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Making the Future ICV in India

The induction of the Soviet origin Infantry Combat Vehicle ICV BMP1 and concurrent creation of the Mechanised Infantry Arm of the Indian Army in 1979, as a result of the recommendations of the General KV Krishna Rao Expert Committee, marked the first operational transformation of the Indian Army. More importantly, it resulted in providing a significant combat edge to the Indian Army vis-à-vis our Western adversary, which holds out even till today. It can also be predicted that, in the backdrop of changes occurring in our threat spectrum of the future, and some of the problems experienced so far in realizing our modernisation plans, the induction of the Future ICV would mark the second operational transformation of the Indian Army, which will empower it in many ways, way beyond what is being currently visualised.  

To understand this, there is a need to understand some history with regard to the origins of the mechanized infantry. It is a well-known fact that the first tanks, the British Mark I, were used in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 during the First World War, a hundred years ago. A lesser known fact is that the Mechanised Infantry, was first attempted, based on the first armoured personnel carrier, the British Mark IX tank, two years later, in 1918, but the war ended before this vehicle could be effectively employed in battle.

Closer home, there was no Mechanised Infantry in the Indian Army at the time of partition. The combat arms, meant for the contact battle, consisted only of the Armoured Corps with their tanks, and the infantry on foot or in soft skinned vehicles. During the 1965 Indo-Pak war on the Western Front, the absence of better protected infantry, with comparable mobility akin to the tanks, was repeatedly felt on the battlefield. Thus, in accordance with the lessons learnt in the 1965 Indo-Pak War, a decision was taken to induct Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) into the Indian Army by providing these to some of the infantry battalions that were tasked to operate with armour. 1968 saw the commencement of induction of the Topas, SKOT and BTR-60 APCs, and subsequently, the initial APC-borne infantry battalions saw battle on both Fronts during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. The process of conversion continued after the 1971 war, and by 1977, 11 Infantry Battalions had been converted as APC borne infantry battalions.

It is around this time that the KV Krishna Rao Expert Committee submitted its report on modernisation and reorganisation of the Indian Army. By then the potential of the BMP I, created by the Soviet KMZ factory in 1966, as a combination of a light tank and an amphibious, missile borne APC, had been experienced during the Arab Israeli Yom Kippur war of 1973.  Then Maj Gen (later General) Krishnaswamy Sundarji, an infantry officer who had commanded the Armoured Division, was a member of this Expert Committee. It was his vision and understanding that resulted in the Expert Committee recommending that all the APC-borne infantry battalions, till then forming part of the various Infantry Regiments, should now be brought together as a new combat arm of the Indian Army, the ‘mechanised infantry’. 

It was decided that all Mechanised Infantry Battalions would, from then on, be equipped with the BMP I, and their operational employment would be based on the ‘infantry combat vehicle (ICV) concept’, unlike the ‘battle taxi concept’ of the APC-borne infantry battalions. This decision marked the first operational transformation of the Indian Army, and led to the Indian Army gaining a clear combat edge over the Pakistan Army, as the Pakistan Army was equipped with the M113 APCs, a qualitative shortfall it has not been able to bridge even till today.

Later, when the Soviet Union developed the ICV BMP 2, which was an improved version of the BMP I, the Indian Army not only proposed inducting the  BMP 2 from then on, but in a most visionary move, negotiated with the Soviet Union to establish a factory to make the BMP 2 in India. The ICV BMP 2 factory was established in Medak in 1986 and the first Indian-made BMP 2 rolled out in 1987. We now have close to 50 Mechanised Infantry Battalions in the Indian Army, all equipped with the BMP 2, and the role of these battalions have gone far beyond what was envisaged initially. Its strategic and tactical mobility, its amphibious qualities, relative light weight, nuclear biological and chemical protection, formidable anti-tank firepower, protection from small arms fire and artillery splinters, night fighting capability and easy maintainability have collectively resulted in a number of new roles being assigned to the mechanised infantry, across the entire spectrum of conflict, including the counter terrorism role and also in UN peace keeping operations.

The Indian mechanized infantry did experience some initial operational setbacks when first employed in sub-conventional operations in Sri Lanka in 1988, where the ICVs were incorrectly employed initially against the LTTE, singly and in pairs, and not as sub units. However, the mechanized infantry has come a long way since those initial days and developed robust doctrines and drills for its employment. The mechanized infantry in the form of ICV companies and platoons has acquitted itself well in recent times in sub conventional operations within the Jammu region and also in UN peacekeeping operations in various parts of the world. The ICV platoons played an important role in the recent Arnia and Pathankot counter-terror operations where they have enabled our troops to isolate and neutralize the terrorists, without incurring casualties to own troops. The robust actions of the Indian mechanized infantry against rebel factions in Sudan, Congo and Sierra Leone, as part of UN peacekeeping operations have gained them rich accolades from the commanders of these complex UN peacekeeping missions.

In 2008, the Indian Army started work on the Future ICV (FICV) as a pioneering ‘make procedure’ project, after ascertaining the capability of the Indian industry through a ‘feasibility study’. Project FICV was accorded ‘acceptance of necessity’ in 2009 under this procedure. Expressions of interest (EsOI) were issued to four possible development agencies, including the Ordnance Factory Board, in 2010, but reportedly, due to perceived differences during evaluation of responses, it was felt that a fresh EOI should be issued after spelling out the assessment criteria. This, it seems, led to a delay of over three years. The project was again opened to the industry in March 2014 to apply afresh and consequently, the Department of Defence Production has empanelled ten Indian entities, including the four that had been empanelled earlier. 

2014 was also an important year because in August that year, the Prime Minister announced the “Make in India” initiative.  It could not have come at a better time because, the FICV project is the most doable indigenous ‘big ticket project’ of the Indian Army, which has the potential, not only to revolutionise defence manufacture in India but also to transform the way the Indian Army operates in the future. FICV technology is definitely not rocket science. It involves medium level technology, which is well within the capability of the Indian Industry, if they really put their heart and mind to it.

What should be the characteristics of the Future ICV? Undoubtedly, it must be amphibious and must have a ‘third generation’ anti=tank missile, preferably ‘Made in India’, as its primary weapon. It must have effective anti=helicopter capability, must be fully effective operationally even at night, must be NBC=protected, must be developed in both wheeled and tracked versions, and must have the highest levels of situational awareness. Needless to mention, it must be able to carry an infantry section.

It is also worth serious consideration that the future ICV should have a ‘non-missile, wheeled version’ for use by infantry as APC borne infantry battalions deployed in desert and plains terrain, especially with the reserve formations, both offensive and defensive. To understand this better, we need to have a look at the way the US Army is developing into the future. It has M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles, the equivalent of our ICVs, for equipping its mechanised infantry, which are part of its armoured brigade combat teams. On the other hand, all its infantry meant for conventional and counter insurgency warfare in the plains and hilly terrain, form part of its Stryker brigade combat teams, and are equipped with wheeled Stryker APCs.

So if the Mechanised Infantry of the future as well as a number of infantry battalions in the plains are equipped with variants of the Future ICV, we would eventually need at least 5000 such combat vehicles in the Indian Army. The implication is that not only should it be part of our ‘Make in India’ initiative, the Future ICV should be designed, developed, manufactured and sustained in India, a genuinely world class ‘Made in India’ product. We must not only produce the vehicle in India, the armament and ammunition must also be produced in India. To that extent, the Indian industry must take up this challenge, and must get it right. It needs no reiteration that there can be no compromise on quality, reliability and sustainability in Indian conditions.

Our industry needs to get cracking on this, if they have not done so already. They will need to function as lead integrators rather than only as manufacturers of the assemblies and sub parts, and there can be no short cuts. In fact, it may not be a bad idea to have the FICV competitively developed and produced by more than one of our defence industries. It must be a truly world class product made for the Indian future battlefield, not just a copy of an existing product, not what we termed in the Army as a ‘cut and paste job’. No doubt, our defence companies would have to delve much deeper into ICV technology. They must understand that protection is not only about thickness of armour, but also about shape, silhouette, camouflage, stealthy operation and all round situational awareness; mobility is not only about speed of movement, but also about reliability, water crossing capability and being light enough to be carried by aircraft and helicopters; firepower is not only about accuracy and penetration but also about night fighting capability and fire control systems.

All this is a huge challenge for the defence industry and the MoD’s department of defence production. In case our private industry is provided a level playing field, they will definitely rise up to the challenge and come up with a world class product.

The Author is the Former Vice Chief of Army Staff. Views expressed are personal.

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Lt Gen Philip Campose

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