The Indian Army recently dispatched a global Request for Information (RfI) for a multi-purpose Future Ready Combat Vehicle (FRCV), which has generated much mirth in military-industrial circles, for its sheer ridiculousness and operational folly.
The Army’s request is for an FRCV that will not only serve as a ‘medium’-sized main battle tank to replace the Army’s ageing fleet of licence-built Russian T-72s but also as a ‘light-tracked and wheeled tank’, built on the same platform. In layman terms, this is like asking for a Humvee and a Maruti 800 on the same platform. Hopefully, the document will be either withdrawn or amended before its July 31 deadline.
Surely, the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces at Army Headquarters, responsible for issuing the request, realises the irony and irrationality of drawing up such absurd general staff qualitative requirements (GSQRs), which are technologically impossible for any manufacturer to fulfil.
What is all the more surprising is that such QRs are formulated after extensive discussion, not only by the division concerned — in this case, the Mechanised Forces — but finally approved by the Army’s Deputy Chief (Planning & Systems), who is responsible for acquisitions. His office, as are those involved in formulating the requests and the subsequent proposals, or tenders, is purportedly staffed by competent scientific and technical advisers.
Senior Army officers concede that such over-ambitious and flawed requests for information, leading to equally over-stretched, faulty and diluted tenders, are largely responsible for the alarming equipment shortage that the forces face today. The shortfall includes small arms, howitzers, assorted helicopters, armour with night-fighting capacity, air defence capability and varied ordnance, among other things. Although Army Headquarters blames the hidebound and ill-informed Ministry of Defence (MoD) bureaucrats for this, it also has largely itself to blame for the glaring deficiencies.
“The whole process is carried out with limited knowledge and blinkered views,” said former Maj. Gen. Mrinal Suman, the Army’s leading authority on acquisitions and offsets. Poorly conceived, formulated and drafted QRs create confusion and delays, resulting in the entire process being aborted much later, he said. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence concurs.
In its report tabled in Parliament on April 30, 2012, the Committee declared that as many as 41 of the Army’s proposals for diverse equipment in recent years were withdrawn or terminated. The reasons included faulty or over-ambitious qualitative requirements. The Committee report unambiguously pinned responsibility on the Army. The MoD and attendant financial advisers had no role in framing weapon QRs. Service Headquarters consult with the largely uniformed Directorate General Quality Assurance (DGQA), sometimes with inputs from the Defence Research and Development Organisation.
The typical process is this: all available literature on the equipment is gathered and its multiple characteristics collated. The idea is to include as many features as possible to demonstrate how exhaustively the task has been performed. Thereafter, as the draft travels up the chain of command, it gathers additional parameters, as each officer feels compelled to suggest more improvements. “The final QR takes the shape of a well-compiled wish list of utopian dimensions, which simply do not exist,” stated Gen. Suman.
For instance, in 2004, the Army issued a tender for 168 light utility helicopters to replace the obsolete fleet of Cheetahs and Chetaks inducted into service in the mid-60s. The proposal required the chopper to hover uninterruptedly for 30 minutes, a capability no helicopter in the world possessed at the time. The maximum hover time then available, with a U.S. helicopter, was seven minutes. The Army was forced to withdraw the tender soon after.
Similarly, a tender to upgrade FH-77B 155mm/39 calibre howitzers, acquired in the 1980s, had to be scrapped twice, first in 2006 and again in 2009, as the QRs drawn up by the Artillery Directorate were unworkable. A BAE Systems official associated with the upgrade at the time said that the requirements were ‘unrealistic’ for these old guns, expecting more capability than even new howitzers.
In 2013, the request sent to at least five overseas vendors to replace the Army’s obsolete Bofors 40mm L-70 and Soviet ZU-23mm 2B air defence guns had to be scrapped. All five vendors declared the requirements to be unreasonable, as they demanded a firing rate of 500 rounds per minute, a capability no gun in the world possessed.
The same has applied to tenders for tank fire control systems, long range observation systems and for different ammunition types, all terminated over the years on grounds of overreach and unrealism. It would appear that the Indian Army’s search for matchless, and globally unavailable, equipment and capabilities triumphs over and over again.
(Rahul Bedi is a defence analyst.)
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