Stryker Co-Production: Does India Really Need it?

Whether India should go in for importing infantry combat vehicles from the US, or should it focus on developing its own indigenous infantry combat vehicles, definitely needs to be pondered

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

Opinion

India and the US are in an advanced stage of talks for joint manufacture of the Stryker infantry combat vehicles (ICVs), according to the latest news reports. The project is envisaged in three-phases: limited off-the-shelf purchase of Stryker ICVs under America’s foreign military sales (FMS) programme; joint production in India, and; co-development of futuristic armoured versions of Stryker ICV.

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The reports says that while the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is examining the US proposal, the US has offered to demonstrate the mobility and firepower of the eight-wheeled Stryker ICV in high altitude terrain.

America has been hard-selling the Stryker to India since it made its first offer in 2000. During the Indo-US joint Exercise ‘Yudh Abhyas-2009’ in deserts of India, the US contingent deployed the Stryker ICVs.

Before the visit of the US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to India on June 17-18, 2024 for reviewing the ‘Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET), US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J Austin cited the “co-production of armoured vehicles with India” as yet another indicator of the upward trajectory in the bilateral defence partnership during the Shangri La dialogue two weeks ago.

America has been hard-selling the Stryker to India since it made its first offer in 2000. During the Indo-US joint Exercise ‘Yudh Abhyas-2009’ in deserts of India, the US contingent deployed the Stryker ICVs

How soon the Stryker deal is finalised would be contingent upon the Stryker ICV meeting the operational requirements of the Indian Army, as well as a high level of indigenisation and transfer of technology (ToT) to include “critical” technologies to the Indian co-production partner.

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The media has quoted an unnamed source, saying, “If the Stryker project is finalised, the existing Indian capabilities will be taken into account. Stryker will have to be customised and technologically configured for the Indian terrain, including operations in high-altitude areas like eastern Ladakh and Sikkim.”

The Indian Army has an existing fleet of over 2,000 Russian-origin BMP-II vehicles; which will need to be replaced as and when they complete their operational life.

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The US naturally would like to ink the Stryker deal at the earliest, having already bagged defence deals from India to the tune of US$22 billion since 2007 and reportedly inking another two mega defence deals (other than the Stryker) with India in the current financial year.

A number of questions arising here include the following:

  • Are off-the-shelf purchases of the Stryker ICVs under the FMS program planned “without” any modifications, or will the modifications be done in the US before delivery, and if so, what is the time-schedule involved?
  • The priority of futuristic ICVs is in the mountains. But the Stryker ICV having Caterpillar C7 350 horsepower engine is underpowered for deployment in mountains. How long will the US take to fit a more powerful engine for off-the-shelf imports by India?
  • Does the Army’s existing fleet of BMP-II ICVs need immediate replacements, necessitating off-the-shelf imports of Stryker ICVs?
  • The Army needs ICVs for amphibious operations, too and the Stryker ICV is not amphibious. Does the plan of joint production envisage modifying a certain quantity of Stryker ICVs for amphibious operations, and if so, in what timeframe?
  • Will the US provide 100 percent ToT or will it be only on paper like the GE-404 engine where the critical technology of the inner core of the engine is not being transferred despite announcing 100 percent ToT?
  • What will “actually” be the percentage of indigenous content in the co-produced Stryker ICVs?
  • How will this adversely affect the indigenous development of a futuristic ICV already underway? Are we going in for joint production of the Stryker ICV because of persistent pressure of the US and political considerations alone?

How soon the Stryker deal is finalised would be contingent upon the Stryker ICV meeting the operational requirements of the Indian Army, as well as a high level of indigenisation and transfer of technology (ToT) to include “critical” technologies to the Indian co-production partner

Vulnerabilities of the more than two-decade old Stryker are not small, as witnessed during operations. These include insufficient armour, wheeled design causing maintenance problems with mud clogging the engine, malfunctioning computer, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) ripping through the flat underbelly, malfunctioning computer system and limited off-road mobility. Troops called it “Kevlar Coffin”. According to some analysts, Stryker is not designed for direct assault and engaging enemy armour.

Another view is to promote indigenous production of the futuristic ICVs, which is already underway and has made considerable progress, rather than joint production of the Stryker ICVs especially since the Stryker in its present form is unsuited for high-altitude and is not amphibious either.

Tata Advanced Systems and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have jointly produced the Wheeled Armoured Platform (WhAP), also called TATA ‘Kestrel’, which was first unveiled during Defexpo 2014 in Delhi.

WhAP is 8×8 amphibious ICV that has performed well in high-altitude trials. WhAP development was taken up to provide common platform for wheeled APC, ICV with 30 mm cannon, Light Tank with 105 mm main gun, command post vehicle, ambulance, special purpose platform, 120 mm mortar carrier and CBRN Vehicle.

Another view is to promote indigenous production of the futuristic ICVs, which is already underway and has made considerable progress, rather than joint production of the Stryker ICVs especially since the Stryker in its present form is unsuited for high-altitude and is not amphibious either

WhAP is designed for modern warfare keeping in mind crew survivability, protection against small arms fire, mobility and protection against concealed explosives.

It is indigenous with an imported engine. It is equipped with Kongsberg 30-mm cannon, which can be fired remotely. It can fire high-explosive incendiary (HEI), armor-piercing incendiary (API), and armor-piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot tracer (APFSDS-T) rounds with a 30-mm caliber.

It has an effective range of 3,000 metres. The 40-mm grenade launchers are used as a secondary weapon. It can accommodate anti-tank missiles or a 12.7mm machine gun.

In October 2019, the MoD cleared production of WhAP and export to friendly countries. The Indian Army reportedly plans to acquire 200 WhAP. The first batch of WhAP was inducted into the Indian Army on April 12, 2022.

The ITBP is also being equipped with WhAP. WhAP can carry 2+9 soldiers compared to 3+8 by Stryker. WhAP’s power-to-weight ratio is 25, compared to Stryker’s 17.24. WhAP weighs 24.5 tons compared to 20.3 ton weight of Stryker, but with better power to weight ratio the WhAP is better suited for difficult terrains.

In the 1970s DRDO began developing the tracked ICV ‘Abhay’. In 2008, the DRDO said, “The multi-disciplinary, multi-laboratory, Technology Demonstration Programme for development of Infantry Combat Vehicle (ICV) Abhay, has been successfully… technologies developed under this programme…..can be adopted for futuristic ICV and light tracked vehicle projects.”

Co-developed by Tata Advanced Systems and DRDO, WhAP (also called TATA ‘Kestrel’) is designed for modern warfare keeping in mind crew survivability, protection against small arms fire, mobility and protection against concealed explosives

Nothing was heard thereafter, till DRDO in collaboration with Larsen and Toubro (L&T) developed the Zorawar Light Tank, which used some of the systems developed for Abhay. Initial trials of the Zorawar Light Tank by DRDO have gone well and Zorawar is scheduled for induction into the Indian Army in 2027.

The US offered to relocate the entire F-21 (a revamped F-16) fighter jet production facilities of Northrop Grumman to India in the 1990s; to throttle India’s nascent LCA program. Is the Stryker offer to stymie Indian efforts for 100 percent indigenisation?

Why the DRDO took decades to develop the Abhay ICV and whether this was to facilitate imports is not known. Finally, the question is can we meet our operational requirements with the indigenous WhAP ICV and Zorawar Light Tank (that can even be modified further, if at all required) or do we still need joint production of the Stryker?

-The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.