Before delving into the nearly twenty-year old project to build a future infantry combat vehicle for the Indian Army we must first understand what an Infantry Combat Vehicle (ICV) is and how different is it from an Armoured Personal Carrier (APC) is and where it’s role on the modern battlefield lies? An ICV as defined by the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe is "an armoured combat vehicle which is designed and equipped primarily to transport a combat infantry squad, and which is armed with an integral or organic cannon of at least 20 millimetres calibre and sometimes an antitank missile launcher”. An ICV is designed to transport men into battle and provide them fire support by targeting enemy structures and vehicles in much the same way as a tank. This separates its role from APCs which are primarily designed to transport men into battle but generally do not carry enough firepower to protect their complement from opposing forces.
In 1947 as India awoke to independence the Indian Army wasn’t equipped with any APC or ICV, The Army then consisted of a few artillery units and some armour supported by infantry which travelled into battle in trucks or on foot. Essentially mechanized infantry as a concept wasn’t present in India at that time. These conditions persisted throughout the battles of 1948 and 1962 without much change and it was only after facing Pakistani forces equipped with American built M113 APCs in 1965 that serious thoughts with respect to mechanization and modernization of the Indian Army began to echo in the South Block. A decision was then taken to induct APCs into the Indian Army. APCs would first be provided to some of the infantry battalions tasked to operate with armour. Czechoslovakian built Topas and SKOT APCs were acquired followed by BTR-60s from the USSR in 1968 and inducted into the Indian Army. These initial APC-borne infantry battalions saw battle on both Fronts during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. The process of mechanization continued after the 1971 war, and by 1977, 11 Infantry Battalions have been converted into APC borne infantry battalions.
In 1977 the KV Krishna Rao committee submitted its report on reorganization and modernization of the Indian Army. One of the members of this committee was then Maj Gen Krishnaswamy Sundarji. General Sundarji would go on to become chief of staff of the Indian Army and lead it in Operation Bluestar and Sri Lanka as well. The last former British Indian army officer to lead the Indian Army General Sundarji was an infantry officer with a deep interest in armoured operations. In fact, he is credited with the design of the all black uniform the armoured corps wear to this day. The General had been studying the potential of the BMP-1 as derived by experiences of Syrian forces operating them in the Arab Israeli Yom Kippur war of 1973. The BMP-1 (Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty) had been created by the Soviet KMZ factory in 1966, as a combination of a light tank and an amphibious, missile borne APC to fight alongside armoured forces independently in battlefields which could even be in a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) environment. Its 73mm gun and mounted Anti-Tank Guided Missile Launcher (ATGM) launcher outgunned anything lighter than a Tank in service in the subcontinent at that time. General Sundarji then recommended that all the APC borne infantry battalions be brought under a new combat arm called the mechanized infantry and be equipped with the BMP-1 in a revolutionary move. It must be noted here that till date Pakistan has not been able to equip its forces with a proper ICV relying instead on antiquated M113 upgrades to carry its infantry into battle.
Later when the BMP2 version became available General Sundarji led from the front yet again in convincing the then Rajiv Gandhi led Govt to negotiate and work with the USSR in setting up a manufacturing plant for the BMP-2 in India. This plant known today as Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) Medak was established in 1986 and the first BMP-2 rolled out from here in 1987. More than 2500 BMP-2s have been produced at Medak in the last 44 years and now equips some 50 mechanized infantry battalions of the mechanized infantry regiment apart from serving in various other roles as well.
Like all good things the era of the BMP-2 too draws to an end, it has served for over 40 years across multiple zones and in multiple combat operations to well-deserved acclaim. But in an era of the proliferation of man portable anti-armour weapons and much more modern ICV in the opposition to our east it is no longer top dog. Keeping all this in mind it was in the late nineties that the DRDO began development of the ICV Abhay as a pre-technology demonstrator to develop and test technologies that would be used on a futuristic ICV (FICV) which was to enter the Indian army arsenal by the early 2000’s and progressively replace the BMP fleet. Design work was completed by 2001 and at multiple prototypes were built for trials to serve as technology demonstrators. The Abhay was armed with a 40mm cannon that could fire both Armour-Piercing Fin-Stabilised Discarding Sabot and High Explosive (APFSDS & HE) ammunition, a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun and a 30 mm automatic grenade launcher. Mounted on the right side of the turret was a twin tube launcher for Anti-Tank Guided Weapons (ATGWs). Equipped with a greaves cotton built 550bhp engine the 23-ton Abhay could move a complement of seven soldiers at speeds of up to 70kmph.
The trials of the Abhay helped the Indian Army form guidelines for what it was looking for in a FICV. Finally, in 2009 the Indian Army released its brief based on the DPP 2008 for a FICV which was initially scheduled to enter service from 2017. The FICV program is envisaged as one of the crowning glories of indigenous weapons development. The design, development and subsequent manufacture of a family of tracked armoured vehicles that would replace the 2600+BMP-2 variants in service with the Indian Army as well as serve as the base for further mechanization with Lt Gen Philip Campose indicating in 2016 that as many as 5000 vehicles could possibly enter service. The vehicle would serve for at least 32 years and hence it would be a critical part of Indian military capabilities for a third of the 21st century. Keeping all of this in mind the Expression of Intent (EOI) issued in 2009 laid down that the FICV would have to be operated by three crew members and carry eight additional soldiers with combat loads. It should be able to destroy enemy tanks, ICVs, APCs and soft skinned vehicles as well as engage field fortifications and dismounted enemy infantry. The FICV would provide all round protection from small arms fire and medium artillery splinters and provide protection from direct cannon fire in the frontal arc while also providing protection against Mines and Improvised Explosive Device (IED)s. It would have active and passive protection systems to include stealth and signature management technologies and able to operate in an NBC environment and protect the crew and stick for at least four to six hours. The FICV should be amphibious and have positive buoyancy without any external aids with full combat load and capable of being air transported by the in-service aircrafts. It should be capable of transportation by broad-gauge railway, existing tank transporters and by in-service Landing Ship Tanks (LST)s.
That said nothing came of those initial efforts and the earlier planned selection of two vendors by 2012 never materialised due to political turmoil and various other issues. Russia in the interim offered India a Joint venture for production of the BMP-3 which wasn’t accepted either. The entire project remained in limbo till mid-2014 when with a change in government it was again taken up in earnest. Whereas the earlier 2009 EOI had been issued to Tata Motors, Larsen & Toubro, Mahindra & the OFB in 2014 the field is now expanded to include Bharat Forge, Punj Lloyd, Force Motors, Titagarh wagons and Ashok Leyland. All these firms were asked to develop their own FICV versions based on their own design or to form partnerships with foreign players for joint ventures (JVs) to develop a FICV meeting the Indian Army’s requirements. The Foreign firms interested in partnerships with Indian partners reportedly included Rosoboronexport (Russia), General Dynamics (USA), Rafael (Israel), Nexter and Thales (France), Krauss-MaffeiWegmann (Germany) and Doosan Group of Republic of Korea.
All of this has led to large procedural delays in the selection and subsequent induction of the FICV. As a result, that the current Indian Army Chief Gen. Naravane conceded that there is little chance of an FICV induction prior to 2027 in an interview to defence capital magazine in January 2020. It is worth noting here that these delays have created a situation wherein the Indian army is left with no choice but to look to upgrade the BMP-2 so that it can serve till the late 2030s at least. The ministry of defence has already approved the upgradation of some 1500 BMP-2s at a cost of $1.2Bn over the next 2-5 years. The upgraded BMP-2s would apparently incorporate better armour and a more powerful engine while also getting all weather day/night sights alongside ATGM launchers. Apart from this the DRDO has also begun work on a completely indigenous FICV titled “Mark-1”. A prototype of the same is expected soon.
On the positive side the delays have resulted in the FICV program coinciding with similar ICV replacement programs underway in Singapore, Australia, USA, Israel and Russia. These programs have resulted in the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEMs) based out of these nations developing next generation ICV’s variants which will likely be on offer to the Indian military via their domestic partners in Indian Industry. These ICVs can also serve as an inspiration to indigenous industry for development of their own designs. OFB has developed a modified BMP-2 as its FICV proposal but may field the Kurganets-25 IFV in conjunction with Rosoboronexport as well. The Kurganets 25 at 25-tonnes is light enough to be carried by the IL-76 and C-17 platforms of the IAF. Most importantly it is fully amphibious and moves with a speed of 10kmph in water. It has a version equipped with a 30mm gun that can share logistics with the BMP-2 fleet as they are replaced. These commonalities would help reduce costs of acquisition manifold. The vehicle can be up gunned to carry the AU-220M module equipped with a 57mm anti-armour gun as well.
Larsen & Toubro have already displayed an incomplete hull of their FICV prototype to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This vehicle is loosely based on the K9 hull being manufactured at L&T Armoured systems in Hazira. Larsen & Toubro have also posted a design of the turret they plan to install on their product. This turret will have a 30mm gun along with a twin tube ATGM launcher. The design is likely to undergo further refinement with the support of Hanwha defence before completion. Hanwha is likely to assist L&T with learnings from designing the K-21 IFV and the AS-21 Redback from the ongoing Australian Land 400 program. It is worth noting here that the K-21 is the only other post 2010 design apart from the Kurganets-25 in service currently that has full amphibious capability.
There was news in 2016 of Tata motors and Bharat Forge tying up for a common bid with the support of General Dynamics. This joint venture is likely to leverage support from Bharat Forge’s ongoing association with Elbit and its research into the Israeli Carmel program as well. That said the association with General dynamics likely means the base offering could be a lower weight less armoured version of the Griffin being fielded by the firm for the US Bradley replacement or a version of the ASCOD platform General dynamics has supplied the British military tweaked to the Indian General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQR) with inputs from all of the other firms involved . Mahindra is likely to leverage its association with BAE for a FICV version of the CV90 platform that is already in operation with a number of European militaries. The above notwithstanding it is worth mentioning that neither BAE nor General Dynamics have made a fully amphibious ICV till date as the western philosophy of design favours heavy armour at the cost of Amphibious ability. The volumes on offer along with the expertise of the Indian partners is likely to be leveraged to create bespoke design that fulfil the criteria set forth by the Indian Army.
Amongst the other Indian firms in the fray little is known about progress if any made by Reliance Defence and Punj Lloyd at the moment. The Hinduja Group may prove to be a dark horse with Ashok Leyland having signed an MOU with Rosoboronexport in 2017. The defence division head for Ashok Leyland is on record having said that Ashok Leyland would want to focus on its core strength of logistics and only enter competitions like FICV as part of a consortium. Amongst other dark horses there has been news indicating the US has offered India a three-way JV between India, Israel and the USA for a common family of tracked vehicles. Such an alliance if finalized would bring enormous benefits in terms of reduced unit cost due to possible volumes crossing 25000 units with the US Army requiring more than 15000 vehicles in the ICV and APC formats. As per an article published by Eurasian news on the 19th of August, Rheinmetall of Germany has offered a JV to build the Lynx KF41 in India alongside an earlier proposal for a $1 Bn investment in Uttar Pradesh.
With so many delays over the last twelve years it is now evident that the Indian Army will have to operate the BMP-2 well into the 2030s. As mentioned earlier a project to upgrade the BMP-2 is well underway as well. There is a limit to which upgrades can buy and it is absolutely necessary that the FICV project is pushed along rapidly so that the first vehicles can start getting inducted by 2025-27 at least. The FICV project isn’t just necessary from the point of view of upgradation of armour but it is likely to be the driving force behind the development of a large indigenous industry in the field of armoured vehicles within India with obvious payback in development of all sorts of future armoured platforms. It is imperative that FICV does not become a mere screwdriver assembly project and the design selected is manufactured using indigenous capabilities from the raw material stage. It should also be used as the testbed for futuristic concepts currently being tested like optional manned operations, hybrid power plants and the ability to serve as a mothership for unmanned combat platforms like the Uran -9 or even as control hubs for unmanned BMP-2 units. The FICV is likely to form the base for future armoured vehicle exports as well and hence should also be pursued as a business opportunity in that regard. This project is a watershed for Indian Defence production. Its successful completion will mark the maturity of indigenous armour development in India.
Image provided by the author.