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Army's new battle tank proposal sets stage for MoD tussle

Rs 2 lakh crore-project to replace DRDO with foreign designer

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Over the last three decades the army has first ignored, and then opposed the indigenous Arjun tank, designed by the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO). Now, this fight has entered a second generation, with the army scuttling the DRDO's proposal to design the next-generation Future Main Battle Tank (FMBT).

In a blow aimed at the FMBT proposal, the army has floated a global Request for Information (RFI) asking global tank manufacturers to submit proposals to design a "new generation, state-of-the-art combat vehicle platform" for India.

The new tank will not just replace the army's 2414 obsolescent T-72 tanks, but also constitute a "base platform" that would be modified into 10 other variants, including tracked and wheeled light tanks; bridge laying and trawl tanks; a mobile platform for artillery and air defence guns; a combat engineering vehicle, and even a tracked ambulance.

This proposal has been named the Future Ready Combat Vehicle (FRCV) project. Army sources say this name has been selected to clearly differentiate it from the DRDO's FMBT project, which will no longer be supported.

The FRCV proposal RFI originates from the "Directorate General of Mechanised Forces" (DGMF). Dated June 10, it was posted on the internet a few days later.

FRCV is a direct blow to "Make in India", replacing not just the indigenous FMBT project but potentially also the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) project that is being tendered shortly to Indian vendors under the "Make" category of the Defence Procurement Policy (DPP).

FRCV would divert lakhs of crores of rupees from Indian to foreign vendors. The FMBT project - which the government told Parliament on December 6, 2010, would be completed by 2020 - could itself be worth Rs 1,50,000 crore. This includes about Rs 25,000 crore for designing, development and testing, and replacing the army's 2,500-odd T-72 variants for about Rs 50 crore a tank.

Replacing the army's 2,600 BMP-II infantry combat vehicles would cost another Rs 50,000 crore. Currently the indigenous FICV project covers this replacement.

The new FRCV proposal has several dubious firsts. Unprecedentedly it lays down no specifications for the new tank, leaving it to the foreign designer to propose its form and capabilities. The RFI vaguely states that the "design must cater for 'future' battlefield environment and technological possibilities".

Traditionally, buyers of military equipment specify precisely what they need, placing the onus on the vendor to meet those requirements. In the case of tanks, users specify weight, the guns and missiles they want, their strike ranges, how much armour protection is needed, etc. However, in the FRCV, only a "broad design philosophy" will be specified to the vendors.

"Tanks are not designed by philosophers, but by engineers. The military needs to translate its operational philosophy into weapon systems, and to clearly specify to designers the capabilities that are needed. The problem is the generals themselves can't agree what they want, and so they want the designer to tell them," says a senior officer involved in the FRCV process.

Business Standard learns that a key reason for this lack of consensus within the armoured corps (which operates tanks) is that, for a decade, each of its director generals has brought his own ideas, overruling the ideas of his predecessors.

A second problem with the RFI is that it violates the DPP in the process it lays out for designing, developing and manufacturing the FRCV. The three-stage process envisaged is: (a) an international design competition, with vendors "asked to submit detailed designs based on the FRCV design philosophy". A ministry selection committee would select the best design; (b) development of a prototype by "nominated" development agencies (DAs), separate from the designer, but with the designer's "close involvement"; (c) the bulk manufacture of the FRCV by "one/two nominated Production Agencies.

There has been no such case in recorded procurement history where one agency has designed a product, another has developed the prototype, and a third has carried out mass manufacture. Defence vendors only undergo costly and laborious design and development when they are confident of making profits through bulk manufacture.

Since there is no provision in the DPP for the proposed three-stage process, the ministry's apex Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) would have to sanction a DPP deviation. Civil servants in the ministry say there is little chance of that, given that the DRDO, confident after building the Arjun, would steadfastly oppose a foreign-led process.

"We will support the DRDO, since this involves "Make in India," a senior defence ministry official told Business Standard. The army's future tank programme seems poised for significant delays.

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First Published: Mon, June 22 2015. 00:35 IST