Infantry modernization is long overdue and needs to be fast-forwarded. The reasons attributed is most exclusively because of the preferential treatment given to the DRDO which come out with tall claims without in-depth study and thus unable to design and develop weapons/technologies on par with international standard.
For over a decade, the Indian Army's efforts to modernize its infantry have been obstructed due to various factors, one of the major being the under performance by the Public Sector entities namely DRDO, OFB and DPSUs in various modernization programmes for developing indigenous technologies; consequently leading to inordinate delays and cost over runs and scrapping of the programme. One such modernization programme is Futuristic Infantry Soldier-As-A-System (F-INSAS) of the Indian Army (IA) which was aimed at enhancing the lethality, survivability, mobility, sustainability and situational awareness for future soldiers in the digitized battlefield.
Conceived in April 2005 the Army envisaged a major modernization plan worth USD 5 Billion for the Infantry with the title of 'F-INSAS' which was to include a fully networked all-terrain, all-weather personal-equipment platform with enhanced firepower and mobility for the digitized battlefield of the future. The fully integrated Infantry of tomorrow will be equipped with mission-oriented, equipment integrated with his buddy soldier team, the sub-unit, as also the overall Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Information and Intelligence (C4I2) system.
The project spread over three phases and originally scheduled to have begun rolling out in stages from 2012 to 2020 was meant to upgrade and modernize the entire 465 infantry and paramilitary battalions into an ultra-modern fighting machine. The F-INSAS project which was to link each soldier to every other soldier on the battlefield real time is based on five major technologies or sub systems:
In 2015, nearly after a decade of its conception, there was no or little progress seen in the various technologies being developed for F-INSAS and the entire programme was put on hold or more correctly to be said that it has been divided between two separate programs. The reason attributed for was budget restrictions; however it can also be said that due to non development of technologies by the DRDO and other public sector entities. The new program will have two components.
Indigenization Tall Claims
Most of the equipment under F-INSAS was to be locally developed by the DRDO independently, as the prime developer and the system integrator, as well as with a private partnership to retain its strategic autonomy and self-reliance. Hype was created by the DRDO that it will be able to create these modern technologies in the required time. However, out of five major technologies for the futuristic soldier, so far nothing tangible has been achieved by the DRDO. Rather, it's been more than a decade and the promises by the DRDO and its laboratories such as Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE) in developing the futuristic weapon system with the technology almost on par with that in the international market remains unfulfilled. As of now, foreign procurement is underway for even basic weapons and accessories through the 'Fast Track' route to fill the growing gap. Seven "restricted" tenders have been issued to select foreign arms companies for acquisition of new assault rifles, sniper rifles, general purpose machine guns, light-weight rocket-launchers, tactical shotguns, pistols, night-vision devices and ammunition.
A report by Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence stated that it was shocking that even years of expertise has not evolved DRDO to develop a world class basic/critical product like rifle. Though some indigenous programmes had been undertaken by DRDO but the Army did not approve of these. The first being the indigenously built 7.62 x 39 mm Ghatak assault rifles developed by DRDO which has been rejected by Army citing poor quality and ineffective fire power. Another effort by DRDO in developing the 5.56x45mm caliber Excalibur has failed too as it does not match the required parameters set by the Army. Though, it has been inducted but only as an interim assault rifle to fill the critical gap until a suitable replacement is found. Thus, the Indian Army is now looking for importing of assault rifles.
Another project to develop counter-IED boots which would enhance the chances of lower limb protection in the event of a soldier stepping on a landmine has not been able to come out with a solution till date.
A Fresh Hype- Exo-Suit
A powered exoskeleton also known as Power Armour, Exo-Frame or Exosuitis a wearable mobile machine that is powered by a system of electric motors, pneumatics, levers, hydraulics, or a combination of technologies that allow for limb movement with increased strength and endurance. They are commonly designed for military use, to help soldiers carry heavy loads both in and out of combat. In addition, similar Exoskeletons can be used to help pre-fighters and other rescue workers survive dangerous environment.
Globally, so far, countries like the US and Russia are investing in developing Exoskeleton Technology for their soldiers as this help soldiers wear over their uniform which is battery operated. And, now, it has been reported that India has joined the race in developing exoskeleton or exosuit along with Russia and US. Reportedly, the DRDO's laboratory Defence Bioengineering and Electro-medical Laboratory (DEBEL) have been working on exoskeleton suits for quite some time. The lab has been collating data for Simulation and Analysis of Musco-skeletal parts for a while. The Exoskeleton system programme undertaken envisages augmenting the strength of soldier. It is to be made of light weight composite devices that attached to the legs and shoulders. DRDO has even outlined the functional requirement and technical details regarding the project.
However, the matter of fact is that DRDO has not been able to make much progress in developing special clothing for soldiers in high altitude. Noteworthy, till date even for Super High Altitude clothing items, India is resorting to imports; out of 55 Super High Altitude clothing items, around 19-20 items are being imported. These imported items are mostly from China, although they are supplied by around a number of foreign firms from Italy, UK, Switzerland, Canada, Singapore, Australia and Norway. Further, whatever that is produced indigenously by DRDO and Ordnance Factories are substandard and also are not able to meet the annual requirement. The annual requirement of Siachen clothing for the army is around 27,000 sets. The army maintains a reserve for another year's requirement. The average shortfall of items in Siachen clothing is between 5-10 percent every year which is catered from the reserves. Additionally, India is already incurring expenditure on upgrading wearable gear on each soldier to meet the ever-changing combat environment challenges, but there is a limitation up to which equipment can be fitted onto a soldier's body. Hence, the claims/ talks of developing Exo suits with such stringent requirements is farfetched. Undertaking this project is nothing but seems to be another tall claim by the DRDO with a possibility of getting dropped later on like happened in the F-INSAS case and thereby wasting the Government money and time.
Infantry modernization is witnessing a prolonged delay for over a decade owing to non development of cutting edge technologies by the DRDO as promised, ultimately leading to closure of the programmes as happened with F-INSAS and now by undertaking a complex project Exo-Suit it is nothing but wasting time and money as even worldwide it is as of now just an evolving concept. The R&D organization should focus on technologies which it can master and deliver on timely basis and should involve private sector if need be which has been relatively more efficient and cost effective particularly in optics, electronics and Information-Technology (IT) related spheres.