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Thanks to the defence ministry’s (MoD’s) outdated belief that it must fill the order book of Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), India’s military remains handicapped in night-fighting against all its likely adversaries. Even jihadis infiltrating across the Line of Control into J&K have been found to have better night vision devices (NVDs) than the lavishly funded Indian Army that is tasked to intercept them. Worryingly, this disadvantage could continue. The reason: the MoD is set to tailor its future requirements of NVDs to what BEL can supply, rather than to what the army badly needs.
In a proposed MoD tender for 45,000 NVDs, an initial buy that would expand into contracts worth thousands of crores of rupees, BEL is asking MoD officials to water down the specifications of the “third-generation” NVDs that the army badly wants. While the army wants NVDs with a “Figure of Merit” (or FOM) rating of 1700 plus, BEL wants the specifications set at FOM 1400 plus. That is because BEL does not have the ability to deliver FOM 1700 plus NVDs in the quantities that the army wants.
Peering through an NVD with FOM 1400 plus, a soldier can see clearly at dusk or dawn, and enjoy acceptable vision with a quarter moon or brighter. FOM 1600 plus permits clear vision even in starlight, that is, on a clear night with no moon. But the army wants FOM 1700 plus, which would allow soldiers to see clearly in pitch darkness, like on heavily clouded, moonless nights, or at night in a thick jungle. These, the army rightly points out, are the conditions that it often operates in.
In response to this demand, two Indian companies – BEL and Tata Power’s Strategic Electronics Division (Tata Power SED) – confirmed to the MoD’s Services Capital Acquisition Plan Categorisation Committee (SCAPCC) that they could supply the army with NVDs with a rating of FOM 1700 plus. On BEL’s part that was apparently a bluff — because now, with procurement being finalised, MoD officials are getting quiet requests from BEL to dilute the specifications so that it can remain in the race.
BEL’s apparent inability to supply NVDs with FOM 1700 plus comes despite the MoD having twice splashed taxpayer money on foreign night vision technology for the Bangalore-headquartered defence public sector undertaking (DPSU). In the 1990s, Dutch company Delft provided “second-generation” technology, setting up a joint venture with BEL before walking out of it. As recently as 2010-11, the MoD handed more than Rs 100 crore to French company Photonis to give BEL “supergen” technology rated at FOM 1250 plus. Once again BEL failed to absorb this technology; it did not enhance its own technological capabilities in night vision; and it did not evolve the received technology into more advanced versions.
Today the MoD no longer has the option of spending more public money on a newer generation of technology for BEL. That is because state-of-the-art night vision technology is closely guarded. The United States government, which controls the world’s most advanced night vision technology that is developed by the world’s leading companies like ITT and L-3, seldom allows the export of technology better than FOM 1250 plus. Where Washington does permit export, eg for night vision goggles for Pakistan army units that are fighting Taliban groups in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan border, there is strict End User Monitoring (EUM), in which US military officials physically inspect the equipment to ascertain that it has not been supplied onwards to some undesirable party. For a prickly New Delhi, EUM would be completely unacceptable.
Even BEL’s earlier supplier, Photonis, would now probably be unable to supply BEL with advanced night vision technology, since American companies are making a strong play for buying the French company, thereby making it subject to US export control laws. Reuters has reported that Photonis is on sale and US banker Rothschild, which has enduring links with American defence companies, is advising on the sale.
Given BEL’s increasingly constrained situation, the army brass has strongly backed Tata Power SED for supplying the army with its next generation of night vision equipment. Senior generals who handle procurement say they are pleased at the way the Tata company has partnered with German company Harder Digital, which will transfer technology to Tata Power SED for manufacturing and maintaining “third-generation” FOM 1700 plus night vision equipment in India. The German government – which has thrown off traditional restraints in emerging as a strong defence technology partner for India – has already permitted Tata Power SED to import into India NVDs with a specification of FOM 1700 plus. Making the arrangement even more attractive, Berlin is not demanding End User Monitoring. The German authorities have indicated they would be content with an End User Certificate from New Delhi, certifying that the Indian military would not supply the NVDs onwards.
Tata Power SED has written to the MoD, detailing its readiness to supply the army with NVDs of the latest generation. Given that public tenders issued recently by Pakistan, and even Bangladesh, indicate that these countries are procuring “third-generation” NVDs, it is difficult for South Block to dilute the specifications to cater for BEL’s lack of capability. For decades, while the MoD’s wayward child has fronted the import of foreign technology and sub-systems, passing them off as “indigenous”, the MoD has continued to feed the DPSU with orders, ensuring healthy profit at the cost of defence readiness and self-reliance. But a changing MoD and a more assertive army may be unwilling to allow that any longer.