On January 26, 2020, The Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Manoj Mukund Naravane stated that Army is making efforts to push it’s 10 year-old plan to acquire 2,600 future infantry combat vehicles (FICV) for the Indian Army at a cost of around 60,000 crore by 2026-27. He further mentioned that Army have held interactions with the stakeholders on progressing the procurement case expeditiously. The Chief also said that a fresh RFI stands prepared already which will be shared with the industry in some time from now. Soon after, it was lapped up by the Ordinance Factory Board that OFB and DRDO are jointly developing an FICV. The nation and the armed forces, particularly the Mechanised Infantry being the affected arm would attribute special significance and unique sanctity to this being stated by the COAS on or close to Republic Day and shall be taken to it’s logical end. However, ten months down the line, there is neither any sight of the RFI nor the progress as mentioned by the COAS on the FICV programme.
The thought process of mechanised warfare in it’s real sense was brought about by the Father of Mechanised Infantry, General Sunder Ji as a follow up to the Krishna Rao Committee Report (still a secret document). The fifty odd Mechanised Infantry Units of the Indian Army were to be always equipped with state of the art Infantry Combat Vehicle (ICV), and thence second generation BMP II (Russian origin) was inducted. Ironically the mechanised infantry continues to be equipped with the same ICV of vintage technologies of the 1980’s in night fighting, armament, protection and power pack.
With the objective of replacing the vintage ICV’s at the end of the service life, the FICV Project, under make process, was launched in 2008 to have world class ICV made in India having futuristic technologies like 3rd generation Fire control system, fully night enabled, greater protection and higher power to weight ratio.
The project has been mired in controversies and delays since then. It was kick-started as a major modernisation project of the Indian Army’s mechanised forces when it was accorded the Acceptance of Necessity by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) in October 2009. However, the Expression of Interest which was issued in 2010 was retracted in Dec 2012 due to perceived inconsistencies in the evaluation process for selection of Development Agencies. Subsequently, with a view to address the crtical window of 2027-32, a new timeline for induction was planned and a fresh EOI was issued to ten DDP empanelled Indian Vendors in July 2015.
After over 30 years, since the perceived need and 12 years in the works, with on-and-off rumours of the project being shelved-progressed-shelved, the vacillations in the MoD has manifested in seriously undermining the capability of the Army. The matter is now even more frightening as the belligerent neighbours continue to modernise their mechanised forces with latest state of the art technologies. China has enhanced strength of armoured resources by seven to eight times in the Tibet Autonomous Region bordering India in the last couple of years and Pakistan is bolstering its forces by quick modernisation of its tanks and ICV’s fleet. PLA in Tibet has deployed ZBD-04 also popular as WZ502, which is equivalent of BMP II of Russia, which has a main armament of 100mm and a coaxially mounted 30mm cannon with enhanced protection and power pack.
A poor man’s solution is now being promoted by the MoD/CDS with the proposal to upgrade the existing vintage fleet of BMP II. Questions are being raised on this and rightly so.
Firstly, the BMP II design is vintage. The upgradation programme has been going on since the last 15 years in parts. At one time the sighting, at other the Fire Control System and now the Power Pack. Secondly, an extremely important aspect of the metal fatigue of the vintage equipment is being ignored in totality. No amount of up-gradation makes the equipment either contemporary or enhances it’s life. Thirdly, it is being done at the cost of a modernisation programme perceived 30 years back and the Indian Army has been working over the same for the last 12 years.
The events of the past 8-10 years in the progress of the FICV programme clearly brings out another failure in the process of modernisation through indigenisation. The Expression of Interest (EOI) was issued to as many as ten DDP empanelled vendors as early as 2015. It implies that Indian Private Industry with the support of R&D including DRDO has the wherewithal to design and develop FICV for the Indian Army. However it has now been learnt that the RFI which was earlier finalised and about to be issued in May/June this year is not going to be issued in the near future. The emergent need of having a contemporary ICV, the need for which has been felt many years back is not going to see the light of the day, not only in the 2027-32 plan but even in the distant future. The modernisation programme of Indian Army thus becomes casualty as in many other cases to procedures and lapses there-in. The third largest army of the world with hostilities on both fronts shall continue to fight under-equipped, handicapped though, but never deterred physically with bountiful of moral courage as has been the story again and again.