Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman will have to step in to break the continuing deadlock over the long-delayed “Make in India” project to produce over 2,300 future infantry combat vehicles (FICVs) for the Army at an estimated cost of about Rs 60,000 crore.
The mega FICV project, first accorded “acceptance of necessity” by the defence ministry (MoD) way back in October 2009, remains stuck in bureaucratic bottlenecks and wrangling, corporate rivalry and controversies, say sources.
To further queer the pitch, the US has also offered India the development and production of armoured personnel carriers in a trilateral venture with Israel under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), which is likely to figure in the discussions between Sitharaman and her American counterpart James Mattis later this month, as was earlier reported by TOI.
Under the original FICV project, two of the five Indian private firms in the fray, apart from the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), were to be selected to design and build prototypes.
With the government funding 80% of the developmental cost, which would amount to about Rs 3,000 crore, the best prototype was to get the go-ahead for mass production. The almost 12-lakh strong Army was initially slated to induct 835 new FICVs by 2017, with another 1,479 coming in by 2022.
The private contenders are L&T, Mahindra, Pipavav Defence & Offshore Engineering and two consortiums of Tata Motors-Bharat Forge and Tata Power SED-Titagarh Wagons.
But sources say there continues to be a major disagreement within the MoD over the number of private contenders that should be asked to make detailed project reports. One section wants all five to get the opportunity. The other contends only the two which are selected should be involved in the process to avoid further delays and costs.
“This has stalled the entire process for long despite the MoD’s integrated project management team having evaluated the EoI (expression of interest) responses submitted by the OFB and five private vendors,” said a source.
The first defence acquisitions council chaired by Sitharaman will have to take a call on the matter. Incidentally, no major “Make in India” project in defence production, from new-generation stealth submarines to light utility helicopters, is yet to actually take concrete shape on the ground.
The Army, on its part, desperately requires gradual replacement of its old Russian-origin BMP-II infantry combat vehicles. While such amphibious vehicles may not have as much firepower and protection as main-battle tanks, they have their own anti-tank missiles, cannons and machine guns to ensure swift troop mobility in a battlefield.
The previous EoI for the FICV project, which was issued in May 2010, was scrapped by the MoD after major faults were found in the evaluation process in December 2012.
The current EoI, issued in July 2015, lays down the contenders will be assessed on four major counts: commercial, technical capability, availability of critical technologies and technical specifications of the FICVs they propose to build.