Chandigarh: The Indian Army (IA) has initiated the indigenous upgrade of 811 of its licence built Soviet-era BMP-2/2K ‘Sarath’ infantry combat vehicles (ICVs) by equipping them with more powerful engines, night fighting capability and varied advanced systems.
The force recently despatched a project sanction order (PSO) to 12 domestic private and public sector companies – referred to as Development Agencies (DAs) – to produce a retrofitted prototype within 52 weeks (or by July 31, 2022) for user trials, UK’s Jane’s Defence Weekly reported on August 17. One ICV apiece would be supplied to each potential vendor by the IA for this purpose, the classified 12-page PSO stated.
Thereafter, at least two vendors would be selected from amongst those who met the IA’s preliminary staff qualitative requirement (PSQRs) for the upgraded ICVs, and the one that emerged L1, or the lowest bidder, would be shortlisted to series upgrade all 811 platforms, Jane’s stated.
The magazine said officials associated with the ICV upgrade stated that the BMP-2 upgrade would be processed under the Buy Indian-Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufactured (Indian-IDDM) category of the Defence Procurement Procedure-2020 (DPP-2020), which mandates a 50% domestically sourced content for the retrofit.
The potential vendors on the IA’s list include Alpha Design Technologies, Bharat Electronics Limited, Bharat Forge, Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) Larsen & Toubro (L&T), Reliance Defence and Infrastructure and Tata. All these companies would be permitted to enter into collaborative agreements with overseas original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for the project, and according to industry sources many already had already finalised cooperative arrangements
Official sources told Jane’s that the projected ICV upgrade would include fitting them with more powerful engines to replace their present UTD20/2 300hp power packs, third-generation thermal imager-based gunner and panoramic sights, modern fire control systems and automatic target trackers. The retrofit would also encompass upgrading the platforms on-board weapon systems that include a 30mm 2A42 auto-canon with dual ammunition feeds, capable of firing 9M113 Konkurs wire-guided anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and a secondary coaxial 7.62x54mm machine gun.
Earlier, in July 2017, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had approved the ongoing Rs 2,400 crore upgrade of 639 BMP-2/2K to BMP-2M standards by the state-owned OFB. This included fitting them with six cylinder four stroke UTD-23 supercharged 360hp diesel engines and thermal imaging fire control systems (TIFCS). Some are also reportedly being armed with the locally developed Nag ATGMs and automatic grenade launchers.
Equipping the ICVs with TIFCS’, however, follows a rare admission by the force last year that the BMP2/2K’s, inducted into service 1985 onwards were ‘night blind’ and that their sighting systems, based on Image Intensifier Technology were ‘not fit for modern day warfare’. Many such BMPs had been deployed to eastern Ladakh in response to the enduring standoff, since May 2020 between the IA and China’s People’s Liberation Army along their disputed Line of Actual Control or LAC.
The IA has so far acquired 2,691 BMP-2/2Ks since the mid-1980’s, of which around 1,700 were presently operational, doubling in many instances as armoured ambulances, amphibious bulldozers and engineer reconnaissance vehicles. Some ICVs, with modified chassis have also been employed as Nag missile carriers (NAMICA) – capable of carrying up to six locally developed Nag ATGMs – and as part of the medium-range surface-to-air (SAM) Akash air defence missile systems to transport their indigenously designed Rajendra phased array fire control radar.
And in June 2020, the MoD had approved the procurement of 156 licence-built BMP-2 ICVs from the OFB Medak unit in Telangana that has been series producing the ICVs since 1987. Officials indicated that OFB Medak is required to complete delivery of all 156 ICVs within 24 months.
Weighing 14.3 tonnes and operated by a three-man crew, including the commander and gunner and powered by a UTD20/3 300hp diesel engine, the BMP-2s are capable of transporting seven fully-equipped infantrymen. The ICVs have an operational range of 600km and are capable of travelling at a maximum speed of 65kph on roads, 45kmph off-road and at 7kmph when engaged amphibiously..
According to Jane’s, the IA had kickstarted its long-delayed upgrade of 811 BMP2 ICVs to meet the challenge posed by the PLA in Ladakh. Senior IA officers, however, had told the magazine that the ICV upgrade was a ‘major project’ to execute locally and faced ‘serious’ financial and technological challenges. It was also possible that the deadline to produce a prototype in 52 weeks by July 2022 could also be rescheduled.
Jane’s experts added that the ‘Sarath’ ICVs lacked several mission systems that were fairly standard, rendering an upgrade a ‘necessity to avoid obsolescence’ until a replacement platform was procured or the long-delayed Future Infantry Combat Vehicle or FICV was developed. The financially and technologically ambitious $12 billion FICV programme, initiated in 2009 to locally design and build 2,610 20-22 ton ICVs as replacements for the BMP-2.2Ks has been abandoned, revived and once again dumped several times.
Meanwhile, industry officials, for their part were sceptical over whether the ICV upgrade would meet the mandated 50% indigenous requirement for the programme, as a large proportion of systems needed for its upgrade would necessarily be imported, as developing them locally would not only be expensive but also time consuming.
“Hopefully, the elaborate ICV upgrade project will not flounder over the seemingly unattainable requirement for indigenisation in the name of atmanirbharta or self-reliance,” said Amit Cowshish, former Ministry of Defence advisor on acquisitions. It’s time for the MoD and services to err on the side of practicality in such programmes rather than get bogged down in procedural complexities, many of which are unattainable, he added.