There have been transformational changes in the evolving geo-strategic canvas creating strategic uncertainty and volatility thereby impacting the global and regional security environment. In the Indian subcontinent, the security landscape in has changed incrementally with a volatile, radicalised and revisionist Pakistan brewing proxy war in India and an escalatory and intimidating Chinese expansionism undercutting the Indian sphere of influence. These along with evolving power centre’s of strategic realignment, mandate strengthening of all facets of our comprehensive national power, of which self-reliance in defence capability and effective military deterrence is the most critical facet for strategic autonomy. More recently, Uri 2016, Doklam 2017 and now Pulwama 2019, have once again brought to fore the criticality of defence capability building. However, the lack of complementary defence budgeting, disregard for reforms in higher defence organization, procurement stalemates and bureaucratic decision paralysis have eroded the path of defence capability development. One such case is the delay in progressing the critical future capability enabler for the Indian Army by way of the FICV (Future Infantry Combat Vehicle) and FRCV (Future Ready Combat Vehicle).
The history of FICV and FRCV is a saga of illusions and a case study of lethargic capability building, compromising future combat readiness and national security. Termed as game changers for an integrated defence eco system both for infrastructure development and high technology infusion, under the otherwise illusive “Make in India”, it had raised optimism in the nascent yet vibrant Indian Defence Industry. Ironically, these dream projects particularly the FICV seems to have crashed, in spite of all the recent positive policy initiatives and promises. Repeated procedural hiccups and lack of accountability for the project at apex level has resulted in more snakes than ladders in its turbulent case history which has become synonymous with defence procurement cycles. This has resulted in creating an operational void due to attendant time delay, escalating inflationary cost and uncertainty of assured budgetary support in the future. The time is however never too late for expeditious actions to correct the anomalies and pave an institutionalized path for their outcomes.
The FICV is a time critical replacement of obsolete BMP II (procured in mid 1980’s) which began its turbulent journey through an AON (Acceptance of Necessity) in Oct 2009, under DPP 2008, Make Chapter, for a quantity 2610 combat vehicles. Since 2009, the Futuristic Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) project has been launched twice through EoI (Expression of Interest) in 2010 and later in 2015, each time with great promise, but wavering stance, commitment and lethargy at decision making level. The last EoI of July 2015 was evaluated in an objective, transparent and fair manner and submitted after nine months of intense and tedious evaluation by the IPMT, for approval of the MoD in Nov 2016. The impasse commenced with the same MoD office who had approved the EoI evaluation criteria, raising concerns on its approved parameters and weightages, at a stage when results were placed on file. This de-facto amounted to changing the goal post after results were
submitted with attendant and intended delays. The case was referred to a panel of Independent Expert Monitors (IEMs) by MoD, who conclusively found the EoI evaluation righteous to be moved to the next stage of nomination of the DAs. Having presumably overcome these initial setbacks of over 30 months of decision paralysis, the new lot of approving authorities now developed cold feet on the budgetary allocation for development cost to the two private industry DAs(80% by Govt and 20% by DA under DPP 2008). Once again, those influential private players not in the fray seeing it as an opportunity raised yet another bogey to sabotage the case by recommending progressing it under Make 2 (DPP 2016), thereby enticing a fund starved MoD to save its initial development cost. Conveniently, the case was again put into a loop with no sense of time, accountability or direction. Who is accountable for the time lapse from Nov 2016 to date due to decision paralysis? The result of the present quagmire is that the Army continues to hold and produce an obsolete technology equipment on its operational inventory. Even if the FICV as planned based on the present EoI optimistically manifests in the Army by 2026-27, the complete fleet replacement will be earliest by 2040. Thus, any further delay in obviating this operational void will only be at the peril to national security.
A detailed analysis of SP(Strategic Partnership) Model, Make1 and Make 2 for FICV clearly weighs in progressing FICV under Make 1 to the next stage, in terms of time sensitivity, life cycle management, technology induction and indigenisation. Besides Make 1 will invigorate the otherwise elusive defence ecosystem. Nevertheless, MoD must not waste any more time and expeditiously progress the FICV case, be it Make1 or Make 2, with due time sensitivity, responsibility and accountability.
FRCV (Future Ready Combat Vehicle)
The FRCV as the next generation main battle tank is proposed to replace the vintage T-72 Tank Fleet (in service since 1979), which has progressively gone beyond its service life. Even if optimistically inducted in 2027, it will in all probability replace the entire T 72 fleet beyond 2040. Unfortunately, the MBT Arjun MK II 68 ton tank has not evolved into a suitable replacement platform for the Indian operational environment and thus does not meet the user aspirations both in terms of its deployability and employability. To maintain the ‘Operational Readiness’ and ‘Combat Overmatch’ over the adversary, it is thus imperative that the Future Ready Combat Vehicle is inducted earliest, with an institutionalised road map for its manifestation. The Future Ready Combat Vehicle will also lend itself to development of a family of combat vehicles, based on modularity and standardisation of platform. Being a high technology complex platform it would reinvigorate a defence ecosystem besides induction of high technology and indigenisation in the defence industry.
The FRCV historical past is as turbulent as the FICV itself but hopefully the evolving future will be more progressive. It was planned to be developed under Make Project since 2008-09, however seeing the slow progress of other projects it was proposed as a de-novo three stage turnkey project outside the DPP, directly under MoD. It entailed a competitive design selection, shortlisting of a developer for the chosen design and production under nominated production agency. Accordingly a RFI was floated in Jun 2015 for Design Agencies wherein a good response was received. However, with personality changes in service headquarters, decisions changed to shift the FRCV under MAKE 1 as the new DPP 2016 evolved and the case was progressed to MoD. Again while under review at MoD, the flavour changed in favour of SP (Strategic Partnership) model which seemed rosy but remains a challenge with attendant ambiguities. Accordingly a RFI was floated by Service Headquarters in Nov 2017 to solicitate response from Foreign Partners. The foreign OEM are thereafter to team up with the nominated Indian Partner selected by MoD through an EoI. While the RFI responses are under analysis, the approval of the PSQR by service headquarters and grant of AoN (Acceptance of Necessity) by MoD needs to be expedited. Subsequently the empowered committee would issues the EoI with technology vectors to select the Indian strategic segment partner. The real dynamics and first critical benchmark of the case would commence with the final shortlisting of the Indian partner and establishing the relationship with foreign partner to respond to a concrete request for proposal.
Thus, an institutionalised monitoring mechanism with approved funding needs to be in place prior to endure all road blocks are addressed and the project does not stall. It must be ensured that that the case remains time sensitive and on course through an institutionalised Apex Project Monitoring Committee under the Defence Minister and FRCV Program Management Team under Service Headquarters, with user central to all decisions. The MoD must ensure that the evolving FRCV under the strategic partnership programme does not stall like its ill-fated colleague the FICV did under Make 1.
Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel ?
The shortening of the technology cycles and the volatile operational environment have impacted the need for minimising concept to product
cycle and in turn a faster and responsive decision making process for defence procurement and capability building. The development of FICV and FRCV is a challenging and operationally critical task which needs an enabling and time sensitive environment and cannot be mired by the present decision paralysis, procedural hiccups or inadequate funding. Its success could spell the enlightened path of self-reliance and induction of dual use cutting edge technology for invigorating the Indian Defence Eco System.
Indeed, the credibility test for Make Projects and Strategic Partnership Model will lie in the earliest manifestation of FICV and FRCV. Can we walk the talk here too, like we did for Balakot? Only time will tell, if there is light at the end of the tunnel!!