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The Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) programme of the Indian Army is a technological leap forward for the Next-Generation Infantry Combat Vehicles that will give soldiers a decisive edge on the battlefield
The changing geostrategic canvas has undergone numerous revolutionary alterations which has created strategic volatility and uncertainty as also affected overall regional and international security environment. The Indian subcontinent’s security milieu has drastically rehabilitated in the past decade as a result of China’s menacing and swaggering expansionism, undermining India’s sphere of influence and Pakistan’s unstable, radicalised and revisionist government waging proxy war in India. These, coupled with shifting strategic realignment power centers, thus, require fortifying every aspect of our gross national power. Punitive deterrence and indigenous military might be crucial components for our strategic autonomy. National security, particularly in light of our active borders, requires that the Army pitches niche technological capabilities when needed, not when it is convenient and that modernisation efforts must keep up with or surpass pace of the adversaries. As a consequence, war fighting concepts as applicable to the Indian operational landscape and the future wars, India might need to define capability pursuits in a planned time frame with least reliance on external assistance.
It is pertinent to note that India is entangled in a challenge to handle two hostile neighbours concomitantly on two different fronts i.e. western and northern borders. Apart from plains, developed/semi-developed and desert terrain along the western borders, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the northern borders has a peculiar terrain where the altitude varies from 9,000 to 18,000 ft with intermittent plains and valleys. The protracted standoff in Eastern Ladakh since Galwan in June 2020 has seen mobilisation of tanks and BMPs in these areas, thus evolving a new concept of operation, which were lined eyeball to eyeball to the northern adversary. Despite the arguments presented by nay-sayers, the protracted deployment on the borders escalates the risk of a kinetic skirmish manifolds and hence such an inevitable possibility needs to be given a prismatic treatment through a pragmatic interpretation of the adversaries’ intentions where in conflict is the most likely outcome.
The doctrine for the Infantry worldwide focuses on a self-reliant Infantry operating in a combined arms environment. Therefore, while it may appear that the future could manifest in the employment of modular tailor-made integrated forces tasked with specific operational outcomes, it cannot take away from the fact that all such conflicts be it Asymmetric War, Border Conflict or an All-out war will eventually have to rely on the Infantry to achieve tangible operational results. The Infantry has, therefore, been the foremost fighting arm from the days of yore. History is testimony to the fact that the ultimate victory in any war is decided by who holds the critical ground and that job can only be accomplished by the Infantry. It is the infantryman who pushes the enemy out of his bunker and forces him to accept defeat; or resolutely holds his position against the assaults of the enemy till the ‘last man, last round’. There is a never-ending list of examples of how the capture or the denial of land has resulted in the change of course, even of a strategic engagement.
With the fleeting and dynamic nature of current and future wars and the known commitment of the adversary to ‘Non-Contact Warfare’, it is highly possible that there would be a short and intense window for a kinetic engagement and hence all opportunities that arise during such an engagement have to be optimised. For the same, mobility, lethality and survivability emerge as the key tenets to achieve success. An Infantry Combat Vehicle (ICV) fleet is a precarious constituent of the Mechanised Force which was inducted to ensure the same through mobile high tempo operations with carrying capability of infantry, dovetailed with potent weapon platform to ensure ‘Victory at Least Cost and in Minimum Time’. The ICVs are armoured vehicles which carry mechanised infantry into the battle as an integrated mobile weapons platform, as part of a combined arms team or group, across the entire spectrum ranging from a sub conventional domain to a nuclear battlefield. Presently the mainstay of the ICV fleet of the Indian Army is the Soviet Union vintage BMP-II inducted in mid-1980’s when a major drive was undertaken to mechanise the Indian Infantry. With a service life of globally accepted formulation of 32 years of the equipment, replacement of BMP-II in 2017-18 onwards was an operational prerequisite.
As highlighted, the ICV is an important facet of mechanised warfare, employed to safely transport mechanised infantry to critical locations in the battlefield, provide fire support to cover their dismounted operations and destroy enemy tanks and other weapon platforms. Their ability to float across water obstacles as a mobile protected lethal platform gives them the singular critical operational capability to gain and retain high tempo of operations especially as part of a proactive strategy. While fighting against capable and obscure enemies, maintaining combat overmatch definitely requires timely equipment modernisation. It is a necessity, not only to intimately support continuous time critical technological upgradations of current equipment profile, but also simultaneously enhance own competency with induction of future capabilities. The Army thus required a new FICV with incremental technological improvements to replace the existing BMP-II. The FICV is envisaged to replace the vintage Soviet BMP-IIs that were the bulwark of the Army’s Mechanised Infantry since the 1980s and which have long outlived their utility. The ageing BMPIIs, which the FICV will replace, are deployed in large numbers to tackle China’s cross-border transgressions but suffer from a lack of night-fighting and anti-drone capabilities.
India’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), chaired by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, had approved the procurement of the Futuristic Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) for the Indian Army and, the procurement, approved through the provision of an ‘Acceptance of Necessity’ (AoN) status under the ‘Buy (Indian)’ category, included the tracked version of the FICV for the Mechanised Infantry Regiment of the Indian Army. In June 2021, Indian Army issued a Request for Information (RFI) for planned procurement of 1,750 units of indigenously developed, amphibious & tracked FICV and vendors who could not respond to the RFP were given time extension upto March 2023 for replying to the RFP. The Indian Army announced on December 22, 2022 that an Acceptance of Necessity had been granted for procurement of new Futuristic Infantry Combat Vehicle, conforming that trials of prototype after completion of TEC will begin in 36 months and L1 & L2 vendors will receive 60: 40 split quantities for manufacturing 1,750 units. The issuance of the RFI marked the Indian Army’s third attempt since 2008 to acquire FICVs to replace the service’s ageing fleet of Soviet Union era BMP-I and BMP-II ICVs.
The Army’s RFI requires the vehicle to be modular and lend itself to future upgrades through simple modifications. It also needs to be amphibious, with laser warning & active protection systems and its weapon turret ‘preferably unmanned’. The armament suite is to include a 30mm automatic cannon, fire-and-forget top-attack ATGMs, and a 12.7mm stabilised RCWS (remotecontrolled weapon station). The FICV should moreover have a 30 HP / tonne power-toweight ratio and combat load of 2.5 tonnes and be manned by 11 personnel including three crew members for the vehicle. India’s state-run Armoured Vehicles Nigam Limited (AVNL) and private-sector companies such as Mahindra Defence Systems, Larsen & Toubro (L&T), and Tata Motors are developing FICV prototypes for the Indian Army and are likely to take part in the FICV bidding process. According to Indian Army’s new RFI, 55 per cent of FICVs will be ‘Gun Version’ and balance will be specialist version with mini drones and Kamikaze drones.
The FICV will be a critical force multiplier for ensuring combat overmatch in the future conflict scenarios, across the entire spectrum of our envisaged threats and desired capabilities. These vehicles will be able to operate in the plains, semi-desert, desert and mountainous terrain with capability to cross the rivers and streams (amphibious capability) and operate in CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) environment. This combat vehicle will also be employed for operations along the LAC in the Ladakh, Central and Sikkim sectors.
FICV will be a harbinger of high-end technology induction to India. More significantly, it would serve as a bandwagon on which large, medium, and small sized defence enterprises could locate mutually exclusive areas to construct an integrated defence ecosystem. So, putting aside any worries about ‘Made in India’, it would serve as a catalyst to advance the recently announced defence corridor from a concept to a reality. The FICV also includes a family of futuristic combat support vehicles, with the potential to construct an operationally necessary light tank based on the idea of shared base platforms. In addition to the intriguing concept of requiring a large number of FICV and related platforms, its life cycle management and support make tremendous commercial sense for international partners as well as the Indian Defence Industry.
However, pertinent to note here is that even if the FICV as presently planned, the manifestation in the Army by 2026-27 (RFI being issued in June 2021), the fleet replacement with 1,750 FICVs will take minimum 17 to 18 years (@100 per year) i.e., by 2039; by when the first lot would be near mid-life and necessitating next level of upgrades.
FICV programme must progress at a legislated pace because it will not just be a lethal platform, but also be the base for other defence R&D programmes and a test of the credibility of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ initiative. Both from the perspective of time sensitive indigenous capability development, as well as addressing critical operational void, it would be prudent to progress FICV expeditiously with due responsibility and accountability to meet the future operational challenges and be a step ahead of the adversaries.
The Author is former Army Commander South Western, Eastern and Central Army Commands