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Charting the Future under General Manoj Pande's Vision for a Tech-Driven Army, the Indian Army is driving ahead for Next-Gen Combat Capabilities
Recently, Army Chief General Manoj Pande highlighted the Army's commitment to harnessing cutting-edge and disruptive technologies to enhance battlefield effectiveness. Coming from the Corps of Engineers, and having commanded the entire spectrum spanning from western theatre, and Infantry brigade along LoC to a mountain division in the Ladakh sector and Commander-in-Chief of the Andaman and Nicobar Command, he is the force of change, putting technology at the heart of battlefield.
General Pande often remarks on radical shifts in warfare and plans for integrating new-age techs like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), space and smart autonomous systems speak volumes about his intentions. With the recent adoption and establishment of the cutting-edge 5G testbed and a dedicated Centre for Artificial Intelligence at the Military College of Technology, Mhow reflects the seriousness of adopting emerging technologies.
Recently, Army Chief General Manoj Pande highlighted the Army's commitment to harnessing cutting-edge and disruptive technologies to enhance battlefield effectiveness
In the range of autonomous and futuristic technologies, the Indian Army is focusing on the field of Robotics, with a particular emphasis on man-unmanned team solutions, unarmed combat solutions, and robotic mules. The Army has already procured the piloted aircraft systems for robotic process automation (RPA) and counter-RPA solutions which are loaded with nano and micro drones. The quest for military-grade UAVs and anti-drone systems has materialised but it needs high-altitude capabilities— at 4,000 to 6,000 --and greater range.
However, while Indian Army (IA) strengthens its futuristic roadmap, what is still lacking is a speedier mechanism for the core platforms like the Future Ready Combat Vehicles (FRCVs) and Futuristic Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) by 2030.
The Future Ready Combat Vehicles (FRCVs) is a phased procurement of a formidable fleet of 1,770 FRCVs, which is intermittently delayed due to various reasons. At the same time, the FRCV must not look at the MBT Arjun MK II 68-tonne tank as an impediment but a radical improvement. Military technology is all about high-grade upgrades and adaptability.
Another mega project of the Indian Army is the Futuristic Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV). The development is now termed as the technology demonstrator for the futuristic ICV (FICV)-- 'Abhay'-- which will eventually replace the Indian Army's BMP-2s. A recent development breathed fire into the stalled FICV programme when Defence Secretary Giridhar Aramane announced that India is interested in a US offer for joint production of Stryker armoured vehicles. "An initial offer on the (Stryker) Infantry Combat Vehicle has come from the US. We have expressed our interest in discussing it further to take the co-production part ahead," Aramane explained.
"An initial offer on the (Stryker) Infantry Combat Vehicle has come from the US. We have expressed our interest in discussing it further to take the co-production part ahead,"
—Giridhar Aramane, Defence Secretary
In an interaction with the author, the Defence Secretary also highlighted the collaborative nature where India will leverage the best-of-class technology adding capabilities which will be much superior and combat-proven for the Indian Army. The collaboration hints at some of the key components which are not available for the required firepower and mobility. Ultimately, it must validate its tag—futuristic.
The Stryker armoured vehicles are manufactured by the US firm General Dynamics Land Systems and have been widely used in conflict zones from Afghanistan to Iraq. A Stryker Brigade boasts 130 x 18-tonne Stryker ICVs; nine Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) Vehicles; 27 Medical Evacuation Vehicles; 12 Engineer Squad Vehicles; 32 Commander's Vehicles; 36 120mm Mounted Mortar Carriers; 56 Reconnaissance Vehicles; 13 Fire Support Vehicles; three NBC Reconnaissance Vehicles; and 12 105mm Mobile Gun Systems.
Additionally, the collaboration adds another dimension to Indo-US advanced cooperation in strategic areas with the proposition that it will help Indian military-industrial clusters, Aramane conveys the author.
The idea that the Army must focus on various elements of the capabilities plan has resulted in building new structures and strengthening the institutional capabilities within.
Firstly, the formation of the Defence Planning Committee (DPC) under the Chairmanship of the National Security Advisor will spearhead the role of integrating strategicplanning with a clear mandate towards capability development, defence diplomacy and defence indigenisation. This adds to the core of the twin objectives of 'Jointness' and 'Resource Optimisation' of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) under the Chief of the Defence Staff.
The Future Ready Combat Vehicles (FRCVs) is a phased procurement of a formidable fleet of 1,770 FRCVs, which is intermittently delayed due to various reasons
Next is the Raising of Niche Capability Structures which are tasked to address critical capability gaps in the domains of Space, Cyber and Special Forces capabilities. Niche Capability Structures map the crucial element of shifting warfighting and critical roles which the Defence Space Agency, Defence Cyber Agency & Armed Forces Special Operations Division play in the overarching ambit of national security.
However, as seen within the services, the establishment of a functional R&D centre within the institution adds tremendous value in terms of building some in-house capabilities for designing and developing equipment and sub-systems. The very concept of the Army Design Bureau (ADB) aims to explore technology with extensive outreach to industry, and academia, collaborating with technology providers, manufacturers, and users. Recently, the ADB has selected 34 in-house innovations, incorporating cutting-edge technologies such as AI, software applications, unmanned aerial platforms, and counter-drone systems. The success of sub-systems like "Vidyut Rakshak," an IoT-based Generator Monitoring and Control System which has transitioned to the Indian industry for mass production is such a step in the right direction.
However, it is pertinent to note that within the military capabilities roadmap, the key factor which runs parallel to the defence indigenisation is industry. How the forces must align the aspiration of the industry with the cost of R&D and technology is paramount.
The gaps hint at the cohesion in the planning and budgetary allocation. Several acquisition plans have fallen victim to such differences.
Another key factor is all about aggregating the demand of the armed forces in its entirety. A look at the global procurement systems gives us plenty of direction that the collaborative and joint approach must be at the core of each acquisition.
The most pressing need for the armed forces is to say no to batch orders—the ad hoc approach does not encourage sustainable production en masse. This has impacted the indigenous development of high-end equipment. "The solution lies in the pipeline production of annual supplies," explained Commodore Sujeet Samaddar who leads many technological development programmes within the industry.
This helps in the export proposition too with sustainable production and quality upgrades as the military technology rapidly improves. While this goes beyond the scope of the military's mandate, the creation of the Export Promotion Council/Board/Authority will go hand in hand in raising defence exports. In a seismic shift, India's defence exports have been a remarkable success story, marking a historic surge in defence exports, reaching a whooping 16,000 crore in 2023.
In the range of autonomous and futuristic technologies, the Indian Army is focusing on the field of Robotics, with a particular emphasis on man-unmanned team solutions, unarmed combat solutions, and robotic mules
Industry and forces alike have strongly proposed that there is no need for trials for in-service or proven equipment. Further, especially in the case of the army, no-cost, no-commitment (NCNC) trials in capital procurements have been found to lower the standard of quality participation in the tender process and turn, defeat the purpose. According to Samaddar, NCNC trials should be budgeted by both time and cost between the vendor and the user service. As per the NCNC, the industry suffers despite investing in best-of-class technology in building prototypes for the procurement process as there are no points given for technologically superior products due to the rigidness of the Qualitative Requirements (QRs).
Another key area which still needs a closer look is the very spirit of the 'Make in India', the very process of nominating against the very ethos of competition. While some of the strategic areas can do to the defence public sector establishment, the rest must be on competitive bidding and no benchmarking. This is all about Transparency and listing of approvals and retractions.
However, above all, there must be a process and mechanism forthe responsibility and accountability for delays and cancellations that have marred our many programmes. The time has come to address all.
The author is a defence editor and security expert. He writes on National Security, Military Technology, Strategic Affairs & Policies.