|By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army
According to media reports the Army is looking for Lego-like modular, portable, bullet and blast-proof bunkers to replace stone-mud-log and steel shelters as it secures the nation's frontiers against China and Pakistan. The security revamp also includes standardizing bulletproof material for "all applications", including that for designing jackets and vehicles. According to a report titled "Army makes bulletproof plan for border with modular bunkers", Army is looking for: composite material in the form of panels and ballis which being lightweight can be easily carried up mountains and like 'Lego toys', be quickly setup into bunkers; bunkers to be modular in nature to allow it to easily adjust the direction of fire; flexible loopholes for firing weapons; lightweight, bulletproof and blast-proof material for multi-purpose application, including for making jackets, vehicles and buildings to replace the existing bulletproof material after their lifecycle is over. The report goes on to say that besides maximizing the use of technology to enhance operational efficiency, this is a way being taken the Army to adopt homegrown solutions rather than fine-tune foreign equipment as per local requirements, which is misnomer; Army neither manufactures bullet-proof vehicles nor bullet-proof jackets – both are produced by the DRDO. Besides, Army does not use any imported material for constructing bunkers.
The bullet-proof jackets of the DRDO have been substandard. It is only recently that the Amrita University-DRDO project for 'Hyper Velocity Impact Resistant Ultra Light Weight High Temperature Resistant Thermoplastic Polymer-Carbon Fiber Composite' bulletproof jackets and helmets have been approved by the MoD. This in fact is the product developed by Dr Shantanu Bhowmik, Head, Research & Projects and Professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, Amrita University, Coimbatore who simply had to go through the DRDO realizing there was no other way that his project to get through the MoD. Thermoplastic Carbon Fabric (TCF) technology has been indigenously developed and patented by Dr Bhowmik. So, Amrita University eventually sent the proposal to DRDO and the joint project TDF-DRDO was then sent to MoD - . DRDO actually is rubber stamp in the project albeit it would perhaps get major share of the pie in this business venture under 'Make in India'.
The Army is currently using bunkers that are either made of stones and logs, or made of concrete or steel bunkers. Getting back to the modular bunkers, the report says that the Army has raised these issues in its Compendium of Problem Statements; asking for solutions to have light -weight composite material for bunkers, which can withstand enemy fire, extreme weather and requires the least amount of manpower for construction. The project is being brought under MoD's Technology Development Fund (TDF) that funds firm and academia to develop a prototype of the desired equipment. According to media, TDF's apex committee, comprising the vice chiefs of the three defence services, will soon clear the project to a private firm and an academia to develop a prototype. The media envisages these modular bunkers to be deployed both along the Line of Control (LoC) in view of the frequent ceasefire violations by Pakistan, as also along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) because of extreme weather conditions and possible conflict. How many hundreds or thousands of bunkers would that total up to is difficult to guess but there concrete or steel bunkers have been constructed at forward most posts both along the LoC and LAC. Damage to the bunkers from artillery shelling depends on the proximity with reference to the bunker that the enemy shell has fallen and the size of the splinter hitting individual bunker. Definitely, makeshift bunkers made of mud and stone do collapse if enemy artillery fire is accurate. But the question here is that while modular bunkers may protect against enemy small arms fire (same as existing bunkers), what is their propensity to survive accurate enemy artillery fire even if there is no direct hit. Besides, collapsible loopholes need also to remain open for observation of possible enemy movement. Though meant only for habitat the indigenous light weight fiber glass huts, with each panel weighing 10 kgs, deployed on the Salrtoro Range in Siachen area cannot with stand small arms fire and are highly incendiary. Perhaps that is where improvements are highly needed - 'Hyper Velocity Impact Resistant Ultra Light Weight High Temperature Resistant Thermoplastic Polymer-Carbon Fiber Composite'.
As for modular bunkers that are easily transported, no doubt these would be good and provide immense business to such a TDF-DRDO project, towards which the bureaucracy can be expected to work with alacrity cutting all red tape considering the thousands or lakhs of crores that are likely to be involved, but then, do we have our priorities right? With two consecutive negative defence budgets in actual terms and little modernization, can we take the priority of fielding these modular bunkers when even the basic weapons have not been provisioned for the foot soldiers? Sure, the TDF's apex committee must continue with clearing projects to develop new projects, but the military should resist being cajoled in to wonky priorities where it comes to modernization. It is not without reason that the non-provision of modern infantry weapons, ranging from assault rifles and sniper guns to light machine guns and close-quarter battle carbines figured in the recent Army Commanders Conference, after a decade of acquisition projects from abroad being repeatedly scrapped as well as failure of indigenous options to pass muster till now. Why the TDF and the DRDO have not focused on the need of developing this family of weapons indigenously by roping in private industry s something that needs to be urgently addressed. Most countries do not have elephantine organizations like the DRDO but are developing their own weapon systems. As reported in the media, the Army alone needs 8,18,500 new-generation assault rifles, 4,18,300 close-quarter battle (CQB) carbines, 43,700 light machine guns and 5,679 sniper rifles. Let us first arm the foot soldier properly before giving him modular bunkers. For that matter, the need for posts and installations to be protected against terrorist attacks again needs to be given priority. Post the terrorist attack on the IAF base at Pathankot, the government appointed committee headed by the then Army Vice Chief had made comprehensive recommendations. That needs to acted upon by MoD rather than pushing for modular bunkers. There is need to get our priorities right rather than utilizing meagre defence allocations on money generating business ventures.