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Future Ready Combat Vehicles (FRCV): Will it Become a Reality?

The FRCV concept floated by the Indian Army is not traditional and seems to be a bold move as the product will be as per their war doctrine & requirements. The author dwells upon as to why we must have AFVs based on our own philosophy & strategy...

At present, the T-72 and the T-90 tanks, both procured from Russia and assembled in India, are the mainstay of the Indian Army. However, chunk of this arsenal consists largely of T-72 tanks which have lived their life and are under the process of being upgraded extending their life till 2022. Indian Army will need to start replacing its existing inventory of Upgraded T-72 after about a decade or so from now. Thus, the requirement projection for Futuristic Main Battle Tank (FMBT) was taken up in 2010, keeping in view the development and evaluation time. As of now, the army remains undecided about the basic features of the FMBT and has not finalized its Staff Qualitative Requirements (SQRs).

The FMBT now has been rechristened as Future Ready Combat Vehicle (FRCV). The Indian Army is planning to design and develop a new generation, state-of-the-art modular combat vehicle platform FRCV for its Armoured Corps in the coming decade. The FRCV will form the base platform for the main battle tank and its variants and will replace the existing T-72 tanks, which have been in service since the 80s. FRCV along with other need-based variants on this platform is likely to be inducted by 2025-27. This move also indicates that the main battle tank, Arjun, developed by the DRDO does not meet the future requirements of IA.

To ensure that the next generation AFVs are designed as per Indian doctrine & requirement, the IA has issued a RFI on 08 Jun 15 for designs for a Future Ready Combat Vehicle. So far, we have been importing AFVs, irrespective of whether it meets our design philosophy & requirement or not and then alter our strategy. The recently issued RFI states that the 'future' combat platform design must cater to 'future' battlefield environment and technological possibilities. To address the future scenario and the envisaged force profile, the FRCV, which would be in the “medium tank” category, needs to be developed on a modular concept with a high degree of flexibility in a manner that, as a tank platform, it can address the varying requirements of different terrain and weather configurations, whose physical dimensions should facilitate transportability over existing terrain, in-service military bridges and major civilian infrastructure (including bridges) in the border areas (on either side of the Western border).

At the same time it should provide the base on which a 'family of vehicles', catering to the operational needs of various arms of the Army. The RFI also states that the new tank's firepower should be well matched to contemporary tanks in engagement ranges, all weather day/night fighting capability, depth of penetration and variety of ammunition. It should have very high all-round protection. The FRCV will be a Design and Development project, to be executed in three stages as under:-

Design Stage : Established tank designers will be invited by means of a global RFP, wherein the broad design philosophy for the FRCV will be given out, along with the detailed guidelines for conduct of the Competition.

Prototype Development Stage - The selected design will be given to nominated DAs to develop the design and produce their respective prototypes.

Production Stage: After the prototypes are successfully trial evaluated, the approved design will be given to one/ two nominated Production Agencies (PAs) for bulk production.

With a view to identify probable designers / design bureaus who can undertake the Design Stage of the FRCV Project, the relevant details given in RFI are:

Crew: The number of crew members should be such that they can perform their designated tasks, and operate all on-board systems without hindrance and without any overlapping of duties/ responsibilities.

Fire Power: Should be well matched to contemporary MBTs in engagement ranges, all weather day/night fighting capability, depth of penetration and variety of ammunition. Should have very high accuracy [High FRHP (First Round Hit Probability)] and very high lethality [High SSKP (Single Shot Kill Probability)], at par with contemporary MBTs.

Protection: Should provide very high all-round protection, including ballistic, active and any other form of anti-armor technologies, to ensure survivability in the contemporary and future battlefield. Should have incorporate signature reduction technologies & High response evasion/ anti-detection system.

Mobility: Should have adequately high power-to-weight ratio to enable all on-board systems to be run simultaneously, without disrupting the agility and mobility of the vehicle. It should have high operating range, comparable to contemporary MBTs.

This tracked fighting vehicle would feature a modular design that will be leveraged to create a family of combat vehicles. The FRCV's modular design would be flexible to an extent where it can be configured to operate in varying terrain. The following variants are planned to be developed on the FRCV platform:

  •             Tracked Main Battle Tank - Primary variant.
  •             Tracked Light Tank.
  •             Wheeled Version.
  •             Bridge Layer Tank (BLT).
  •             Trawl Tank and Mine Ploughs.
  •             Armored Recovery Vehicle (ARV).
  •             Self Propelled Artillery Gun/Howitzer.
  •             Air Defense Gun/Msl System.
  •             Artillery Observation Post Vehicle.
  •             Engineer Reconnaissance Vehicle.
  •             Armored Ambulance.

The changing nature of military doctrine and extra-territorial deployment to peace-support operations has resulted in substantial shift in the military capability required by combat systems, specifically in the shift from a platform-centric concept of operations to a 'capabilities' and 'effects-based' approach. Armoured vehicle technology has evolved ever since the first tanks appeared in World War I. The traditional Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV) design focuses on lethality, survivability and mobility which are still important to achieve the mission objective after the situational picture has been assessed and acted upon by the commander. However, with the growing reliance on C4I systems, there is the need for integration of the various sub-systems and would therefore require robust and extensive vetronics architecture. On the modern battlefield, armies are moving towards Network-Centric Warfare (NCW) where forces no longer fight as individual entities but as part of a larger system. Each entity becomes a node in a network where information can be shared, and firepower can be called upon request.

All AFVs are evaluated on the holy trinity of firepower, mobility, and protection and any analytical perspective is based on tradeoffs between these three. The tradeoffs depend on the doctrine whether it should have more protection or more lethality or more mobility, because this will decide the overall weight. Previous wars have proved the superiority of heavy western tanks over Russian tanks. The watering down the weight to medium from heavy may compromise the capability of the tank severely. No western country has gone in for radical design change in their AFVs in the last decade or so except Russia who have recently unveiled their Armata T-14 Main Battle Tank, based on the Armata universal combat platform which represents a radically new approach to armoured vehicle design. The tank features cutting edge technologies: an unmanned turret, active defences, an isolated crew capsule in the hull, and remotely fired weaponry. Whereas, the western countries have gone in for modernizing their existing tank fleet with better vetronics, like Challenger has gone in for a Lethality Improvement Programmes for Capability Sustainment.

Ideally, a state of the art tank should have, armour protection of 1000-1200mm, mobility 100km per hour, range over 700 KM with maximum power to weight ratio, a super 125/120 /152mm gun with muzzle velocity of over 1800 mtrs, with all situational awareness cameras, laser TV sights, remotely controlled 30mm cannon, 12mm gun, ERA & APS, deep penetrating ammunition, crew compartments enclosed in armoured capsules separated from one another, can carry 50 to 60 rounds, and suitably integrated with latest vetronics. A glimpse as to how tradeoffs between the trinity will affect the design, if all features are incorporated is as follows:

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Crew Protection: The armour should be able to provide very high all-round protection, including ballistic, active and any other form of anti-armor technologies, to ensure survivability in the contemporary and future battlefield. A tank's vulnerability to enemy fire is not determined by the quality of armour alone. Other factors, such as the internal arrangement of ammunition and fuel, fire suppression systems, escape hatches, and so on are equally important. This is the Russian MBTs most glaring weakness to keep the tank's size and silhouette as small as possible. The T-14 for example have given more emphasis on crew protection over size as the crewmembers are no longer distributed between the turret & the hull, but have all been placed in an armoured 'capsule' in the Hull and the ammunition is stored in its own separate compartment, away from the crew preventing an ammunition deflagration from immobilizing the vehicle.

Turret systems have traditionally been the norm for AFVs, with the commander or gunner operating within. However, the asymmetric threats from Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and Rocket-Propelled Grenades (RPG) are forcing the crew to remain within the vehicles to improve survivability. One trend is the proliferation of Remote Weapon Stations (RWS) which enables the crew to operate the weapon from within the better protected hull. The RWS is equipped with the FCS, sights and advanced munitions. The advantage of the RWS is that the protection levels can be focused more on the hull, where the crew is located. With the weapon mounted above the hull, there is no longer a need for a traditional armour protection. With present-day military campaigns devolving into grinding urban combat against hardened insurgents, the capability to fire a heavy machine gun across all elevation angles through independently stabilized sights, operated remotely from within the crew compartment is becoming increasingly crucial. However, the RWS compromises the basic principle of eye contact with the battlefield by the commanders, as an optical device, no matter how sophisticated, is always more cumbersome to handle than a pair of eyeballs. The other problem is turret cannot traverse unless the commander is safely inside the tank and his hatch is closed thus leaving the tank unable to fight with the hatch open.

With the introduction of explosive reactive armour (ERA) and active protection system (APS) it was thought that protection has reached a higher level but there is an inherent disadvantage to using these technologies: ERA makes close co-operation with infantry units impossible, besides, the APS stands the risk of having its sensors disabled by artillery shrapnel or machine-gun fire, leaving the tank dependent on its base armour to provide protection which have been proved by the heavy armour of western M1A1, Challenger 2, and Leopard 2 tanks. It is again a dilemma whether the tank to be slapped with heavy armour for providing better protection to crew which in turn will increase the weight of the tank drastically.

Firepower: AFV should have all weather day/night fighting capability, depth of penetration with First Round Hit and High Single Shot Kill Probability. More penetration require longer ammunition, thus heavier gun and heavier chassis.

The use of automatic gun-loading mechanism in place of a manual loader results in lack of space and the configuration of the autoloader make it impossible for the tanks to use heavy, one-piece ammunition rounds. Instead, a different type of round consisting of two separate pieces, the propellant charge and projectile, is an APFSDS-T round employed restricting the length of the KE penetrator and thus reducing the penetrating power.

The gun-launched missile, too suffers from certain limitationschief among them being the guidance mechanism as the tank's fire control system has to illuminate the target throughout its flight thus preventing the gunner from acquiring other targets while the missile is in flight, and exposes the tank to counter fire as it comes into the enemy's line of sight.

Mobility: AFVs require adequately high power-to-weight ratio to enable all on-board systems to be run simultaneously, without disrupting the agility and mobility of the vehicle. It should have high operating range. Heavier the tank, heavier will be the engine with increased size of engine compartment. More fuel will be required to achieve higher operating range, thus more space for fuel.

Challenges

But the challenge is how to integrate these various technologies onto a common platform. All of these systems capabilities Firepower, Survivability, Mobility and Vetronics are competing for space and weight. An AFV has size and weight limits as it needs to manoeuvre in certain terrain or to meet certain transport requirements. Thus, trade-off studies are required to integrate these various technologies. An AFV will not be able to move if it carries too much protective armour. If more firepower is required, more ammunition will be required on board and this will affect the payload it carries e.g. less troops. More vetronics will require more batteries, hence reducing available space. Thus, a fine balance among these aspects needs to be deliberated before an agreement can be reached by all stakeholders. With the technology available today like 3-D printing, Rapid Prototyping, CAD etc the perfect prototype as per requirement can be created in no time and the same can be perfected further without losing much time.

Financial Projections

The erstwhile FMBT project was being developed by Combat Vehicles R&D Establishment (CVRDE), laboratory of DRDO under category “Make Indian” with an approximate development cost of $1110 million (Rs 5000 crores). Domestic engineering companies, research institutions like IITs; and bodies like the Automotive Research Association of India (ARIA), Pune were also being co-opted. An Indian “prime contractor” was to assemble the FMBT engines from engine components supplied by a network of sub-contractors. The DRDO had begun work on FMBT crucial systems in order to shield it from delays and is also evaluating design consultancy proposals of two potential companies - Ricardo, AVL. It had also floated an Expression of Interest (EoI) to identify an Indian manufacturing partner for engine related work.

The cost of each FMBT is expected to be about $ 5.5 million (Rs 30.25 crore) indicating a market of over $ 11 billion (Rs 60000 crore) for 2000 tanks. The FRCV may cost more initially, as design & development cost will be included in it, however, on mass production the overall cost is likely come down. Now the FRCV and FICV being under Make category, which means only Indian companies would be allowed to participate, are going to be game changers for the private industries as it will be worth over $ 20 billion. The up gradation of existing fleet of AFVs/ICVs for the next 15 years is likely to have a market for another $5- 10 billion and balance to cater for the other variants of Combat Vehicles. During the next 15 years cycle i.e. 2012-2027, it is anticipated that the Army is likely to get Capital budget allocation of $250billion. Taking reference to past allocations it can be safely estimated that the Mechanized Forces will get roughly 15-20% of the Army Capital budget i.e. $40- 50 billion during this period.

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Conclusion

Since the beginning of World War One, AFVs have been deployed on the battlefield to achieve a tactical advantage. The era when “the tank was king” seemed to have ended during the first few days of the Yom Kippur war in October 1973, where Israel lost roughly 840 tanks out of 2,120 tanks, when attacked by Egyptian forces armed with Soviet-made anti-tank missiles. The anti-tank munitions are becoming even more powerful day by day, but with improved steel armours, aided with new materials and advanced sensors, a promising and eclectic array of alternative and often ingenious new forms of armour is emerging and tank still remains the mainstay. As we enter the CBRN age, the AFV still has a strong role to play as seen in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts in the 2000s. As technology advances, the AFV must also keep up with the changes and be ready to adapt and evolve to face these new challenges.

The IA's RFI for FRCV raises several questions: Is our industry capable of affecting a turnaround and seeing the program through to completion? Are the production facilities capable of meeting the demands of large-scale deployment? Do they have the resources to sort out teething troubles with new technologies quickly and roll out fixes across the entire fleet? It is tough to be optimistic with the past experience, success will be determined not so much by its design specifications, but more by the industry's ability to perform and deliver a working product on time and within a limited budget. And that seems to be a very tall order.

The FRCV concept floated by the IA is not traditional and seems to be a bold move as the product will be as per their war doctrine & requirements, though the qualitative requirements seems to be little over ambitious. Question arises is it possible? The DPP has no provision for such procurement, where designers, DAs and PAs are different, however, depending on the response and further development the service HQ can always go back to MoD for deviation. The decision to firm up the design of this platform through global tender is a step in the right direction and with Make in India concept this may become a reality taking the country closer to self-reliance in defence sector.

Col (Retd.) Arun Kumar

Col (Retd.) Arun Kumar

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