India’s defense ministry just relaunched a program known as the Future Ready Combat Vehicle (FRCV) to find a cutting edge tank for the mid-2020s and beyond. A Request For Information (RFI) was published on November 8 to receive submissions from vendors who can match the Indian Army’s criteria.
The FRCV’s ambitious scope makes it the largest of its kind in the world. The Indian Army needs 1,770 new main battle tanks based on a universal hull and chassis. The still unnamed tank is then adapted for different roles. Under the new requirements imposed by the defense ministry, the winning vendor must help a local “strategic partner” manufacture the tank.
The FRCV is supposed to overhaul the Indian Army’s problematic tank fleet, whose bulk comprises nearly 2,000 T-72M’s and a confusing number of T-90S’. Both models are assembled in state-owned factories and have serious performance drawbacks because of quality control issues. In 2016 a further 464 advanced T-90MS’ were ordered. The Indian Army is also expecting 242 Arjun Mark I and Mark II tanks by 2020 to complement its T-series fleet. On paper, the army should have somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 main battle tanks.
Since the Indian Army hasn’t moved on from its favorite doomsday scenario–a simultaneous conventional war against China and Pakistan–the appeal of a universal tank model suited for varying climactic conditions remains irresistible. The prolific T-72M fulfills this to a limited extent but the heavier Arjun tanks are deemed useless in the deserts of Rajasthan, where tank battles like those in 1965 and 1971 are anticipated.
The FRCV program is a few years old by now and first came to light during the media blitz for “Make In India.” In 2015 the defense ministry published a two-page brief on the FRCV enumerating very specific criteria. The vehicle had to weigh between 45 to 50 tons and is capable of a “High Operating Range.” The main armament should be a gun-missile system and is equipped with hunter-killer fire control and thermal sights, including a 360 degree panoramic view for the commander. Armor protection must combine “passive, active, reactive, and ballistic protection” and the vehicle needed a “modular design…to minimize equipment downtime.”
If these specifications from 2015 remain unchanged then the FRCV is destined to be an exercise in frustration for potential vendors. No current NATO tank passes the Indian Army’s criteria since these third-generation models weigh above 50 tons, making them unusable in India’s diverse geography. Unless, of course, Poland offers its new PT-17 that’s based on the original T-72.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise the Russian T-72B3 looks like a better fit for the FCRV. Its hull can even be used for a self-propelled howitzer, a fire support combat vehicle, a multi-rocket launcher, and a bridgelayer. Or perhaps the Indian Army is pining for the Armata platform. But a fresh design is probably the ultimate goal and something akin to Japan’s Type 10 could serve as a viable option.
The new push for the FRCV is supposed to complement the army’s ongoing search for 2,000 new infantry fighting vehicles. Both come at a time when India’s military is racing hard against China’s startling arms build up. This is forcing indigenous programs to be sidelined in favor of expensive foreign hardware that may not even pass the required standards. But that’s how India does business and everyone has no choice but to wait and see what sticks.