|#941||1515||December 10, 2012||By Raveen Janu|
Across its spectrum, future conflict will occur in a continuous 24 hour engagement cycle to enable a Force to maintain the tempo of operations. An essential component of progressing operations in such a manner is the ability of troops to operate by night. While the substantial increase in defence budget allocation in the past decade is heartening, capital acquisitions have been of particularly big ticket items. Little progress has however been made in equipping the army with the wherewithal to fight by night, which could impact on force effectiveness.
The Army’s current night fighting capability is limited. What the Army needs is “third generation” night vision devices (NVDs) for soldiers, night sights for rifles and night vision equipment for armoured and mechanised formations. What the Army has are limited second generation devices which at times are more of a hindrance than an asset and too few third generation NVDs. Pakistan, on the other hand, has got a range of third generation devices from the US under the ‘War on Terror’ pact. China too has operationalised its entire tank and mechanised fleet for night fighting and possesses significantly higher night capability in the other arms too. Limited night fighting capability decreases force effectiveness and leads to reduced deterrence, thus providing a window of opportunity to hostile powers to increased chances of misadventure from either country.
The ability to design and develop or procure NVDs for the Indian Army is not as complex as other huge modernisation programmes undertaken by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Although not as complex as a fighter plane or submarine, the NVDs are crucial to India’s security as they provide the ability to fight at night and other conditions of reduced visibility. Most advanced armies of the world have third generation NVDs as their core equipment complimented by earlier generation equipment. Fourth generation equipment is already in the test and field trial phases. According to Lt Gen PC Katoch (Retd), former Director-General (Information Systems), the four important performance parameters of any NVD are its sound-noise ratio (SNR), resolution/clarity, modular transfer function and lifetime. “SNR is by far the most important parameter for an image intensifier tube [II tube],” said Katoch. An II tube constitutes 70 per cent of the cost of the device. A comparative analysis between 2nd generation (Indian Army) and 3rd generation on the main four parameters of NVDs reveals the gap in our defence preparedness vis-à-vis other nations.
SNR: 12 to 20
Resolution: 40 to 45 lp/mm
Life: 5000 hours
Magnification: 20,000 X
SNR: 22 to 30
Resolution: 64 to 72
Life: 10000 hours
Magnification: 30,000 to 50,000 X
Some other advancements of third generation are the reduced halo effect visible mostly in urban environment, picture clarity particularly at the edges, enhanced images at reduced levels of available light, more panoramic view and self-contained power supply. Other add on technologies which can be used in conjunction with NVDs are thermal image intensifiers and infra-red illuminators which reduce the dependence on ambient light (starlight, moon light) and provide for a light source of its own, invisible to the human eye of the adversary.
According to reports available in the public domain, the Indian Army needs 30,000 third generation NVDs to meet its requirements as per the present war establishment (WE) authorisation. The large numbers required add substantially to cost but this could be reduced with indigenous manufacture. There is a need to further enhance these holdings as presently only one device is authorised per section. The need is to equip each man with a NVD but as a first step at least 50 per of the soldiers need to be so equipped.
A contract for manufacture and delivery was awarded to Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) in 2010 but not much has been delivered so far. BEL, which has invested in second generation sights and even set up a factory, has told the Ministry of Defence that all procurements should be made through the PSU. In the meantime, BEL has asked the Army to wait till it finds a foreign partner to manufacture third generation devices “indigenously”. Till date BEL is nowhere near a possible tie-up. The problem is that foreign companies are not keen on sharing technology with a PSU and would rather tie up with private players for “hassle free” production. NVDs can form a strong case for private participation as the technology although advanced is not as complex as some other military platforms. This is a field which the government must open to India’s private sector. It would have beneficial spin offs as the equipment has great usage in the private sector too especially in security related concerns.
Another drawback is the availability of power sources for foreign procured NVDs. Here battery chargers were procured at the rate of one for every 4 NVDs procured. As per defence analyst Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd), the usage pattern of NVDs dictates that each NVD must have its own charger and adequate battery supply must be catered for. Current authorisation patterns of chargers and lack of availability of batteries renders the equipment ineffective for most of its operational life. The solution could be production of batteries and power chargers in house, which is pretty much a standard technology.
NVDs are critical force multipliers which provide the ability to overwhelm the enemy when he is most prone, and that is at night. Ordnance Factory Board, Dehradun has been providing the Indian Army with high resolution binoculars of acceptable performance standards and is also working on NVDs for rifles and Infantry soldiers. Such examples of indigenous success should be promoted. The equipment being procured or produced indigenously should be subject to range of battle field conditions and tests before ascertaining their acceptability.
The night fighting capability of the Army particularly the infantry and Special Forces need to be upgraded on a war footing. The latest NVD technology on the horizon which can be looked at is the black and white picture for night scenes as compared to the classic green hued image, as studies have shown that night time scenes appear remarkably more natural and clear in black and white combination. The night fighting capability is crucial to the success of critical defence programmes such as F-INSAS, MBTs, Special Forces upgrade and indigenous FICVs. The ability to fight at night has been constrained since ancient times but in the 21st century it will be a do or die choice.
The author is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS)
Views expressed are personal