Saturday, August 22, 2009

Modernising the Indian Army

FOR over a decade the Indian Army’s efforts to modernise have been thwarted due to political neglect and lack of adequate budgetary support. The defence budget for Financial Year 2008-09 increased 10 per cent in nominal terms, barely adequate to keep up with inflation and the fall in the value of the rupee against the US dollar, but decreased to less than 2.0 per cent of India’s projected GDP. A sum of US $12 billion was provided for capital acquisitions (US $9 billion for the army), but of this US $0.6 billion (Rs 3,000 crore) is expected to be surrendered as unspent.

Nothing exemplified the army’s lack of preparedness for war more than the fact that 155 mm ammunition for the Bofors howitzer had to be imported from South Africa during the Kargil conflict in 1999. Had the conflict not been confined to the 150 km frontage of the Kargil sector, T-72 and 130mm medium gun ammunition too may have run short and it would have been politically embarrassing for the government as well as the army.

Not only that, in the plains the army would have had to fight with obsolete Vijayant tanks and several other vintage equipment that were unsuitable for combat. Even though A.K. Antony, the Defence Minister, has said, ‘We need to cut down on the unnecessary procedures, bottlenecks and red tape in our procurement mechanism,’1 the Ministry of Defence has been unable to give modernisation of the armed forces the priority that it deserves.

The Army Chief’s modernisation vision is to ‘adapt to high-end technology, improve night-fighting capability… (and) information technology, information warfare and network centric warfare.’ The indigenously designed Arjun main battle tank (MBT) has been in the pipeline for over two decades. Though the tank has many good features, it has consistently failed to meet the army’s GSQR for an MBT and orders have been placed for only 124 tanks to be manufactured. The lack of progress on the Arjun MBT has significantly slowed down the pace of armour modernisation. In the year 2000 India signed a deal with Russia to acquire 310 T-90S tanks. Subsequently, India began to assemble these tanks at Avadi. It has recently been reported that in addition to these, India has decided to acquire another 347 T-90S tanks and assemble them within the country.

The first Indian assembled T-90S (Bhishma) rolled off the production line on 8 January 2004. Meanwhile, a large number of T-72M1 (Ajeya) tanks are still awaiting modernisation. The lack of a suitable fire control system and night fighting capability are major handicaps.

In a future conventional war that will be fought under the nuclear shadow, manoeuvre will be extremely limited. This restriction will lead to much greater emphasis being placed on firepower to achieve the laid down military aim. Hence, it is imperative that artillery modernisation is undertaken with alacrity so as to generate firepower asymmetries on the future battlefield. The last major acquisition of towed gun-howitzers was that of about 400 pieces of 39-calibre 155mm FH-77B howitzers from Bofors of Sweden in the mid-1980s. This gun had proved its mettle in the Kargil conflict. Just when a contract for 120 tracked and 180 wheeled self-propelled (SP) 155mm guns was about to be concluded after years of protracted trials, South African arms manufacturer Denel, a leading contender for the contract, was alleged to have been involved in a corruption scam in an earlier deal for anti-material rifles (AMRs).

Since January 2008, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has issued three global tenders for 155mm guns and howitzers for the mountains, the plains and self-propelled guns for the deserts. Summer and winter trials were expected to be held in 2009-10, but so far the bids received are still being evaluated. The artillery modernisation programme is bound to see further delays.

The probability of the next conventional war breaking out in the mountains is far higher than that of a war in the plains. With this in view, the artillery recently conceptualised a requirement for a lightweight towed howitzer of 155mm calibre for employment in the mountains. Neither the present Bofors howitzer nor its 52-calibre replacement will be capable of effective operations in the mountains. A lightweight 45-calibre 155mm howitzer weighing less than 5,000 kg, with a light but adequately powered prime mover, is ideal for the mountains. In January 2008, the MoD floated a Request for Proposal (RfP) for 140 pieces of ultra-light 39 calibre 155mm towed howitzers for use by the Indian Army’s mountain formations. Presumably, these will also be employed by its rapid reaction divisions – as and when they are raised – as the howitzers will be easy to transport by air.

India has floated a global tender for the purchase of 400 52-calibre 155mm towed artillery guns for the army, to be followed by indigenous manufacture of another 1,100 howitzers. An RfP has also been issued for 180 wheeled self-propelled guns for around Rs 4,700 crore for employment by mechanised forces in the plains and semi-desert sectors. Approximately 180 pieces of 130mm M46 Russian medium guns have been successfully ‘up-gunned’ to 155mm calibre with ordnance supplied by Soltam of Israel. The new barrel length of 45 calibres has enhanced the range of the gun to about 40 km with extended range ammunition.

A contract for the acquisition of two regiments of the 12-tube, 300mm Smerch multi-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL) system with 90 km range was signed with Russia’s Rosoboron-export in early 2006. This will be a major boost for the long-range firepower capabilities of the army. Extended range (ER) rockets are being introduced for the 122 mm Grad MBRL that has been in service for over three decades. The ER rockets will enhance the weapon system’s range from 22 to about 40 km. A Rs 5,000 crore (US $1billion) contract has also been signed for the serial production of the Pinaka MBRL weapon system, another DRDO project plagued by time delays and completed with help from Larsen and Toubro and the Tatas.

Since the Bofors 155mm Howitzer was introduced into service, the indigenously designed and manufactured 105 mm Indian Field Gun (IFG) and its (not so) light version, the Light Field Gun (LFG), have joined the 75/24 Indian Mountain Gun, the 100mm Russian field gun and the 122mm Russian howitzer on the obsolescence list.

Counter-bombardment (US term counter-fire) capability is also being upgraded, but at a slow pace. At least about 40 to 50 weapon locating radars (WLRs) are required for effective counter-bombardment, especially in the plains, and only a dozen have been procured so far. In addition to the 12 AN-TPQ 37 Firefinder WLRs acquired from Raytheon, USA, under a 2002 contract worth US $200 million, Bharat Electronics Limited is reported to be assembling 28 WLRs. These radars will be based on both indigenous and imported components and have been approved for introduction into service after extensive tests. The radar is expected to match the capabilities of the Firefinder system and will have a detection range of about 40 kilometre.

The BrahMos supersonic cruise missile (Mach 2.8 to 3.0), with a precision strike capability, very high kill energy and range of 290 km, was inducted into the army in July 2007. It is a versatile missile that can be launched from TATRA mobile launchers and silos on land, aircraft and ships and, perhaps in future, also from submarines. 50 BrahMos missiles are expected to be produced every year. Efforts are underway to further increase its strike range. BrahMos Aerospace has orders worth Rs 3,500 crore (US $0.65 billion) from the army and the navy, which has opted for the anti-ship as well as the land attack cruise missile (LACM) versions. These terrain hugging missiles are virtually immune to counter measures due to their high speed and very low radar cross section and are far superior to subsonic cruise missiles like Pakistan’s Babur.

Despite its large-scale employment on border management and extensive commitments in IS and CI operations, infantry modernisation had been languishing for several decades when the Ministry of Defence (MoD) finally cleared a visionary plan to modernise the army’s infantry battalions by according ‘in principle’ approval in the form of Modification 4B to the war establishment (WE) of a standard infantry battalion in 1998. However, no funds were specially sanctioned for this purpose till the NDA government approved the expenditure of Rs 3,500 crore (US $0.6 billion) in September 2003. The army has initiated a project for a Future Infantry Soldier as a System (F-INSAS). ‘F-INSAS basically aims at "converting an infantryman into a fully-networked all-terrain, all-weather, weapons platform with enhanced lethality, survivability, sustainability, mobility and situational awareness" for the digitised battlefield of the future.’2

While 250 Kornet-E anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) with thermal imaging sights have substantially increased the anti-tank capability of infantry battalions, most efforts to modernise the equipment held by infantry and Rashtriya Rifles (RR) units are aimed at enhancing their capability for surveillance and target acquisition at night and boosting their firepower for precise retaliation against infiltrating columns and terrorists holed up in built-up areas. 200 hand-held BFSRs with practical ranges up to seven to eight km where clear line of sight is available, 2,000 hand-held thermal imaging devices (HHTIs) with ranges up to 2,000 metres for observation at night and stand-alone infrared, seismic and acoustic sensors with varying capabilities have enabled infantrymen to dominate the Line of Control so completely that infiltration has come down to almost a trickle.

The newly acquired weapons, which complement these surveillance and observation devices, include: 1,500x 84 mm rocket launchers, including some disposable ones; 1,000 AMRs (anti-material rifles); 8,000 UBGLs (under-barrel grenade launchers); 4,000 new generation carbines; 300 bullet proof vehicles; and, several hundred accurate sniper rifles. However, the numbers acquired and the ammunition stocks are still inadequate and need to be made up more rapidly.

While the INSAS 5.56 mm assault rifles have now been in service for almost 10 years and proved to be effective, the light machine gun (LNG) version is still facing teething problems and the carbine version for close quarter battle has not found favour with the army. New 5.56 mm assault rifles of bull-pup design with an integrated laser range finder and grenade launcher are under development. Efforts are also being made to provide infantry platoons and sections with integrated GPS-based navigation system, secure lightweight walkie-talkie radio sets and better protective gear with a helmet that incorporates a built-in head-up display.

The mechanised infantry is now equipped with the BMP-2 ICV Sarath of which over 1,000 have been built since 1987. A new variant is the 81 mm Carrier Mortar Tracked Vehicle (CMTV) that is based on the chassis of the Sarath ICV and has been indigenously developed to enhance the integral firepower available to mechanised infantry battalions. Other variants include a command post, an ambulance, armoured dozer and engineer and reconnaissance vehicles. Mechanised reconnaissance and support battalions need better surveillance radars, fire-and-forget ATGMs and effective night fighting capability.

A new DRDO project that is reported to be ongoing aims to equip future soldiers with lightweight force multipliers. Soldiers of the future will have miniaturised communication and GPS systems, small power packs, weapon platforms and smart vests with fibre-optic sensors. For over 350 infantry battalions, plus about 150 Rashtriya Rifles, Assam Rifles and Territorial Army battalions, these major changes will be extremely costly to implement and will spill over at least 10 to 12 years – that is, if the funds can be found. Without modernising this cutting edge of its sword, the army will soon begin to resemble the armies of India’s lesser neighbours.

Another DRDO project that is way behind schedule is the Nag anti-tank missile system. The antiquated Jonga-mounted SS-11 B1 anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) system has been replaced in missile battalions by MILAN shoulder-fired ATGMs. However, a vehicle-mounted missile system like the Nag is definitely necessary for reconnaissance and attrition tasks and for anti-tank screens. The experimental Plan AREN tactical communications system for strike formations needs early replacement. The ability to carry broadband data needs to be enhanced in particular. Even the more recent static communications network called ASCON lacks ISDN capability for the real-time transmission of maps and streaming video.

The Defence Minister, A.K. Antony, recently admitted that there are gaps in India’s air defence coverage.3 While the allusion was primarily to the lack of sufficient radar coverage to detect aerial threats to India’s air space, the air defence (AD) of field formations continues to be given a much lower priority than it deserves. With the DRDO’s indigenous Akash medium-range and Trishul short-range surface-to-air (SAM) missile projects not making major headway, it is time to start looking at substitutes from abroad. The air defence of mechanised forces is another area that is crying for attention. The SAM-6 and SAM-7 Kvadrat-Strela medium range missile system, the backbone of AD for strike formations since the early 1970s, is now ageing and needs urgent replacement.

The Tungushka and the OSA-AK (SA-8) missile systems are on the obsolescence list and the 23mm, multi-barrelled Schilka tracked air defence gun system is already obsolete. In fact, the assets of the Army Air Defence corps are grossly inadequate to provide high quality low-level air defence to the field formations. Hence, forward combat echelons will lack effective protection against enemy aircraft during a future war. The young Army Air Defence corps requires substantial capital infusion to really come into its own.

For the future, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is planning to develop an integrated air defence system with exo-atmosphere (above 40 km altitude) and endo-atmosphere (below 30 km) capabilities by 2009-10. The system may also have built-in features to double up as a tactical missile, apart from functioning as an extended air defence system to engage target aircraft beyond 100 km. This was stated by V.K. Saraswat, Chief Controller, DRDO R&D (Missiles and Strategic Systems), after the successful test launch of a high-altitude interceptor missile from the Wheeler Island in December 2007. This programme will also lead to the development of an indigenous ballistic missile defence (BMD) capability.

An automated command and control and decision support system for use by the General Staff is still far from becoming a reality, as also supporting systems like the battlefield surveillance system and air space management system. The urgent requirement of real-time satellite reconnaissance systems has still not been operationalised despite the nuclear overhang under which the armed forces now operate. Even though the cameras on India’s remote sensing and cartographic satellites now have sharply enhanced resolutions, less than one metre, military-grade photographs of still better resolution are needed to be purchased from the open market. These sources may dry up quickly during war.

A ‘system of systems’ approach must be followed so that scarce RSTA and communications resources can be synergistically configured and optimally exploited, based on the concept of ‘network-centric warfare’ in which surveillance sensors, targeting systems and ‘shooters’ are fused together in a seamless ‘system of systems’ that reduces response time between the acquisition of a target and its destruction to 15-20 minutes.

Though some modern frequency hopping radio sets with integral encryption devices have been introduced into service in recent years, networked communications, which form the backbone of an effective C4I2SR system, need substantial upgradation. The tactical-level Tac C3I system for field formations is in urgent need of an upgrade. The Plan AREN system has been in service for almost three decades and is based on outdated and bulky technologies. The ASCON communication system for voice and data links between static HQ and those in peacetime locations, still has some years of service left as it is of modular design and can be upgraded to a limited extent. However, its capability to provide data links is rather limited as data requirements have grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade or so. A tri-service Defence Communication Network (DCN) is in an advanced stage of planning.

While some Stentor long-range BFSRs have been in service for over a decade, medium-range radars are still to be acquired. Israeli Searcher-I and Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been introduced into service but these are few in number and it will be a long time before they really make a difference by providing a real-time surveillance capability so that ground forces can initiate action even as a fresh input is received. Only a small number of Searcher-II UAVs, with an upper ceiling that makes them suitable for the mountains, have been acquired.

PGMs are increasingly gaining currency as weapons of choice in conflict on land, however, the Indian artillery does not have PGMs in quantities large enough to matter. Only limited quantities of the Russian Krasnopol PGM have been imported for the Bofors 155mm howitzer. Among others, the Bofors Bonus PGM is a suitable candidate, subject to successful trials in the deserts and mountains.

Despite a Long-term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP) and five-year Defence Plans, approval has to be sought on file for each new weapon system or piece of equipment on a ‘case-by-case’ basis. It is by now well-known how each such case chronicles the saga of an uphill struggle to get approval first from the MoD, then MoD (Finance), the Ministry of Finance (MoF) and, finally, the Cabinet Committee on Security. All this is only possible after the DRDO has first certified that the weapon system or equipment in question cannot be developed and manufactured indigenously and such a certificate is hard to come by. Gradually these archaic procurement and acquisition procedures are being reviewed and improved. The Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2008 was promulgated recently.

The approach to army modernisation must be more focused; the priorities need to be clearly established and then adhered to. The government must give a firm commitment in terms of funds and the MoD should streamline its procedures and processes for speedy procurement of high priority weapons and equipment. It is time to institute a rolling, non-lapsable defence modernisation fund of Rs 25,000 crore (US $5 billion) as a viable method of ensuring that defence procurement is not subjected to the vagaries of annual budgets. The present situation is disturbing and, if allowed to go on indefinitely, will seriously compromise the army’s preparedness to fight the next border war that inimical neighbours like Pakistan can be expected to thrust on India. The MoD ‘has assured the army of full support for its around 600 modernisation schemes, worth about Rs 70,000 crore in the 11th Plan (2007-2012) period,’4 but it remains to be seen whether this will actually materialise.

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