Lack of good bulletproof jackets reflects the holes in military modernisation

After a long wait of seven years the Army has finally begun to get the first lot of the bulletproof jackets (BPJs) that it has urgently been in need of. Defence minister Manohar Parrikar informed Parliament that 50,000 BPJs have been procured.

The defence acquisition council (DAC) headed by then defence minister AK Antony had accorded acceptance of necessity (AoN), that is, approval in principle to the procurement in October 2009. Of the Army’s total requirement of 353,765 BPJs for counter-insurgency operations, 186,138 were to be procured during the 11th Defence Plan (2007-12) and the remainder during the 12th Plan.

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According to Parrikar’s statement, “The Request for Proposal (RfP) was issued to 36 vendors on March 3, 2011, but had to be retracted on December 8, 2011” because the models offered by the vendors who had been shortlisted failed to meet the qualitative requirements set by the Army. The Army requires modern, lightweight, modular bulletproof jackets that protect the torso of soldiers. The BPJs currently held by the Army are bulky and are on the verge of obsolescence.

The case for the procurement of BPJs reflects the state of military modernisation, in general, and that of the modernisation of infantry battalions of the Army, in particular. The inadequacy of funds, prolonged delays in decision-making, bureaucratic red tape, the blacklisting of vendors and, occasionally, changes in the qualitative requirements have been plaguing military modernisation.

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Surprisingly, even the Army’s plans to replace the basic weapons of an infantryman, the assault rifle, the carbine and the light machine gun, continue to remain in the doldrums. It defies credulity that a nation that can launch a mission to Mars and can fire ballistic missiles up to a range of 5,000 km with precision, cannot produce an assault rifle to match an AK-47 Kalashnikov.

The modernisation plans of infantry battalions are aimed at enhancing their capability for surveillance and target acquisition at night and boosting their firepower for precise retaliation against infiltrating columns and terrorists hiding in built-up areas. The Army has initiated a project to equip all its infantry battalions with an integrated system called the Future Infantry Soldier as a System (F-INSAS) that will be a force multiplier. It will include a modular weapon with a thermal imaging sight for use at night, an under-barrel grenade launcher (UBGL) and Laser range finder that will replace the INSAS rifle.

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It will also have a combat helmet equipped with a head-up display and communications head set, a smart vest with a body monitoring system, a back-pack with integrated GPS and radio and protective footwear. Plans also include the acquisition of hand-held battlefield surveillance radars (BFSRs), and thermal imaging devices (HHTIs) for surveillance at night. Stand-alone infrared, seismic and acoustic sensors need to be acquired in large numbers to enable infantrymen to dominate the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan and detect infiltration of Pakistan-sponsored terrorists at stand-off ranges.

It must be noted that while many modernisation projects have been given AoN approval by the DAC, these approvals merely amount to the first step in the acquisition process. It can take anything from three to five years before a contract is signed after a request for proposal (RfP) is issued, the responses evaluated, JVs formed and technical and user trials of the prototypes are carried out.

Parrikar has done much to put military modernisation back on the rails. With tensions with Pakistan mounting by the day, he needs to ensure that the modernisation of the Army’s infantry battalions is completed quickly.

Gurmeet Kanwal is distinguished fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi