“It isn’t about getting to the LAC quickly,
it’s about winning there.”
A fresh Request for Information (RFI) to procure over 1,700 Future Ready Combat Vehicles (FRCVs) has been issued by the Indian Army to twelve Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). The acquisition is planned through the Strategic Partnership (SP) route and induction is expected to be completed by 2030. According to the RFI, the Indian Army has plans to get the FRCVs with Transfer of Technology (ToT). The companies are expected to respond by mid-September this year.
Too many new Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFV) programmes seem to be in the offing. The Indian Army is operating several tracked platforms and has plans to add a few more. Major tank manufacturing countries prefer to limit the number of platforms from the operational sustainment and life cycle cost angle. The US, UK, France, Germany, and Israel operate only one Main Battle Tank (MBT). Russia had two and is adding the Armata now, but these have a fair degree of commonality. Most of these platforms were developed in the seventies. The Indian Army’s wish, to add an MBT and a light tank within a decade plus of induction of the T90 and Arjun, is an illusory plan. It is akin to the obsession of owning several cars by celebrities and oligarchs. When a person runs up credit card balance to a point where bills cannot be paid, many problems will surface. The Maharaja may face similar embarrassment.
One can foresee massive financial chaos if all these programmes are run concomitantly. The Indian Army has been finding it difficult to match its financial commitments with available resources as a result of inadequately considered acquisitions based on “first-past-the-post” principle. The real costs surface after the programme gets started, delivery schedules get expanded and finally, actual performance is several notches lower than initially claimed. The T90 makes an appropriate case study, with close to 500 tanks yet to be delivered. It has been repeatedly experienced that foreign systems do not give the desired performance when fielded in our operating environment. The Indian Army has to realise that actual combat results, lessons learnt in exercises and deployments in varied terrains should shape the design of future weapon systems.
The RFI states that procurement will be done in accordance with Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020. Chapter II of DAP mentions the analysis of mission needs, capability gaps and additional capability being acquired through an acquisition. It is possible that the Indian Army may not have deliberated on these lines because if it was so, a definite idea of existing capability gaps in current platforms would have emerged. A deeper analysis would have led to a firm conclusion whether current platforms are capable of delivering the desired operational capability with technology insertion or not. Most countries plan to retain their MBTs for another 20 to 30 years having identified capability gaps and plugging these using the technology insertion route. The M1 evolved in the seventies, is proposed to be with the United States (US) Army beyond 2050. It is, therefore, important that the Indian Army reconsiders this acquisition de novo and develops clarity as to what capability it wants to acquire with this platform. What are the capability gaps that have been noticed during the current stand-off or in previous mobilisation and why these cannot be addressed through upgrade. It is possible that like the most powerful military in the world, a capability enhanced T90 or T72 or Arjun tank would be able to plug the desired equipment capability gaps obviating the need for FRCV.
The M1 developed in the seventies, entered service in 1980. Since then, based on operational requirements, there were a number of improvements through system enhancement programme and improved versions such as the M1A1, M1A2, and the M1A2SEP were rolled out. A lighter version with same protection levels is being developed. It can be seen that even the richest country in the world has considered it prudent to adopt the technology insertion route to retain an operational edge instead of relying on a new system. During the same period, the Indian Army has operated four battle tanks viz. T55, T72, T90 and Arjun. With such a medley, fleet readiness can get adversely impacted.
A planned Capability Enhancement Programme (CEP) can make the entire fleet contemporary and fully mission capable, enabling retention beyond 2050. The money saved can be used to acquire systems incorporating next generation technologies that give the Indian Army a distinct capability edge in multiple domains. By very conservative estimates, the FRCV programme could cost the country anything between Rs 50,000 to Rs 80,000 crore. Compared to this, capability enhancement of the existing fleet could be done with a significantly lower amount that would be more easily affordable.
Strategic Autonomy – The Israeli Way
However, there remains one critical ground – a strategic reason to go ahead with the acquisition of the FRCV. It is from the strategic assurance and strategic influence angle. It is important to assure soldiers that the weapon they depend on will always be available in a ready-to-fight condition without deficiencies and limitations. This is something which the higher defence leadership has to consider. Creation of an indigenous capability to fully design, develop and manufacture an MBT as has been done by Israel and South Korea, is a must for India, given the security landscape. Given the sensitivities associated with armour, the design authority has to remain with the Ministry of Defence (MOD), though technical solutions and manufacturing know-how needs to be progressively shifted to the Indian defence industry.
Atmanirbhar Bharat in defence has to be strategised at the level of the MOD and cannot be left to the military or the industry. If that be the strategic aim, then it is worth taking this acquisition forward. Till the Yom Kippur War, Israel was dependent on imported weapon systems. The significance of self-reliance dawned during the course of the war, when Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were shaken to the core due to the destruction of 400 tanks in the first three days of the war, by swarms of Egyptian infantrymen equipped with anti-tank missiles. A sense of complacency had prevailed in the IDF after the impressive victory of 1967. Not all equipment was combat ready and serious maintenance issues had surfaced. What saved the day was the technical orientation of the operating crew and engineering excellence of maintenance personnel. The Indian Army needs to understand that, in any future conflict, India will be on its own and hence, the inescapable need for self reliance in producing weapon systems and ammunition.
Post the Yom Kippur war, Israel made the shift by focussing on industrial capabilities and developing competent scientists, engineers and technicians. Growth of the defence industry was achieved by a blend of imported technology and Israeli innovation. Israeli firms purchased manufacturing rights and entered into collaborative ventures with foreign companies to manufacture full weapon systems and components, mostly with support from the government. The sheer timelines of the Merkava programme illustrates how a well-planned and efficient government intervention can facilitate the establishment of a versatile defence industrial base and consolidate technology security. Israel started plans to produce an indigenously -made tank, drawing on lessons from the 1973 war. By 1974, initial designs were completed and prototypes built. After trials, work began for full scale manufacture and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) officially adopted the tank in December 1979. The lead organisation for system integration of the Merkava was government-owned Israel Military Industries along with a collection of 16 other industrial partners, 90 percent located in Israel.
The Future Tank
The RFI states that the adversary’s tank continues to remain the primary target. Also, the future tank has to be in sync with technological advances, counter new threats and enhance its operational performance using technology. Countering enemy tanks is not the main issue, as these are from the same stable as ours, with more or less similar strengths and vulnerabilities. What needs to be re-visited is that the tank was not developed only to defeat the enemy tank. If that was the aim, then the over-engineered Tiger, being vastly superior to the T-38 and Sherman, should have altered the outcome of the war. It was developed to defeat the machine-gun predominant static defences. The ultimate goal was to restore mobility to the infantry, punch holes in positional defences, allowing combat teams to operate at operational tempos greater than that of the adversary.
Given the lethality of the modern battlefield, whether due RPGs, Kornets, TOWs, PGMs or drone-delivered Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFP), mechanised forces world over are getting heavier, not lighter. The Israelis continue to transform older tanks into infantry carriers to provide them freedom of movement in the Gaza strip. The Marine spearheads in Iraq were led by the heavy M1 tanks and Bradleys. Designing a tank that could outshoot and defeat all other tanks is a fantasy; instead it should be designed as a special weapon to solve an unusual tactical situation.
The threat posed by large armoured and motorised formations operating in close proximity of the LAC is a cause of concern. But can it be addressed by simply introducing a new platform? Isn’t it time to do things differently? The MBT can provide shock effect at great speed and lethality. Its destructive power is significant with its large calibre weapon pack and it can provide very effective fire support to the infantry. Tanks are like heavy-weight boxers, able to deliver big punches, absorb big punches; but need enhanced agility, as in Kabaddi, to be able to survive surprise moves. The future battlefield may feature MBTs operating alongside unmanned armoured ground vehicles and a constellation of drones programmed to attack the adversary’s AFVs. The growing trends towards automation, robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are aimed to improve survivability. Active protection systems, use of advanced materials that provide high protection with low weight, could make tanks lighter and enhance agility. As is evident, most of these capabilities are technology driven, hence it may be possible to acquire equipment capabilities by adopting any technology that the Indian Army deems critical, on existing platforms such as T90/ 72/Arjun at affordable cost.
Going by the RFI, the Indian Army appears to be looking at a platform packed with state-of-the-art attributes rather than differentiating equipment capabilities. I think the requirement should be based on specific missions which the FRCV may be called upon to execute amidst the likely technology-enabled battlefield environment that the adversary can shape. At the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Indian Army faces an adversary that is highly organised and well-equipped and can use both conventional and asymmetric tactics. It has the advantage of employing the latest high-technology weapons, unmanned aircraft and creating a contested electro-magnetic spectrum inhibiting digital communications and GPS. This could become the prototype for future combat on the international border (IB) too, where the adversary has support of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The RFI appears to be a ‘cooked’ solution shaped to support a preferred decision. A pragmatic approach would be to first fix what equipment capability is required to establish a position of advantage on the sub-continental battlefield. A magical combination of mobility, firepower, protection and situational awareness which, when technically enabled with Special Operations and integrated support from artillery, rotary, fixed-wing and space-based assets, allows combat teams to operate at tempos that outstrip those of the adversaries.
On numerous occasions, foreign know-how that has come after multi-billion dollar payouts, has not worked “as it is”, in India. It has to be complemented with Indian innovation to achieve a battle winning edge by giving a technological advantage over the adversary. This lesson has been learnt repeatedly but the deficiencies have never been corrected, because of the absence of institutional memory and reluctance of commanders to report operability and reliability issues during their short tenures. It is, therefore, important that the FRCV is designed as a platform for Indian conditions as it has been done with the Merkava. Services of a foreign design house may be required to supplement indigenous capabilities. This unfortunately is not evident from the RFI where the entire job of evolving a design has been left to the vendors. Even the preferred calibre of the main armament has not been indicated which every country endeavours to do. Integration of indigenous ordnance aims to standardise ammunition, cover risk of specifications getting compromised and develop a clear understanding of the interface between weapon and munitions – internal ballistics, influence of propellant charge designs, ‘g’ loadings and operational limitations of weapon/ammunition combination, so essential for crew safety. The East European 125 mm gun has had a saga of barrel burst and accidents and being available with both the adversaries, suitable countermeasures would have been developed. It is yet to earn the trust of crew and technicians.
It is an option to develop the FRCV around a survivability philosophy viz. destroy enemy beyond their engagement range by any means; avoid being detected, engaged or hit; prevent penetration and minimise battle damage. To provide the desired agility and power-to-weight ratio of 30, a 1500-1800 hp power pack and a jam-resistant tactical internet may become indispensable. The indigenous 120 mm ordnance needs to be optimised and a 130 mm main gun development project initiated as a futuristic requirement. The FRCV (full up) should be subjected to live – fire tests instead of old procedures of testing in bits and pieces – components, armour plates and empty hulls to assess the extent of fuel and ammunition fires, flash blindness, and the effects of blast and toxic gases. This assurance will greatly enhance morale of the operating crew.
Incremental Capability Development
Once the Indian Army has developed adequate clarity on what it wants to achieve with the FRCV i.e. something which an upgraded T90/T72 or Arjun cannot achieve, a pragmatic approach would be to go in for incremental capability development by fielding selected technologies in the existing fleet, assessing its operational effectiveness and then taking it forward. As an example, the RFI makes a mention of AI-enabled target acquisition, multiple auto target tracker, thermal camouflage, hard and soft -kill measures. Though these technologies are in the process of being fielded, many have not reached the desired maturity levels and are extremely costly to deploy. For most of these, it is probable that the PLA may have or will develop suitable countermeasures. e.g. the enemy may adopt tactics or suppressive measures to neutralise the effectiveness of active protective systems costing between rupees four to six crore. It makes sense, therefore, to field these technologies in limited numbers in current tanks and analyse its efficacy in our operational context. A calibrated development approach as under may be desirable.
- Technology Insertion – T72: World over, there were approximately 32,000 T72s in service. Not many countries are considering discarding simply because it can be up-scaled to the current generation through technology insertion. Many have upgraded it to near T90 capabilities through upgrades. In 2003, the OEM had displayed an upgraded T72 which was missile capable. This has matured as T72 B3. If a similar upgrade is carried out on a selected number of tanks with the Indian Army along with a mobility upgrade, operational capability can be up-scaled to be on a par with T90. Features such as a target tracker, an anti-drone system, electro-optical countermeasures, and a remote weapons station can be incorporated.
- Technology Insertion – T90: This tank happens to be in service in substantial numbers only with the Indian Army. It is, therefore, crucial that a comprehensive knowledge cache to operate, maintain and upgrade over its life-cycle is created within the country. It should be clear that similar technologies are available with the PLA (Type 99) and the Pakistan Army (T80) and suitable countermeasures would have been developed. Deployment in “as-is condition” could confront the Indian Army with technological surprises in any future conflict. The platform, therefore, needs to be upgraded with fail-safe systems and technologies that enables its effective employment and prevents large scale attrition. Retrofitting of an active protection system to assess it efficacy in terms of detection and reaction time and risk of injury to own troops, can be considered. The tank should be agile enough to be able to fight and communicate in a contested electro-magnetic spectrum, besides being fortified against armour piercing and EFP from all aspects. With an innovative strategy, commitment and ownership by the Indian Army, the T90 can be transformed into a future tank by the Indian industry.
- FRCV: The only rationale for de novo development of the FRCV appears to be on account of compulsions of strategic autonomy, security and sovereignty as was done by Israel. The country has not looked back since then. The fact, that its Namer heavy armoured vehicle developed from converted tanks, was evaluated in June 2012 as a possible alternative to the US Ground Combat Vehicle programme is reflective of the world class design and development capabilities that have come up in Israel’s defence industrial base as a consequence of the bold government initiative taken in 1974. Something similar could happen in India provided the government makes clear its commitment to a strong and vibrant defence industry with a strategic plan for equipping the military with a decisive capability edge. Given below is the technology tree of the FRCV. A glance at the diagram indicates the enormous potential for innovation, pull-through of technology, enhancement of science and technology skill base, creation of local supply chains and system engineering skills. The success of this single programme will promote research into future technologies to support defence capabilities through this century. Needless to mention, this option can be undertaken only if adequate funds can be spared without impacting overall integrated readiness.
In conclusion, I would reiterate that it may be prudent to wait for maturing of next generation technologies by carrying out selective technology insertion in the existing fleet and assessing its operational and cost effectiveness. The Indian Army needs to consider subjecting the existing platforms to an equipment capability assessment exercise vis-a-vis anticipated missions. A selected number of platforms may be subjected to retro modifications, technology insertion and base reset for deployment at LAC/IB. Once their battle endurance gets mapped, it will be easier to formulate QRs for the future tank with a clear understanding of mission capability gaps. The FRCV acquisition could be deferred by a decade or two in view of the competing requirements such a light tank, wheeled APC, UAV, and space-based system. It should only be taken forward as a strategic capability development initiative i.e. acquiring a national capability to design, manufacture, sustain and upgrade a tank. It should consolidate India’s Technology Security in the process. Any act of financial profligacy and extravagance will only exacerbate the Maharaja’s credit card balance and financial encumbrances.