In 2020, even as the Covid-19 pandemic raged, the People’s Liberation Army’s large-scale mobilisation and provocative manoeuvres along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) led to the deadliest clashes between India and China in over four decades. What followed was an ad hoc response — emergency procurement of weapon systems required to deal with China’s belligerence. This wasn’t new — India has responded to almost every military crisis in the recent past in similar fashion.
But faced with a qualitatively new China challenge, one that is likely to remain even if the current crisis in Ladakh ends with a negotiated solution, India can’t depend on ad hoc responses.
One of the many things it needs to do to deal with this military challenge is move towards concluding these eight defence deals in 2021.
1) Light Combat Helicopter
Built by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) is India’s first indigenous dedicated attack helicopter.
The helicopter has a narrow fuselage configuration and has been equipped with “stealth features, armour protection, night-attack capability and crash worthy landing gear for better survivability”.
Two LCHs had been deployed in Ladakh this year as tensions with China escalated, and have been flying armed patrol sorties.
In November 2016, the Narendra Modi government cleared the acquisition of 15 of these helos. However, no deal has been signed yet. The HAL, its maker, was expecting the deal to be signed this year (2020). It has began production of five new airframes with plans to deliver ahead of time when a final deal is in place. While the initial clearance is for 15 helos, HAL expects the total number to go up to 165.
2) Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System
Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and produced by private sector companies Bharat Forge and Tata Advanced Systems, has fired over 2,000 rounds in places like Sikkim and Pokhran during trials.
The howitzer, which is the world’s longest range gun system in its class, has a maximum firing range of 48 km. Weighing around 18 tonnes, the howitzer can be deployed in battlefield in less than three minutes.
Apart from an all-electric drive and an automated command and control system, the gun has a six round magazine instead of a standard three round magazine.
In August 2018, the Defence Acquisition Council headed by the Defence Minister, had cleared the purchase of 150 ATAGS for the Indian Army.
Reports say the army requires 1,580 guns in this category as part of its artillery modernisation programme. A deal has not been signed yet due to, among other reasons, a barrel burst accident during trials in September 2020. User trials of the gun are likely be resume shortly and end in mid-2021.
3) Tejas Mark-1A
The Mark 1A of the LCA will be more capable than the original Mark 1 variant. It will have around 40 improvements over the original version, which has already been inducted. Among other things, these improvements include the introduction of an active electronically scanned array radar. The Mark 1A version of the LAC will also have faster turnaround of each aircraft after each sortie.
In March, the Ministry of Defence had cleared the purchase of 83 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas in the Mk1A configuration. Earlier this year, HAL chairman R Madhavan had said that the deal is likely to be signed by December 2020.
To meet the IAF’s requirement in the shortest possible time, the HAL is improving the rate of production of the fighters at its facility. A second assembly line has been set up by the HAL to ramp up the production rate.
“Our target rate is 16 [LCA fighters] per year, for which a second line has already been set up now. We can easily ramp up to 16-20 per year as and when we receive the 83 LCA order,” Madhavan said in an interview in June.
4) Project 75I Submarines
The Indian Navy currently operates only 15 conventional submarines. Four more Scorpene-class submarines will enter service by 2024, taking the number to 19. None of these submarines are equipped with air-independent propulsion (AIP).
Given that China’s presence in the Indian Ocean is on the rise, this number is not adequate and well short of the navy’s assessed requirement of 24 conventional submarines. But despite shortage, there has been little forward movement in Project 75I, under which India plans to acquire six diesel-electric submarines.
P75-I submarines will be equipped with AIP for increased endurance and survivability and will be capable of launching BrahMos cruise missile.
In January 2020, the Ministry of Defence had shortlisted two Indian shipyards and five foreign submarine manufacturers for the project.
5) Fighters For Indian Navy
Unsatisfied with the performance of its MiG-29Ks, the Indian Navy had launched a programme to acquire 57 fighters for its current and future aircraft carriers in 2017.
Due to its budget constraints and other reasons, the number is now being cut to around 36. The navy’s requirement is also being tied with the Indian Air Force’s plan to acquire 110 multi-role combat aircraft.
INS Vikrant, India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, is likely to enter service with the Indian Navy sometime in the second half of 2021.
6) 110 Fighters For IAF
The Indian Navy had issued a Request for Information or RFI in 2018 for the purchase of 110 multi-role fighters. Six companies had responded to the RFI. However, even as the IAF continues to face shortage, there has been little movement in this process.
In its RFI, the IAF had said that it wants the delivery of the fighters to be bought directly from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in fly away condition (15 per cent of the total) 36 months after the contract is signed.
The delivery of the remaining fighters, to be manufactured by the Indian partner of the OEM, can begin five years after the deal is signed, the IAF stated.
If a deal is signed in 2021, the delivery can begin in 2024.
7) AK 203 Rifle
India and Russia had signed a deal to manufacture the AK-203 Rifle in February 2019. The first of these rifles were to roll off the production line in 2019. However, over a year later, the joint venture has not started production.
According to reports, the price of the rifle has been the main sticking point between India and Russia. In June 2020, the Ministry of Defence appointed a costing committee after the joint venture quoted “unreasonable and unacceptable” price.
The Indian Army plans to induct around seven lakh AK-203 rifles.
Even though a deal has been signed, there has been no development in the last few months towards starting production at the facility in Amethi’s Korwa, which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March 2019.
In November this year, India leased two MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones from the US for maritime surveillance in the Indian Ocean. These drones were leased even as the Ministry of Defence was discussing the procurement of 30 armed drones from the US, 10 each for the air force, navy and the army.
With China’s presence increasing both on in the Indian Ocean and the LAC, the purchase of these drones will significantly improve India’s ability to monitor Chinese activity closely.