Indian Army's Persistent Penchant for 'Marvel Comics Weaponry' Has Again Cost it Dear

The scrapping of the long-pending procurement of badly-needed towed air defence gun missile systems has trained focus on the army's repeated qualitative requirement overreach.

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New Delhi: In yet another instance of flawed planning and possible qualitative requirement overreach, India’s Ministry of Defence recently scrapped its long-pending procurement of badly-needed towed air defence gun missile systems (ADGMS) for the army yet again, despite extending potential vendor bid deadlines multiple times.

In a cryptic notification on July 6, the MoD’s Acquisition Wing declared that it was ‘retracting’ its October 2021 request for proposal or tender for 220 ADGMS and 141,576 rounds of ammunition. This followed the eighth extension on June 8 to the request for proposal’s response time limit for domestic vendors. Then, the entire procurement under the ‘Buy and Make (Indian)’ category of the Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020 was summarily terminated four weeks later.

No explanations were forthcoming for retracting this tender, which also seems to have escaped media attention and scrutiny. The MoD spokesman too was unavailable for comment on the ADGMS procurement – which had been deemed ‘critical’ a decade earlier by former Chief of Army Staff General V.K. Singh.

In March 2012, General Singh had, in a letter that was leaked by a Mumbai newspaper, warned the federal government that 97% of the Indian Army’s ADGMS were ‘obsolete’ and in need of being upgraded or replaced, or both.

He was referring to some 1,360 legacy single-barrel towed Bofors 40mm L/70 automatic guns and Soviet-era Zu-23-2B-23MM twin-barrel autocannon, both of which were inducted into the Army in the late 1960s.

However, in recent years, some 200-odd L/70s, of a total number of 1,180 pieces received by the army, had been upgraded by Bharat Electronics Limited for Rs 575 crores as a ‘stop gap’ measure. This retrofit had rendered these guns capable of tackling low flying aircraft and helicopters, but the overall shortfall of ADGMS was to have been made good by the now terminated buy.

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“The ADGMS are needed urgently, and cancelling their procurement tender is a serious operational setback for the army,” said defence analyst Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle (retired) of the New Delhi-based Security Risks consultancy group. The paucity of ADGMS, that comprise the Army’s three-tiered air defence system – the other two being the under import and the under-development missile systems – needs to be urgently resolved, he advised.

According to the ADGMS request for proposal, the Indian Army had aimed for the outright purchase of 25 guns and 44,440 rounds of standard and advanced ammunition from the shortlisted Indian vendor – with possible collaboration with an overseas manufacturer – and on indigenously building the remaining 195 guns and 97,136 ammunition rounds. Alternately, in the likelihood of the ADGMS being indigenously designed, the entire contract would be executed under the ‘Make’ component of the ‘Buy and Make (Indian)’ classification.

Weighing no more than seven tonnes and transportable by rail or ‘in service’ aircraft and ships, the proposed ADGMS’ were required to have a firing rate of 200 rounds per minute and capable of operating in varied terrain, including altitudes of up to 4,500m, the western Rajasthan desert region and the northern Punjab plains.

Operated by a two-man crew, these guns also needed to be able to engage hostile combat and transport aircraft, helicopters, remotely piloted vehicles, cruise missiles, precision guided munitions and other assorted aerial targets up to heights of 2,500m. The RfP also expected the ADGMS to fire different ammunition types, including air burst, high explosive, and advanced hit efficiency and destruction (AHEAD) – or comparable – rounds, amongst assorted other projectiles.

Recanting the ADGMS tender was not the sole impediment to bolstering the Indian Army’s severely degraded air defence capabilities.

In September 2020, the MoD had annulled the $2.5 billion tender for 104 K30 Biho self-propelled air defence gun missile systems (SPAD-GMS) manufactured by South Korea’s Hanwha Defense, to equip five Army air defence regiments.

Republic of Korea Army Soldiers operating a K30 Biho ‘Flying Tiger,’ a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. Photo: Public domain/Wikipedia

The SAPD-GMS were being acquired to complement the towed ADGMS in the army’s air defence grid, and the Biho guns had been selected in early 2019 after besting two rival Russian systems – the upgraded 2K22 Tangushka M1 and the Pantsir missile system – in trials. Hanwha and its SPAD-GMS programme partner LIG Nex 1 had even tied up locally with two Indian manufacturers to discharge their 30% offset obligations, but the entire deal was adjourned following undisclosed objections from Moscow and remains in limbo.

Meanwhile, retired military officers, defence analysts and industry officials maintained that, like many other tenders, especially those concerning the Indian Army, the one for ADGMS had, in all likelihood, been withdrawn due to ‘implausible’ qualitative requirements or QRs, which, in turn, circumscribed the ability of local vendors to implement them.

“The Army’s QRs demanded an operational capability from the ADGMS that was unrealistic and simply unavailable,” declared an executive from one of the companies to whom the tender had been sent. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to design an ADGMS with such exaggerated capabilities, even with assistance from overseas manufacturers and the tender was bound to be retracted, he added, requesting not to be named.

It may also be recalled that tenders to acquire similar air defence gun systems were also withdrawn after Russia’s Rosonboronexport and Germany’s Rheinmetall Air Defence (RAD) had emerged as single vendor bidders in 2007 and 2009 respectively, an outcome that has consistently been discouraged by successive editions of the Defence Procurement/Acquisition Procedure since 2001. RAD was later banned in May 2012 from operating in India on charges of corruption that remain indeterminate and reportedly unresolved.

Successive Defence Parliamentary Committees too had repeatedly criticised the services, especially the Army, for formulating ‘over ambitious’ QRs for equipment which, in many instances, resulted in tenders being rescinded, as it was simply non-existent anywhere. In early 2012, for instance, the Parliamentary Defence Committee revealed that as many as 41 of the Indian Army’s tenders for sundry equipment had been withdrawn or terminated over an 18-month period, principally due to impracticable QRs.

Service QRs are based on responses to requests for information from domestic or overseas vendors or both, ahead of the issue of detailed requests for proposals for the concerned equipment or project. The former are what they claim to be: an endeavour to elicit information regarding the availability and capability of desired miscellaneous military kit, with the objective of enabling QR formulation.

Also read: The Mystery of the MoD Granting Emergency Materiel Purchasing Powers to the Services, Yet Again

Once the request for information responses had been received by the respective services, the exercise to prepare the QRs begins, with the draft document travelling steadily up the chain of military command. Along the way, the QRs gathered supplementary parameters, with each individual officer feeling compelled to suggest additional accompaniments in an endeavour at displaying industry. Deletions were rarely affected, and the final QR emerged, in many instances in the Indian Army as a ‘wish list of utopian dimensions’.

“There are certain stages (like the request for information and eventually the request for proposals) where exclusively the jurisdiction is with Service Headquarters,” Parliament’s Standing Committee of Defence had unambiguously declared in its 2012 report. The state of affairs has changed little in the intervening years. The Ministry of Defence and attendant Financial Advisors, it stated, had no role whatsoever in framing weapon QRs as their responsibilities come into play much later. The Committee went on to state that all service QRs, including the Indian Army’s, were formulated jointly by Service Headquarters in consultation with the largely uniformed Directorate General Quality Assurance and, at times, with inputs from the government-run Defence Research and Development Organisation. Thereafter, these QRs were approved by the Staff Equipment Policy Committee or SEPC at the respective service headquarters, which in the instance of the Army, is headed by its Deputy Chief of Staff.

In recent years, the Indian Army’s QR overstretch has been on display in multiple critical procurements, all of which were eventually called off after prolonged periods of feverish technical evaluations and trials. These are too numerous to enumerate, but one such glaring example included the procurement of assault rifles that were magically required to change calibres from 5.56x45mm to 7.62x39mm, merely by switching the barrel and magazine. It took nearly five years for the tender to be scrapped in 2015 and adequate rifle alternatives are yet to materialise seven years later.

Another QR which is clearly an example of overreach was the Indian Army’s June 2021 request for information for the planned procurement of 1,770 ‘Future Tanks’ by 2030 under the services Future Combat Vehicle programme, the QR for which has, understandably, not surfaced. This request for information was the third since 2015, with the earlier two having made no progress due to technological excesses, demonstrating the Indian Army’s persistent penchant for what the late Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had appositely referred to as ‘Marvel comics weaponry’.