeted to below 2.5 per cent of GDP as New Delhi’s focus shifted to fiscal stabilisation and economic reform.
Through the 1990s, before India’s economy shifted to a high growth trajectory, the army’s meagre capital allocations were insufficient for the phased replacement of equipment and weaponry that had outlived its life. The money available barely covered the annual instalments due for the tanks, infantry combat vehicles, mechanized air defence systems, assault engineering equipment and helicopters that Rajiv Gandhi, Arun Singh and General K Sundarji had splashed money on before the Bofors scandal swept away the Congress in 1989.
Nor has the economic revival of the preceding decade, and the steadily increasing allocations for capital expenditure, done much for replacing the army’s growing inventory of grey-haired equipment. Other than the multi-billion dollar purchase of T-90 tanks from Russia, big-ticket military expenditure has been directed more towards warships and aircraft than towards an army that has been engaged in relentless low-intensity combat in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam and Manipur.
Infantry modernisation has been more a slogan than a reality. India’s mechanised forces, which had constituted a formidable conventional deterrent through the 1980s and 1990s, have lost ground to Pakistan, which has dramatically cut down India’s combat power advantage with the intelligent purchase of modern tanks from Eastern Europe and self-propelled artillery from the US. The Indian Army’s artillery has been unable to procure modern guns for a quarter of a century, while the air defence artillery is even more decrepit. Logistics, traditionally consigned by India’s general staff to the unglamorous fringes of operational planning, has seen no new acquisitions of specialist vehicles and equipment.
Archaic Defence Planning
This gloomy situation stems largely from India’s archaic system of defence planning in which identifying the weapons platforms that are needed, rather than capabilities, drives the formulation of the military’s 15-year Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP); 5-year defence plans; and Annual Acquisition Plans (AAP). Modern militaries across the globe first identify the operational capabilities that they deem essential; then they build or acquire the weapons and equipment that would provide those capabilities. E.g. a military might decide it needs the ability to bring down, at 30 minutes notice, 20 tonnes of high explosive on a target 100 x 50 metre in size, 80 kilometres inside enemy territory, anywhere along a 700-kilometer section of the border. The planning cell would then decide whether that requirement would best be met by field artillery, multi-barrelled rocket launchers, cruise or surface-to-surface missiles, strike aircraft, or special forces. That crucial decision would then inform equipment procurement or development.
In New Delhi, however, equipment planning consists of the incremental upgrading of the equipment that the army already holds. Line directorates (e.g. infantry, artillery or mechanized forces directorates), which govern the equipment planning of each arm or service, simply demand an improvement over what they already operate. The artillery, equipped with 45-calibre 155 millimetre howitzers, demands 52-calibre howitzers to “modernize” the arm. The armoured corps clamours for T-90s to replace the T-72 fleet, the mechanised infantry for BMP-3s to replace the BMP-2s, and the engineers for bridges with 52-metre spans to replace the 40-metre bridges already in service.
The Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) is charged with preventing duplication and optimising resources, but with the army unable to rationalise equipment between its component branches, the IDS can hardly discharge that function. And so, instead of focusing intelligently on acquiring specific capabilities that are likely to be required in our specific operational environment, money is shared out between various interest groups, hoping to please all rather than developing specific capabilities.
With no clarity on the specific capabilities that it requires, the army’s framing of its equipment requirements also remains unclear. Arms vendors from across the globe complain about the tendency to frame General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQRs) --- the performance specifications that each platform must fulfil --- on a “best of each” basis, extracting the best performance qualities from a number of different products and putting them together to create a “perfect” product. This approach, however, disregards the simple engineering truth that performance is all about trade-offs.
For example, the specifications that the army and the IAF framed for the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, demanded a continuous cruise speed of 270 kilometres per hour at sea level and the ability to lift a 200 kilogramme payload at 6000 metres. This entirely disregarded the fact that a helicopter’s rotor can either be optimised for lift at high-altitudes, or for high-speed performance. Instead of zeroing in on the capability that it needed, the military added one and one and got eleven.
Compounding the delays caused by poorly formulated GSQRs are the Ministry of Defence’s complex procurement regulations, promulgated in the frequently revised Defence Procurement Policy. Seven versions of the DPP since 2002 have culminated in the most recent one: DPP-2011. Every procurement initiated during this last decade is governed by the DPP that was valid at that time, confusing vendors and ministry officials alike.
A final deterrent to expeditious procurement is the “Bofors-Tehelka Syndrome”, the cautious MoD mindset that emerged from those two investigations of alleged procurement transgressions. Bureaucrats handling procurement operate with the clear understanding that procurement delays are not punishable whereas the slightest procedural infringement can result in a career scuttled. Consequently, equipment procurement is characterised by a stultifying adherence to hidebound procedure where officials focus less on giving the military quality products in an acceptable timeframe, at an optimal cost, and more on adhering fanatically to the DPP.
Obsolete Field Artillery
The Indian Army’s crippling equipment obsolescence is most alarmingly highlighted in its field artillery, the most important element of combat power in the Indian operational context. Unlike western expeditionary armies, which increasingly rely on air-delivered munitions for fire support to ground troops engaged in fleeting encounters with guerrilla opponents, Indian Army operations are most likely to consist of set-piece attack or defence, in which sustained, heavy artillery fires are regarded as crucial for causing attrition on the enemy. This was most recently illustrated during the Kargil conflict in 1999, when India’s ability to pulverise Pakistani positions with massed artillery proved a battle-winning factor.
India has less than 220 regiments of outdated artillery to support troops deployed year-round along its sprawling 4,350 kilometers of disputed boundary with Pakistan and China. Since poor road communications disallow the quick redeployment of guns to threatened sectors, army planning involves pre-positioning artillery all along the 740-kilometer Line of Control, or LoC, between India and Pakistan; the 110-kilometer Actual Ground Position Line, or AGPL, above the Siachen Glacier; and the 3,500-kilometer Line of Actual Control, or LAC, between India and China.
But boosting the clearly inadequate numbers and ranges has proved impossible since the late 1980s, when the Bofors scandal restricted India’s planned buy of 155 millimetre, 45 calibre FH-77B howitzers from the planned 1510 guns to just 410. The plan to upgrade India’s 60-odd regiments of Soviet-era 130 millimetre guns to 155 millimetres was curtailed after Israeli company, Soltam, was criticised for a poor upgrade job on the first 10 regiments. The backbone of India’s artillery, especially in the mountains, remains the indigenous 105 millimetre gun, which was built in India in two variants: the Light Field Gun (LFG) for mountain terrain and the Indian Field Gun (IFG) for plains.
Multiple procurements are envisioned under the expansively named Artillery Vision 2027, and the MoD-sanctioned Artillery Modernisation Plan. These include a tender worth an estimated Rs 8000 crore for 1580 towed 155-millimetre, 52-calibre howitzers. Another tender worth over Rs 3000 crore is being pursued, under the US Foreign Military Sales Programme, for 140 ultralight 155-millimetre, 39-calibre howitzers for mountain formations. Another Rs 3500 crore is chasing 100 track-mounted 155-millimetre, 52 calibre guns for the mechanised formations. And Rs 4000 crore is earmarked for 180 similar vehicle-mounted guns for self-propelled regiments. The total money in play here, some Rs 18,500 crore, is less a problem than the glacial pace at which these procurements have been processed over the last decade.
Mounting frustration over the delays in artillery procurement have encouraged an Indian consortium, led by the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO), in partnership with private sector companies, to consider a domestic howitzer development programme. Such an enterprise would bypass many of the procedural and political hurdles that have stymied attempts to purchase foreign artillery systems.
Also making headway is Project Shakti, or the Artillery Combat Command and Control System (ACCCS), a digital network that has been jointly developed by the DRDO’s Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR) and Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL). Dedicated to the army in June 2009, this is the first of India’s net-centric warfare systems that are intended to seamlessly integrate command functions in the 21st century battlefield.
The army’s tank arsenal is based predominantly on 2418 obsolescent T-72 tanks, the first of which came into service in 1979, more than three decades ago. Underpowered, night blind and reliant on outdated gunnery computers, many of these will be replaced by a planned arsenal of 1657 T-90 tanks, 1100 of which will be built at Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF), Avadi. But, since more than a thousand T-72s will continue to be in service beyond 2022, the army plans to spend Rs 5 crore per T-72 (it was bought for Rs 9 crore each) on retrofitting crucial systems, including the fire control system, main engine and night vision devices. This procurement has sputtered along for almost a decade with barely visible success.
The early retirement of the T-72 has been stymied by the army’s incomprehensible refusal to order larger numbers of the DRDO-developed Arjun, a 60-tonne Main Battle Tank that outperformed the T-90 during comparative trials conducted by the army’s 180 Armoured Brigade near Bikaner in March 2010. While a bulk order for Arjun tanks would allow HVF Avadi to scale up its production line, the army has capped its order at 248 Arjuns.
The T-72, after its planned upgrade, would cost Rs 14 crore per tank. The T-90s that HVF has produced since 2009 cost Rs 17.5 crores apiece. In contrast, a brand new Arjun, with a 1400 horsepower engine, state-of-the-art integrated electronics, an acclaimed 120 millimetre gun, and the indigenous, widely praised Kanchan armour, comes in at Rs 16.8 crores.
Given the Arjun’s much-delayed success, the army and the DRDO are formulating the specifications of a next-generation tank, so far referred to as the Future Main Battle Tank (FMBT). This will be developed by the DRDO as an entirely indigenous project. Additionally, the army has sent out a Request for Information (RFI) to global vendors for light tanks, which it plans to deploy in north-eastern India and for mountain warfare.
Although the infantry forms the bulk of the Indian Army and has long been its most combat committed element, infantry modernisation has languished since 1998, when the MoD cleared what is known as “Modification 4B” to the scaling of an infantry battalion. This involved boosting firepower at the platoon level and also enhancing an infantry battalion’s anti-tank and anti-aircraft capabilities. In 2003, a Rs 3,500 crore infantry modernisation plan was cleared, which involved the procurement of 84 millimetre rocket launchers, anti-material rifles (AMRs), under-barrel grenade launchers (UBGLs), Kornet-E anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and modern small arms, including sniper rifles.
The new game-changer for the infantry is an ambitious new development project called the Future Infantry Soldier as a System (F-INSAS), which aims to convert an infantryman into a digitally-networked all-terrain, all-weather, weapons platform with enhanced lethality, survivability, sustainability, mobility and situational awareness. This is still a development project, in which the DRDO, Indian industry and foreign technology partners are working together.
Modernisation of the mechanised infantry is another priority project for the army, with four private sector companies --- Tata Motors; the Mahindra Group; L&T; and the MoD-owned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) --- competing to design and build 2600 new-generation Future Infantry Combat Vehicles (F-ICVs) to replace the Indian Army’s aging fleet of Russian-designed BMP-IIs. It is estimated that the development cost and the cost of manufacturing 2600 FICVs for the mechanised infantry could add up to Rs 50,000 crore, making this India’s most expensive defence contract so far. The four companies will be submitting their proposals to the MoD by May 2011.
Air Defence for Mechanised Forces
Air defence remains a crucial vulnerability in India’s national defence, with even the IAF chief and the defence minister publicly admitting to gaps in the radar coverage of Indian airspace. The efficacy of the Soviet-era SAM-2 and SAM-3 missile batteries, which have been granted several life-extensions by the OEMs, is also questionable. The air defence of India’s mechanised forces is another major gap, with the SAM-6, SAM-7 and SAM-8 medium range missile systems, procured in the 1980s, having lived out their service lives.
With the overseas procurement of replacement missile systems appearing too expensive to be viable, the MoD has initiated several development projects to produce India’s requirements indigenously. The DRDO’s Akash missile is already entering service; BEL and Bharat Earth Movers Ltd (BEML) are building 8 Akash squadrons for the IAF and 6 squadrons for the army. And DRDO, in partnership with Israeli defence manufacturers, is developing a Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LR-SAM) with a range of 70 kilometres; a Short Range Surface to Air Missile (SR-SAM) with a range of 15 kilometres; and is developing hypersonic technology for more advanced missiles. The Indo-Russian Brahmos cruise missile, which was designed as an anti-ship missile with a range of 290 kilometres, has been modified for the army for use against surface targets and has been undergoing extensive testing.
The DRDO is also at an intermediate stage in developing an integrated anti-ballistic missile system, having tested both exo-atmospheric and endo-atmospheric interceptors. This system is also capable of functioning as a long range air defence system, capable of engaging aircraft targets at ranges above 100 kilometres.
Meanwhile, also following the indigenisation track, the private and public sectors are competing for a development project to upgrade the L-70 air defence gun and integrate it with a fire control radar.
The provision of a state-of-the-art communications network for the army is one of the MoD’s key modernisation priorities. The static communications network along the borders is being converted to optic fibre. Meanwhile, a major indigenous development project --- the Tactical Communications System, or TCS --- has been initiated under the “Make” procedure of the DPP. Eight consortia, led by Indian prime contractors --- which include BEL, ECIL, ITI, Tata Power SED, Rolta, L&T, Wipro and HCL Infosystems --- will submit bids on 25th April.
Also being developed indigenously are a series of electronic warfare (EW) systems under the hush-hush Project Suraj, which include a Low Power Jammer (LPJ); an electronic warfare system for low intensity conflict (EW-LIC); an Integrated EW System for Mountains (IEWS MT); and a track and wheeled EW system for mechanised formations (EW – Track & Wheeled).
While the high number of indigenous development projects in the Indian Army’s modernisation plan is potentially a positive development, especially if this results in the development of domestic capability, a key reason for this is the failure of the defence procurement system to provide a combat committed army with suitable equipment in timely fashion.
It is time for the army to evolve realistic and well-considered GSQRs, and for the MoD to specify unbreakable time schedules for procurement, with officers being held accountable for delays. It is time also to translate into action the long-discussed proposal for a rolling, non-lapsable, Defence Modernisation Fund, to assure fund availability when a procurement process is reaching culmination.