By Kamal Shah
In an exclusive interview with Indian Aerospace & Defence, Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Kumar Pande spoke to Editorial Director Kamal Shah on a wide range of issues concerning Indian Army modernisation and its collaboration with the indigenous industry for mutual growth.
Q. The Ministry of Defence and the Indian Army have emphasised ‘‘Make in India’’ and ‘‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’Abhiyan’ projects concerning defence equipment and ammunition. Will the Indian Army be able to meet the challenges along the Northern borders?
Ans: The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has many operational and tactical lessons for all of us, but the biggest lesson is that we need to be self-reliant in terms of weapons, ammunition, spares and technologies for effective warfighting.
The Atmanirbhar vision of the nation has, in fact, further empowered the Indian Army to procure more diverse equipment and technologies in larger numbers through indigenous sources. The capital procurement pattern of the Indian Army has always been inherently aligned to the ‘‘Make in India’India’ initiative of the Capital Acquisition Contracts worth approximately Rs 90,000 Crore in the last three financial years, out of which approximately 83% have been signed with Indian industry. In the financial year 2021-22, all capital contracts worth Rs 47,000 Cr were signed with the Indian industry. The Acceptance of Necessity (AoNs), obtained in FY 2021-22, worth approx Rs 40,000 Cr plus, were all with Indian industry. The quantum of contracts for the Indian Army has been the largest ever.
Positive Indigenisation Lists (PIL) have provided the focus areas for the Indian defence industry. Each item in these lists has been mapped against a particular embargo year, beyond which that particular item shall not be imported.
The Indian defence industry is rising to the challenge and is investing in the necessary research and development (R&D) to ensure the development of the prototype. Every industry in India has started evolving a dedicated defence vertical.
We in the Indian Army are fully committed to enabling our indigenous industry to achieve its targets. We are more than willing to extend all possible assistance, be it in terms of opening up our field firing facilities or assisting the industry in the internal validation of the prototypes in the rugged terrain available in our operational areas. The Indian Army has already processed 256 industry licenses and 366 export licenses in the last three years to further empower the industry.
While I say so, we are more than willing to cooperate strategically with friendly nations and industries, particularly in futuristic technologies.
We are cognizant of the operational readiness requirements being paramount and will ensure that our procurements fulfil that mandate.
Q. How has the situation along the Northern Borders affected the priorities for the induction of equipment of the Indian Army?
Ans: As you are aware, threats for Indian Army emanate from the unresolved hostile borders and prevailing security situation along our contested borders. Proxy war, Left Wing Extremism (LWE) and insurgencies are also a concern. Therefore, to meet these diverse security challenges, the Indian Army is focused on developing full-spectrum deterrence capabilities.
The modernisation of the Indian Army is progressed as per a well-conceived Integrated Capability Development Plan. With the impetus given to Atmanirbhar Bharat, we endeavour to source the bulk of our equipment from Indian manufacturers. With the assistance of the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO), Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs), Ordnance Factory Boards (OFBs) and private industries, we are continuously working to ensure a higher domestic content in all our equipment procurements.
The Indian Army’s modernisation plans are essentially based on developing ‘‘Force Capabilities’’, which encompasses the development of critical combat capabilities.
The manifestation of self-reliance has been made possible by integrating our processes into design and development (D&D), R&D and innovation cultures. We are presently pursuing more than 20 projects with premier academic institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in fields such as low light imaging, a range extension of artillery shells by employing ramjet technology, development of habitat for high altitude areas (HAA), unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) jamming, robotics, sensors, smart munitions, high powered lasers, lightweight armour etc. We have also established an Army Cell at IIT Delhi with the aim of scouting potential technology solutions.
We have been progressing more than 45 Make II Projects, of which 17 have been initiated through suo moto proposals received from the industry. The in-principle approval accorded by the MoD for Light Tanks as the Make-I project significantly boosts Atmanirbharta. Thus, in the near future, we will also be a tank-producing nation.
Innovation in the defence sector is about creating new military capabilities. iDEX and iDEX Prime, with grants of 1.5 Cr and 10 Cr, respectively, have created a defence start-up ecosystem. Technology gets incubated by start-ups. We conduct start-up searches every year and hand-hold start-ups offering niche technologies. Indian Army’s annual idea and innovation competition have resulted in some very innovative solutions.
The R&D projects in the domain of niche technologies are being taken up through the Technology Development Fund (TDF) of the DRDO. We are also encouraging a spiral development mode, especially in iDEX cases, wherein equipment being procured in limited quantities would allow for field exploitation while enabling simultaneous further development based on user recommendations and improvements.
In-house software development with an artificial intelligence (AI) engine to fuse input from multiple battlefield sensors is in place. In Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), we have made good progress through an iDEX project. Tech knowledge Labs for AI and 5G have been established in the Military College of Telecommunication Engineering (MCTE) Mhow to meet certain critical requirements.
Emergency procurement provisions were adopted to induct drone/counter-drone systems, new-generation munitions, surveillance and communication systems and other mobility equipment. To address our larger defence requirements, we remain committed to finding indigenous solutions, in keeping with the vision of Atmanirbharta, with ‘‘Indigenise to Modernise’’ as the mantra for the future.
Q. How do you read the Russia-Ukraine war, especially with respect to the use of drones and loitering munitions?
Ans: Recent conflicts have highlighted the impact of aerial sensors and the multiple weapon delivery means on the battlefield. Even low-cost solutions have the capability to cause disruptive effects. We realise it, but we must also acknowledge the fact that the Indian Army is a professional and well-trained force with key capabilities to prosecute such operations as well as protect its force from such threats. However, we also have taken significant steps to further augment our capabilities.
Drones have to be examined from the perspective of their operating environment rather than being restricted to usage only. In the Valley, drones are part of a continuum of the terror infrastructure and therefore are seen as part of counter-terrorism operations. The same drone with the same usage, if used in the context of conventional operations along the Western or Northern borders, will present a different threat profile. Counter-drone operations and technologies will also undergo a change. Similarly, drone threats to civilian airports cannot be mitigated using the same counter-drone technologies used at military airfields. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to drone threats.
We have identified the threat from drones or remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), and a credible response capability is being built through synergised efforts of Indian industry DRDO and in-house Indian Army initiatives. A number of systems, like drone spoofers and jammers, including handheld jammers, have been contracted and deployed to counter the threat from drones and RPAS.
Q. The Army often interacts with industry leaders and assesses their products for the Indian Army. As the COAS, what is your assessment of their capabilities? What are your suggestions for the industry?
Ans: India is marching ahead as a global player with the vision of Make-in-India – Make with the World – and Make for the World. Clearly, the need for capability development based on the principle of self-reliance and catalysing niche technologies to facilitate the same are the planks this vision is incumbent upon.
The indigenous defence industry has been making contemporary, sophisticated equipment that will allow us to rapidly bolster our capabilities and accounts for any potential deficiencies. The domestic industry can tailor-make equipment catering to specific needs based on our operational requirements and unique terrain.
Our procurement procedures and standard operating procedures (SOPs) are now aligned to facilitate our defence start-ups, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) and big firms so that they are able to cater to our operational requirements within a stipulated time frame.
Long-term sustenance is feasible by procuring equipment from the Indian industry. I am confident that the Indian Army will win future wars with Make in-India weapons and equipment. We are confident of the robustness and the operational lethality of the weapons and equipment being made in India.
I have visited some of the Indian industry and seen modern production techniques and research processes first-hand. These equipment are comparable with some of the best in the world.
PILs have provided the focus areas for the Indian defence industry. Each item in these lists has been mapped against a particular embargo year, beyond which that particular item shall not be imported.
The Indian defence industry is rising to the challenge and is investing in the necessary R&D to ensure the development of prototypes. Every industry in India has started evolving a dedicated defence vertical.
I have complete confidence in the entrepreneurial spirit of the Indian industry, and in the future, India will make its mark as a net export of defence goods.
Q. The Cheetah/Chetak fleet of the Indian Army needs urgent replacement. How far has our case for its replacement progressed? How many more LCHs are likely to be received by the Army? What are the plans for the modernisation of the Army Aviation Corps?
Ans: Army Aviation endeavours to achieve capability development to meet rotary wing (RW) and remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAs) requirements of the Indian Army to effectively counter the evolving threat in the neighbourhood.
The AAC operates the largest fleet of Reconnaissance and Observation (R&O) helicopters (Cheetah/Chetak), utility helicopters (Advanced Light Helicopter) and combat helicopters (Advanced Light Helicopter-Weapons System Integrated and Light Combat Helicopter). In addition, Army Aviation is also the largest operator of RPAs covering the Western and Northern front.
Army Aviation is undertaking its capability development through the indigenous route with an aim to meet RW and RPAS requirements of field formations in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA).
ALH and ALH-WSI platforms have proven their capability. The requirement of R&O helicopters for the Indian Army will be incrementally met with the induction of Light Utility Helicopters (LUHs).
Additional squadrons of ALH Mk-III and ALH-WSI are being planned for induction in the immediate future. The LCH, which is specifically designed for HAAs, has also been inducted into service. The impending induction of Apache helicopters will mostly complete the requirement of an attack helicopter stream.
Army Aviation also operates RPAS having flights of medium altitude long endurance (MALE) RPAS in its inventory. The future procurement includes additional MALE class, high altitude long endurance (HALE) class, and runway independent (RWI) remotely piloted aircraft system.
Q. What is the Indian Army’s modernisation plan? What are the next-generation new platforms, assets, and technologies the service is currently working on?
Ans: The current global scenario has once again highlighted that countries that are self-reliant and have more secure supply chains will be able to withstand the geo-strategic turmoil and challenges far better than others.
We are pursuing modernisation and technology infusion through a focused road map for bringing in niche and disruptive technologies. These include AI, autonomous systems, quantum computing, 5G, space, precision fires etc. The Indian Army’s modernisation, comprising the development of critical combat capabilities under the aegis of growing ‘‘force capabilities,’’ is charting the path carefully laid down in Integrated Capability Development Plan.
We are striving to have indigenous manufacturers supply the majority of our equipment in alignment with the fillip given to Atmanirbhar Bharat. As we consistently work towards ensuring greater indigenous content in all our equipment procurements, having enlisted the aid of relevant government organisations and public and private sector enterprises. As I said earlier, the move towards self-reliance has been made possible by amalgamating design, innovation cultures, and research in our processes. Multiple projects with premier educational institutions in diverse fields are already ongoing. There is an Army Cell set up at IIT Delhi by the service to seek out prospective technology solutions.
The platform and grants under iDEX and iDEX Prime have fostered a robust defence start-up ecosystem. Make-II projects have been the subject of extensive focus from our end, while the defence ministry’s in-principle approval for Light Tanks is a step ahead in the Atmanirbharta initiative.
Through funds specially earmarked for the purpose, DRDO is supporting research projects focused on niche technologies. Crucial infrastructure for AI and 5G technologies has been set up, especially the framework for evolving programs with an AI engine to synthesise data from numerous battleground sensors is in place too.