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Night fighting capabilities

For long, the cry was heard that the Indian Army was largely “night blind” or unable to fight a war in the dark. This was hardly an admission that any modern, self-respecting, fighting force should make. Yet, through well-placed leaks and frequent innuendos the impression was created that the Indian Army was deficit in at least one of the capabilities that a modern-day war requires.

The implication was that most of the tank and mechanized forces would not be able to be utilized during night-time because of an inability to see in the darkness-a fatal flaw in modern warfare when the utilization of armor at night is considered to be a major game changer.

There are two aspects to this sordid state of affairs. One is that how was a weapons platform otherwise modern in all respects accepted by the Indian Army without the crucial night vision device?

The three variations of the Russia-built T-70 tanks (T-80 and T-90) were acquired on the basis of qualitative staff requirements (QSR) framed by Indian Army officers, who should have been aware of this basic capability in a modern tank.

It is true that the T-90s were bought in somewhat of a hurry because the indigenous main battle tank, the Arjun, had not lived up to expectations and its deficiencies were well publicized in the media after every test which could have happened when the only ones present at the time-the very top brass-disclosed what happened in the test grounds in the deserts of Rajasthan.  

It was only when the producers, the Defence Research and Development Organisation suspected sabotage of their product that things suddenly took a favorable turn for this indigenous weapons platform. Suddenly there were reports that tests showed the indigenous Arjun tank was as good, if not better, than the Russia-supplied T-90s. It would be appalling if the night fighting capabilities were not tested or not incorporated in the weapons platform at the appropriate stage of construction. Only after the government admitted that such a lacuna existed and that urgent attempts are underway to rectify it, the nation heaved a sigh of relief.    

Enhancing capabilities

It needs to be understood that night vision devices help enhance the fighting capabilities of a military group by enabling it to fight in pitch darkness and thus retaining what is considered to be a crucial factor in winning battles-momentum.

In the case of the Indian Army, it has been able to deter Pakistan by the strength of its numbers and win every contest since 1947 by dint of the numbers of its armed forces. The perception of the invincibility of its conventional forces has since been eroded by such assessable quotients as its ability to fight under various given circumstances as in desert warfare, in rainy weather, in difficult terrain interspersed with hillocks; and, at night.

The absence or inadequacy of night fighting capabilities has been read by Pakistan to be to its advantage especially since it has been provided with third generation NVDs by the US to deal with the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. This enables Pakistan’s otherwise small armored forces to operate without hindrance at night and expect to be able to make breakthroughs at crucial points along the Indo-Pak border and make both territorial and political gains. Even the Kargil Review Committee had to admit to the existence of such a line of thinking in Pakistan.    

What added to the general confusion were reports that a DRDO laboratory in Dehradun was working on image intensifier tubes which is a basic component of night vision devices. Apparently, Instruments Research and Development Establishment was not able to make fast enough progress in the development and productionisation of the requisite night vision goggles, which, being dependent on image intensifier tubes was considered to be of the first generation.

However, the Defence Public Sector Undertaking Bharat Electronics Ltd’s capabilities lay exposed when it insisted that night vision devices be purchased for the armed forces only from it but it failed to deliver within the timeframe.

While it is conceded that Bharat Electronics Ltd was confident it had the expertise to manage the production of the next generation of night vision devices for the armed forces, a performance audit ought to be conducted to ascertain in what direction is indigenous design and development of this equipment going. Possibly BEL has failed to meet the deadline because it has not found any foreign companies that are willing to share its image intensification or thermal imaging technology. Is it because they would prefer to do business with an Indian private sector collaborator? So be it, so long as the country has the technology and is able to supply to the armed forces what they so desperately need.

New generation

As for the state of the art of the technology it has progressed from the first generation which used passive IR with light enhancement from ambient light. These devices were at a disadvantage on moonless and cloudy nights. The next generation devices had considerable improvements in the image intensifier tubes (II Tubes) with the addition of the micro channel plate and thus were able to display images in extreme low light conditions. The images were brighter and the distortion was much less in these devices.

In generation 3 devices, currently in use by the US Army, the photo cathode has been manufactured with gallium arsenide and the MCP has been coated with an ion barrier for increasing the life of the image intensifier tube. Otherwise, there is not much change from the NVDs of 2nd generation. These have been extensively used in Gulf War II, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The newer version of these can also be hands free by using a head harness or by attaching it to combat helmets.

In this context it needs to be recalled that an Indian DRDO laboratory-The Solid State Laboratory -has been able to grow gallium arsenide crystals within its facilities many decades ago so BEL can exploit these resources to move to third generation night vision devices.

Conversely, private sector factories can buy the crystals without having to set up expensive facilities to manufacture them and replicate them. This needs to be emphasized because the production of night vision devices entails painstaking methods to create the system. The process involves over 400 different steps just for making the image intensifier tubes. Thus, manufacturers in different areas of the plant carry out several steps simultaneously.

Quality control is a built in process and production will stop if quality control has been missed. This ensures correct functioning of the intensifier II tubes. The quality control is so exercised that one cannot move to the next step if the previous step has not been quality cleared. The parameters of input materials as well as in process products are thus thoroughly tested.

BEL’S night vision technology is confined to second generation image intensifier (II Tubes) whereas the Indian Army wants NVDs based on the third generation components. Another major problem is the rechargeable batteries.

The effect of the absence of this type of equipment is seen in the easy manner in which Chinese troops and Pakistan-trained terrorists manage to cross the Line of Actual Control and the Line of Control, respectively.  In early 2013 BEL was given an order by Indian Army to supply 30,634 night vision devices but it has been slow in fulfilling the contract.