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Published on: Oct. 5, 2020, 3:49 p.m.
The Indian army test-drives Kestrel
  • Will the Kestrel take flight?

By Adreesh Ghoshal

The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is now serving as a high-altitude testbed for some of India’s most advanced weapons systems. The list includes the Light Utility Helicopter, Light Combat Helicopter, and the DRDO Wheeled Armoured Platform, or the Tata Kestrel.

The Tata Kestrel, which was first introduced in 2014, has yet to be adopted en-masse by the Indian Army. Yes, there’s the FICV program (Future Infantry Combat Vehicle), but the Tata Kestrel/WhAp is here.

While yet to be adopted by the Army, the Kestrel, which first appeared as a concept in 2014, is a 25-tonne light tank best suited for mountainous warfare.

The Tata Kestrel was jointly developed in 2015-16 with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), within 18 months flat, with the support of UK-based defence firm Supacat. Tata’s Kestrel also happens to be the first and only infantry combat vehicle to be developed indigenously. At a Rs23-crore sticker price per unit, it’s half that of the Stryker IFV (Rs45 crore).

While the Kestrel is still being tested by the Indian Army, it faces stiff competition from the upgraded Soviet-era BMP-2. In 2017, the Ministry of Defence signed a Rs24-billion contract to upgrade 693 out of the entire fleet of 2,800 BMP-2s to the BMP-2M standard. The upgrades included a more powerful engine, better protection, and a higher range. But, even in the upgraded format, it still cannot hold a candle to the Tata Kestrel’s performance.

The Tata Kestrel can reach speeds of 100kph, while the BMP-2Ms can do 65kph. Then, the running gear on the BMP-2M requires overhauling every 400-500km. The Tata Kestrel/WhAp runs on toughened tyres that need changing every 5-8,000 km. The Kestrel can also seat more troops (12), versus seven in the BMP-2.

The BMP-series has seen action across the world for the past 30-plus years. So, there are well-planned supply chains, operating procedures, and training centres in place. The Kestrel is yet to feel the heat of battle.
 
Huge savings

The Tata Kestrel is backed by Tata’s experience in the automotive industry. The Cummins turbocharged diesel engine under the hood is a commercially available one, which means getting spares and replacements will be easy. The suspension system is one used in off-roaders – and should be made in-house, further reducing costs and dependency on foreign suppliers. The turret currently used on the Kestrel is from a BMP – signalling that older BMPs may be cannibalised for parts, saving even more per unit. The Kestrel is a wheeled platform, and unlike main battle tanks, doesn’t need to be ferried to the front line. This is another huge saving in cost and time.

Since 2009, Tata Motors has been involved in the design and sales of support vehicles for the armed forces. It has sold more than 150,000 vehicles globally. Out of all Tata production units, the Kestrel is most likely to be tested at the Pune facility, and manufactured at Jamshedpur. Incidentally, Tata’s Mine Protected Vehicle is built at the Pune unit. But manufactured in Jamshedpur, because the development of armour would require close coordination with Tata’s steel arm.

The Kestrel’s sensors and navigation equipment would most likely come from a tie-up between DRDO and Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL). TASL has signed MoUs with original equipment manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Sikorsky, Boeing, and General Electric, among others. Tata Advanced Materials Limited (TAML), is also actively working with the DRDO to develop missile components, composite armour, shielding for hypersonic vehicles, and more, and should be in charge of developing explosive reactive armour for the WhAp.

In 2017, Vernon Noronha, vice-president of defence and government business at Tata Motors had revealed big ambitions for Tata Motors’ foray in the defence market.

Another big project on the Indian Army’s radar is the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle project. The contract details the induction of 2,600 tracked infantry vehicles and is valued at Rs60,000 crore. Larsen and Toubro (L&T) is also gunning for the deal, fresh off the back of successful projects like the K-9 Vajra artillery system. As part of the original deal, 80 per cent was to be paid by the government, and 20 by the private supplier. However, according to a news report, a private supplier offered to pay for the full development, which, technically is possible under the Defence Procurement Policy. Now, the entire project is under review.

Will the Kestrel take flight? Or will it be weighed down by the intricacies of the Defence Procurement Policy?

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