|By Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd)||Published: November 2017|
New Delhi. The Indian Army is deployed in large numbers in border management and internal security duties even as it trains to meet the threat of a two-front war. There is concern about the persistent and worrisome delays in the replacement of many obsolescent weapons and equipment and the army’s qualitative modernisation to meet future challenges.
The tanks and ICVs of the mechanised forces in the plains are still partly night blind and the capability to launch offensive operations in the mountains continues to remain inadequate to deter a future conflict. Although there are reports now on the army going in for sophisticated firearms for the combat units of the infantry and some guns for the artillery, it is still too little and simply inadequate.
Artillery firepower, which will pave the way for the infantry to win future battles, needs to be upgraded by an order of magnitude – particularly in the mountains, if military aims are to be achieved during a future conflict. The capacity to launch precision strikes on hard targets with ground-based firepower delivery means is much short of the volumes that will be required. Air defence capabilities are grossly inadequate and army aviation squadrons are still equipped with obsolete light helicopters.
The modernisation plans of India’s cutting edge infantry battalions, which are aimed at enhancing their capability for surveillance and target acquisition at night and boosting their firepower for precise retaliation both in conventional conflict and against infiltrating columns and terrorists holed up in built-up areas, are stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire. The army also needs to upgrade its rudimentary C4I2SR system and graduate quickly to network centricity to synergise the employment of its combat potential.
In fact, the artillery and infantry modernisation plans stand out for being neglected over more than 20 years. If at all these are moving forward, it is at a snail’s pace.
Upgrading Artillery Firepower
Modernisation of the artillery has been stagnating after the acquisition of Bofors in the 1980s despite the lessons learnt during the1999 Kargil conflict, in which sustained artillery firepower had undeniably paved the way for victory. Approximately 400 pieces of the 155 mm/39-calibre FH-77B Bofors howitzer were acquired, over 25 years ago. Though India paid for the designs, the guns were never manufactured locally as allegations over bribes, and poor quality, brought down a government and literally introduced paralysis in the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
The artillery is now equipped with obsolescent weapons and equipment like the 105 mm Indian Field Gun (IFG), the 122 mm Howitzer, the 130 mm Catapult self-propelled (SP) gun and the 120 mm mortars. The artillery requires large quantities of PGMs for the destruction of hard targets such as tanks and bunkers and a potent real-time reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA) capability. And, in view of their performance in Afghanistan and Iraq, the time has come to add UCAVs armed with PGMs to the artillery’s arsenal. Only then will it be possible to achieve future threats, including the large-scale destruction of the adversary’s war machinery.
Under the army’s Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan (FARP) formulated in 1999, the Regiment of Artillery had decided to standardise the calibre of its guns at 155 mm so as to be able to engage targets deep inside enemy lines and to reduce the logistics trail through commonality of ammunition. The artillery plans to acquire a total of 2,820 guns of all types to replace obsolescent guns and to equip the new regiments that will form part of 17 Corps, the Mountain Strike Corps now under raising. The modernisation plan had been stymied by the blacklisting of some firms in the fray.
New acquisitions have begun to now move forward. The DAC has accorded approval for the acquisition of 145 pieces of 155 mm/39-calibre M777 howitzer, which has a range of 24 km and weighs 4,000 kg. This weapon system, manufactured by the US-based MNC BAE Systems, will equip seven regiments in the mountains. The proposed acquisition will be through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route in a government-to-government deal worth USD 750 million. It will take a few years before all the guns are delivered. This gun will get inter-sector mobility when the C-47 Chinook medium lift helicopter is introduced into service. Also, plans are to use indigenous Ordnance Factory Board (OFB)-made munitions on this gun, for which trials are on.
Several Indian companies are known to be interested in the indigenous design and development of modern artillery systems in conjunction with overseas partners. Indigenous efforts to manufacture 155 mm howitzers include that by OFB to produce a 45-calibre 155 mm howitzer called Dhanush. Bofors had given full Transfer of technology (ToT) and this gun has evolved from that. In the process though, it has matured into an indigenous design during development. The gun has a maximum range of 38 km.
The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) has approved OFB’s proposal to manufacture 416 pieces of 155 mm/45-calibre Dhanush howitzers provided the prototypes successfully meet the army’s GSQR in user trials. The gun is reported to have faced some glitches during technical and user trials, including a bore premature. When these are resolved, 18 pieces are expected to be handed over to the army in 2018 for the exploitation phase.
The acquisition of 814 truck-mounted self-propelled (SP) guns has also been approved by the DAC and will be undertaken under the ‘buy and make in India’ category with ToT. While the first 100 guns will be imported, the remaining 714 will be manufactured in India. The total project cost is estimated to be around Rs 16,000 crore.
Bharat Forge (partner Elbit of Israel), Tata Power SED (Denel, South Africa) and L&T (Nexter, France) are likely to bid for this contract when the RfP is issued.. Trials for 180 pieces of 155 mm/52-calibre tracked SP guns for desert terrain have been completed successfully and negotiations are in progress to award the contract to K-9 Thunder, a JV between L&T and Samsung of South Korea. Also, 180 pieces of 130 mm M-46 Russian guns have been upgraded to 155mm/45-caliber with kits supplied by Soltam of Israel. The maximum range of the gun has gone up from 27.5 to 39 km. India can exercise an option to upgrade another 250 to 300 guns in future as a ‘buy and make Indian’ project.
The single largest artillery acquisition will be of 1,580 pieces of towed 155 mm/52-calibre guns over a period of 12 to 15 years. Of these, 400 guns are to be imported and the remaining 1,180 produced in India ToT. Over the last eight to 10 years, several RfPs that were floated for this project were cancelled allegedly due to the corrupt practices followed by some companies. New tenders were floated for these 155 mm/52-calibre long-range guns for the plains and trials are reported to have been completed. The two contenders are joint ventures (JVs) between Bharat Forge and Elbit and L&T and Nexter of France.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has embarked on its own venture to design and develop a 155 mm/52-calibre Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) in partnership with Bharat Forge and Tata Power SED, both private sector companies. While Bharat Forge will manufacture the gun, Tata Power SED will provide the electronics. Efforts are also underway to mount a 130 mm gun on an Arjun tank chassis as a replacement for the Catapult, which had a 130 mm gun on a Vijayanta tank chassis. 155 mm ammunition is now being manufactured indigenously, but some fuses are still being acquired from abroad.
Progress on the multi-barrel rocket launcher front has been better than that in the acquisition of tube artillery. A contract for the acquisition of three regiments of the 12-tube, 300 mm Smerch multi-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL) system with 90 km range was signed with Russia’s Rosoboronexport in early-2006. Each artillery division now has a regiment of this potent weapon system. Three regiments of the indigenously designed 214 mm Pinaka multi-barrel rocket system, manufactured jointly by the Tatas and L&T, have also been inducted into service. While the Pinaka has a range of 37 km at present, the Mark 2 version of the rocket will have a range of 60 km.
Although Pinaka was tested in the Kargil War, both these rocket systems are not suitable for employment in mountainous terrain.
The BrahMos supersonic cruise missile (Mach 2.8 to 3.0), jointly developed with Russia, has tremendous precision strike capability, very high kill energy and maximum range of 290 km. It was first inducted into the army in July 2007.
The number of BrahMos regiments has since gone up to three. A 4th regiment to be inducted will have ‘steep dive’ capability for the mountains. These terrain hugging missiles are virtually immune to counter measures due to their high speed and very low radar cross section.
India should consider exporting the BrahMos missile system to achieve foreign policy objectives; for example to Vietnam.
The Grad BM-21 MBRL regiments, which have been in service for almost three decades, are being given extended range rockets that have a maximum range of 40 km. These four missile and rocket launcher weapon systems will together provide a major boost to the artillery’s ability to destroy key targets at long ranges. However, a surface-to-surface missile (SSM) with a range of 500-600 km, which can be fired from the plains to destroy targets higher in the mountains.
Sharpening the Cutting Edge: Modernising the Infantry
The army has initiated a project to equip all its infantry battalions with a system that had for long been called the Future Infantry Soldier as a System (F-INSAS). The new system will be a force multiplier and will include a modular weapon with a thermal imaging sight, a new assault rifle with an UBGL that will replace the INSAS rifle, a Laser range finder, a combat helmet equipped with a head-up display and communications head set, a smart vest with a body monitoring system, a backpack with integrated GPS and radio and protective footwear.
The new combat system is expected to be built indigenously with Commercially Off the Shelf (COTS) imported components. It resembles the US Army Land Warrior system and is expected to cost over Rs 25,000 crore to equip over 350 infantry battalions. Plans also include the acquisition of hand-held battlefield surveillance radars (BFSRs), and hand-held thermal imaging devices (HHTIs) for observation at night. Stand-alone infrared, seismic and acoustic sensors need to be acquired in large numbers to enable infantrymen to dominate the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan and detect infiltration of its terrorists.
The army also requires more than 350,000 new bullet-proof jackets but only 50,000 have been ordered so far. The army had requisitioned the jackets almost ten years ago.
Surprisingly, the army’s plans to replace the basic weapon of an infantryman, a fault-free modern assault rifle, are still hanging fire.
The army’s 10-year hunt for new assault rifles as a replacement for the malfunctioning 5.56 mm INSAS rifle has seen little progress.
It has been reported that the army planned to import 65,678 larger calibre 7.62 mm rifles that are more lethal, with another 120,000 to be made in India. But then, there have been many cancellations of ongoing acquisitions in recent years due to glitches in the procurement process, including the acquisition of 65,678 assault rifles and 44,600 carbines, in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
It was reported in August 2017 that the MoD had retracted the RfP for the acquisition of 44,000 7.62 mm light machine guns (LMGs) as “it had become a single-vendor situation with only the Israeli Weapons Industries (IWI) left in the fray after protracted trials from December 2015 to February 2017.” Approximately 4,400 LMGs were to be imported; the rest were to be manufactured in India with ToT. All of these acquisitions were cancelled after a long-drawn tendering process and protracted trials.
The projects will be delayed by at least five to seven years.
The army needs to procure approximately 800,000 assault rifles at a cost of about Rs 16,000 crore for its 450 infantry and Rashtriya Rifles (RR) battalions (each battalion has a strength of 800 personnel).
Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has been quoted as saying that he had decided to import only 250,000 state-of-the-art 7.62mm assault rifles for troops directly engaged in combat roles, and for whom it would be the “primary weapon.”
There are budget constraints. An imported rifle would cost around Rs 200,000, and an Indian-made, one-fourth of that.
To enable the army to fight and win in an era of strategic uncertainty, the government must give a major boost to the army’s modernisation drive. It requires substantially higher budgetary support than what has been forthcoming over the last decade, and the Government somehow has to find funds
The author is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.