The Tiger’s Talons Sharpen

This is an article published in our March 2016 Issue.

Uralvagonzavod T-90S/M MBT
Joining the Arjun/Mk.II in Indian Army service is the Uralvagonzavod T-90S/M MBT, of which the force is thought to operate around 1250. These tanks have been constructed both locally under licence, and in Russia. (Indian Army)

India has re-booted its military modernisation drive by emphasising indigenously sourced materiel, developed and built by domestic public- and private-sector companies, in partnership with overseas Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, that assumed office in May 2014, is aggressively pushing its ‘Make in India’ initiative which aims to reduce India’s dependence on defence equipment imports that, for decades, has averaged around 70 percent of its total defence equipment procurement. The government aims to reverse this ratio by 2030, and to advance this aim, India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is restructuring its 14-year old Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) that regulates all military commerce and modernisation.

Uralvagonzavod T-72 Ajeya MBTs
The Indian Army is thought to operate over 2400 Uralvagonzavod T-72 Ajeya MBTs. Around 968 of these tanks have been upgraded locally by the Avadi Heavy Vehicles Factory to the T-72M1 status with proposals solicited to upgrade an additional 1000 of these tanks. (Indian Army)

Scheduled for release in circa March 2016, DPP-2016 will prioritise locally-designed and manufactured defence equipment, reduce deadlines for issuing tenders from twelve to six months and mandate speedy decisions. In early January, defence minister Manohar Parrikar declared that the upcoming document would include the new category of Indigenously Designed Developed and Manufactured (IDDM) military equipment, which will strive to eventually source around 60 percent of India’s materiel requirements locally.

Best Laid Plans

Under DPP-2016, the MoD would fund private sector research and development at up to 90 percent of the overall cost of designing new defence subsystems and platforms in a similar fashion to the US and other Western countries. It will legalise and monitor hitherto proscribed defence agents or company representatives and penalise, but not blacklist, vendors for contravening procurement procedures. The forthcoming DPP-2016 will also modify the ‘L1’ or lowest bidder policy of procurements, which had resulted in more competent weapon systems being rejected, due to minor price variations. Hereafter better equipment with a price no more than ten percent higher than the lowest-priced offering will be preferred.

Meanwhile, since May 2014, the MoD has provided Acceptance of Necessity (AON) approval to programmes worth around $40 billion, to meet long-pending requirements from all three services, largely through indigenous ventures. For the army these included approvals for varied 155mm howitzers, light multi-role helicopters, anti-aircraft artillery and upgraded, licence-built and newly developed Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICVs), multiple-barrel rocket launchers, and assorted missiles and ordnance. Moreover, the Indian Air Force has secured clearance for 36 French Dassault Rafale-B/C fighters in a flyaway condition, the Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA – see below), Airborne Early Warning planes and basic trainer aircraft. The AON also agreed the import of Russian Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems and medium-lift helicopters, and the induction of seven additional locally-developed Ordnance Factories Board/Bharat Electronics Limited/Bharat Dynamics Limited Akash-2 SAM squadrons.

Arjun Main Battle Tank
The Indian Army is receiving the Avadi Heavy Vehicle Factory Arjun Main Battle Tank, both in its ‘vanilla’ configuration, and as the Arjun Mk.II which has a number of improvements to the MBTs basic design, including a new fire control system. (Indian Army)

Nevertheless, time-consuming clearances by at least ten other MoD-related departments were required thereafter to advance these ambitious programmes. These included the issuance of tenders, followed by technical evaluations, field trials, contract and price negotiations and eventual approval by the Cabinet Committee on Security, headed by Mr. Modi, together with the federal finance ministry. Sundry additional clearances, grudgingly provided, by corruption watchdog bodies and technological and related committees, further delayed matters.

Analysts, however, questioned both the abundance and efficacy of the programmes approved. “These procurement proposals are ambitious and monetarily unsustainable, given India’s dire economic state,” said Amit Cowshish, a former MoD financial advisor for acquisitions. The MoD does not appear to have taken the availability of funds into account, before clearing so many projects, few of which are likely to materialise, he added. Other military officers, frustrated by the MoD’s continually deferred modernisation efforts, claimed that over years AON clearances had become ‘meaningless’, as concrete action rarely followed. “AON approvals need to be translated into firm contracts, if the government is serious about modernisation and the regional power projection role it wants its military to play,” cautioned defence analyst Major General (rtd.) Sheru Thapliyal. The MoD, in turn, blamed the services, especially the army, for their inability to formulate realistic Qualitative Requirements (QRs) for weapons. It maintained that many tenders were withdrawn or scrapped, as the QRs for the equipment demanded simply did not exist. Mr. Parrikar highlighted this recently, when he declared that at times the technologies demanded in the QRs were ‘absurd’ and urged the services to be more realistic whilst framing them. 

Uralvagonzavod T-90S/M MBT
Joining the Arjun/Mk.II in Indian Army service is the Uralvagonzavod T-90S/M MBT, of which the force is thought to operate around 1250. These tanks have been constructed both locally under licence, and in Russia. (Indian Army)

Indian Army

Equipment shortages in the Indian Army are possibly the worst, compared to the other two services. For example, successive official reports have revealed that a large proportion of the army’s Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) like its Uralvagonzavod T-72M’s and Kurganmashzavod BMP-1/2 ICVs lacked night fighting capabilities. Moreover, the army lacked Close Quarter Battle (CQB) carbines and competent assault rifles while its ammunition reserves were abysmally low, barely sufficient for 20 days of fighting; soldiers even lacked 231,141 bullet-proof jackets, 217,388 high ankle boots, 447,000 balaclavas and 65978 sleeping mats. Furthermore, the Army Aviation Corps’ (AAC’s) Aérospatiale/Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Chetak and Cheetah light utility helicopters, inducted into service in 1964 are now outdated. The AAC, however, will receive the replacement for these aircraft in the form of the Kamov Ka-226T light utility helicopter from 2018, under an Inter Governmental Agreement (IGA) concluded during Mr. Modi’s visit to Russia in December 2015. The state-owned HAL is to licence-build 140 Ka-226Ts at its new Tumakuru facility near Bangalore, and import the remaining 60 helicopters in flyaway condition to meet immediate AAC requirements. The IAF too will induct some Ka-226Ts, whose numbers could eventually increase beyond 200, MoD and industry officials told AMR.

A Bigger Bang

In recent months the MoD has also initiated efforts to try and fulfil the army’s Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan (FARP) of acquiring, licence-building and indigenously designing, via Joint Ventures (JVs) with original equipment manufacturers, some circa 3000 varied 155mm howitzers for some 220 artillery regiments. Consequently, in December 2015 the MoD launched price negotiations with private defence contractors Larsen and Toubro (L&T) for 100 modified Republic of Korea Samsung-Techwin K-9 Thunder 155mm Self-Propelled Howitzers (SPH), that had surpassed the Russian-modified Uraltransmash Msta-A gun, mounted on a Uralvagonzavod T-72 MBT chassis, in trials in 2014. MoD officials speaking to AMR said the contract was likely to be signed by 2017 and the guns manufactured by L&T at its facility in Pune, western India. The contract is likely to include an initial order for 50 guns.

In November 2015 the army began evaluating two towed guns in the form of Nexter’s modified Trajan howitzer and Elbit’s ATHOS-2052 gun. Army plans call for it to acquire 400 units of one of these weapons and licence-build the remaining 1180. Nexter has a JV with L&T for the tender and Elbit with Bharat Forge based in Pune, and the short-listed gun will be built by one of them as part of the ‘Make in India’ initiative. Simultaneously, the MoD is progressing with the import of 145 M777 LWHs (Light Weight Howitzers), via Foreign Military Sales (FMS) initiative with the US government. On 15 February the MoD received the Letter Of Acceptance (LOA) from the US government approving the purchase of 145 M777’s for an estimated $700 million.

Currently, the army is preparing to induct six of 114 Dhanush-upgraded Bofors FH-77B 155mm towed guns, developed by the state-owned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) over the next 14 to 18 months. These were built using FH-77B blueprints, transferred to India along with 410 howitzers for licensed production. However, construction did not commence until 2012, following criminal inquiries into the import for alleged wrongdoing that included charges of bribery to secure the tender. Meanwhile, desert trials for three Soviet-era M-46 130mm guns upgraded to 155mm standards by two private sector manufacturers, Bharat Forge and Punj Lloyd, together with the OFB were scheduled for April and are likely to be completed by the end of the year. The army plans to upgrade some 300 M46 guns after one of the competing vendors has been short-listed sometime around early 2017. The army aims to begin inducting 300 of these retrofitted guns capable of firing 155mm North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-standard rounds from 2019-20.

Regarding army small arms for its circa 425 infantry and counterinsurgency battalions, the force had short-listed the locally-designed and OFB-produced Excalibur assault rifle, after four overseas multi-calibre models failed to meet its ambitious requirements following desert and high altitude trials in 2014. The gas-operated, fully-automatic Excalibur, with a foldable butt and Picatinny rail is a retrofitted version of the DRDO-designed Indian Small Arms System 5.56x45mm assault rifle, which the army had rejected in 2010, for being operationally inadequate. Army Chief of Staff General Dalbir Singh is pushing to induct the Excalibur as it is a ‘Make in India’ programme and trials featuring some 200 prototype rifles will undergo user evaluation in varied terrain later this year. The OFB aims to begin series production of the Excalibur at its Ishapur Rifle Factory in eastern India from late 2016 followed by the induction of around 232,000 units. A decision is also awaited on a 44615 5.56mm CQB carbine for which Beretta’s ARX-160 and Israel Weapon Industries Galil-ACE models had qualified after trials in 2013. The MoD has yet to approve the purchase as it is entangled in bureaucratic red tape, but an outcome is expected by the end of 2016 as the army has been without a CQB since 2010.

In the army’s vehicle domain, its $6.5 billion Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) programme, to indigenously design and build 2610 platforms, to replace its fleet of ageing BMP-1/2 ICVs by 2022-23, has progressed incrementally. The FICV project was mooted in 2008, terminated in 2011 due to technological overreach and resuscitated three years later with six competitors submitting their proposals to the MoD by the extended mid-February 2014 deadline, five of which are from the private sector. These include Mahendra Defence that is collaborating with BAE Systems, L&T which has forged a tie with Samsung Heavy Engineering and Pipavav Defence.

Tata Motors is in a consortium with Bharat Forge and General Dynamics, while Tata Power is working with Titagarh Wagons to develop a FICV. Two of these consortia will be short-listed as Development Agencies (DAs) alongside the OFB that gets an automatic nomination for the programme. Each of the three DAs would build one prototype each, 80 percent of which will be financed by the MoD. One of these would be short-listed, following user trials, and its fabricator given the contract to produce 2610 FICVs to replace the BMP-1/2 around 2024 followed by platform inductions some four years later.

Indian Air Force

Like the Indian Army, the IAF is involved in several modernisations initiatives. On 25 January India signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), ahead of a more binding Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) with France for 36 Dassault Rafale-B/C fighters in flyaway condition, during President Francois Hollande’s three-day official visit to Delhi. Mr. Modi had announced this purchase in Paris in April 2015, displacing the deal for 126 Rafales under negotiation by the previous Congress Party-led government since January 2012. Under the previous agreement, 18 Rafales were to have been acquired off-the-shelf and the remaining 108 licence-built by HAL. Meanwhile, the IAF is now poised to order 106 HAL Tejas-Mk.1As Light Combat Aircraft to stem the decline of its fighter squadrons, at a strength of 35, down from a sanctioned strength of 42. The preceding Tejas-Mk.1, however, is yet to secure its final operational clearance delayed to circa mid-2016.

Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter
An IAF Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter comes in to land. This aircraft could soon be supplemented by the Dassault Rafale-B/C should an order for this 4.5-generation combat aircraft finally be made by the Indian government. (IAF)

India’s Parliamentary Committee on Defence had repeatedly warned the IAF that its fighter squadrons would drop to 25 by 2022, once its MiG-21Bison/MF and MiG-27MF fighter variant squadrons were phased out, and advised urgent measures to make up this shortfall. Accordingly, the IAF has opted to procure the Tejas-Mk.1A, even displaying it at the Bahrain International Air Show in January, in an effort to try and market it globally as a competitively-priced fighter. The Tejas-Mk.1A is powered, like the Tejas-Mk.1, with General Electric F404-GE-IN20 engines, although the Mk.1A will incorporate 43 modifications such as an improved radar, self-protection, beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles and an air-to-air refuelling capability. The IAF took delivery of the first Tejas-Mk.1 in January 2015, 32 years after the programme was initiated. The IAF aims to order around 100 Tejas-Mk.1As which are scheduled to begin series production around 2021.

MiG-21 Bison/MF fighters
The IAF is retiring its MiG-21 Bison/MF fighters which had formed the mainstay of its fighter fleet for several decades. The aircraft is expected to be withdrawn from the IAF by circa 2025. (IAF)

Eventually, the Tejas-Mk.1A and Rafale, should it ever be procured, may be joined in service by the FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft) which involves Indian and Russian developmental collaboration. The FGFA is based on the Sukhoi PAK-FA fifth-generation fighter expected to equip the Russian Air Force from circa 2020. The MoD’s Cost Negotiation Committee (CNC) re-opened negotiations with Russia on the FGFA after bilateral discussions agreed to reduce India’s share in the platforms’ developmental cost from $5 billion to $3.7 billion. The IAF had reduced its original FGFA requirement from 250 platforms in 2012-13 to 130-145 and more recently to 65, but these numbers were likely to change once the programme progressed, air force officers told AMR. India had so far paid $295 million towards the FGFAs preliminary design, and after nearly three years of severe haggling, the MoD is believed to have persuaded Russia to re-negotiate HAL’s work-share in the project that had been reduced from 22 percent to around 13 percent.

In the rotary domain, the only major defence contract signed by Modi’s government so far has been the $3 billion deal with Boeing and the US government for 22 AH-64E Guardian gunships and 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters. Delivery of both platforms to the IAF is to begin in September 2018 and be completed by March 2020. The deal includes the option to acquire eleven additional AH-64Es and seven more CH-47Fs. The AH-64E acquisition also includes the purchase of 1354 Lockheed Martin AGM-114L3/R3 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, 242 Raytheon FIM-92H air-to-air missiles and twelve Longbow International AN/APG-76 fire control radars. Other IAF foreign purchases include the MoD’s approval of 38 additional Pilatus PC-7 Mk.II turboprop trainers, as a follow on to the 2012 $1 billion acquisition of the earlier 75, all of which had been delivered by November 2015. The add-on contract for 38 Pilatus trainers is yet to be signed. Elsewhere regarding the training fleet, the IAF is in advanced negotiations with HAL to acquire 20 BAE Systems Hawk-132 advanced jet trainers for its aerobatics team in an agreement awaiting closure. Other important recent orders include 48 Mil Mi-17V5 ‘Hip’ medium-lift utility helicopters, deliveries of which began in 2011 and are scheduled for completion by mid-2016, 56 Medium Transport Aircraft (see below) to replace the IAF’s ageing fleet of Avro 748 turboprop transports.

For the MTA programme Airbus and Tata have formed a joint venture, known as the Indian Production Agency, to offer the C-295 turboprop freighter, of which 16 would be procured in a completed form and the remaining 40 built by the consortium. Of these 40 aircraft, 24 would be imported in kit form for local assembly and include a 30 percent indigenous content that would double to 60 percent in the 16 residual platforms. Trials for the C-295 are awaited, following which the laborious process of evaluation and cost negotiation will begin, taking at least five years if not more to be inked, MoD officials told AMR. The procurements of these aircraft, coupled with other IAF acquisitions and similar procurements within the Indian Army illustrate that the modernisation of these two services is very much on track. The challenge now will be ensuring that timelines are maintained and commitments met so as to ensure that the country’s armed forces have the most modern equipment at their disposal.

by Rahul Bedi