Mine-protected vehicles: India
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2009-15: Shortage of Mine-protected vehicles in CRPF
India Today, May 19, 2016
Jugal R Purohit
The CRPF, our frontline force against Maoist rebels, faces a major shortage of mine-protected vehicles. Proposals for buying the MPVs have been hanging fire since 2009.
Maoists have buried IEDs in the earth, strung them from trees, and even pasted them behind pamphlets to target security personnel. The flexible nature of these explosive devices makes them a potent and easily accessible tool of destruction. Since 2010, the CRPF-the principal counter-Maoist force of the country-has lost nearly a 100 men to IEDs, with another 274 injured. The force has also recovered a staggering 57 tonnes of explosive material in the same period. In 2015, they recovered explosives in record numbers-1,702 IEDs and 20,781 detonators. The CRPF has been hobbled by a serious shortage of their only shield against dangerous IEDs-specialised armoured trucks called Mine Protected Vehicles (MPVs) that can carry a dozen security personnel, protecting them against bullets and landmine blasts.
The force has been authorised to buy a fleet of 352 MPVs (costing over Rs 1 crore a piece), but it has only 120 such vehicles. Worse, the lack of workshops in central and eastern India mean only around 60 per cent of the existing fleet is operational at any given time. In the absence of MPVs, the CRPF have been forced to use private unmarked vehicles to camouflage their movements. The truck targeted on March 30 was one such vehicle. As it has repeatedly played out in areas where Maoists hold the initiative, in Mailawada, Chhattisgarh, too the attempt to hide the identity of the forces failed miserably. Meanwhile, breakdowns in the modest fleet of MPVs is another huge problem as technicians have to be specially called in or troopers sent to fetch parts from the manufacturers. The Union ministry of home affairs (MHA) has only belatedly woken up to the need to train its own technicians. "It's a vicious cycle," explains a CRPF source in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, the heart of the Maoist insurgency. "Poor maintenance ensures the MPVs are seldom used...and because they are sparingly used, their utility is questioned." The MHA and CRPF, however, did not respond to detailed questionnaires sent by india today. The proposal to acquire new MPVs was cleared in 2009 but the file has been shuttling between the CRPF's Lodhi Road headquarters in Delhi and the home ministry in North Block. The issue at hand was the inability of the two to freeze specifications and proceed on the acquisition. CRPF director-general K. Durga Prasad blames the delay in acquiring MPVs on a change in specifications. "We are now moving ahead in acquiring updated MPVs for our men. We have cleared and sent to the home ministry a case for acquiring 20 such vehicles," he says. Yet, this number too is far below the CRPF's requirement. In addition to the 352 authorised nearly a decade ago, the MHA had sanctioned 180 additional MPVs in its recently approved Modernisation Plan II. Of the existing MPVs, most are outdated ordnance factory board (OFB) copies of the 1980s-era South African 'Casspir' MPVs, imported by the Indian army for use in J&K in the late 1980s. "Safety of the man in uniform seems the least of the government's concern. Our soldiers are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs," says Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Rajya Sabha MP, who has raised the issue of missing MPVs in Parliament twice, in 2012 and 2016. "There are serious concerns about the progress on the issue of MPVs and other modernisation-related projects." There's hope for the troops yet though, for a new MPV is operation ready. Designed and built by the OFB, the new version is called the Modern Mine Protected Vehicle (MMPV). Apart from offering enhanced blast protection, the MHA believes it will give the troops better cross-country mobility. The CRPF will be the first force in the country to get the MMPVs. Once the supply order is placed, it will take 18 months for delivery to begin. Officials, though, are keeping the specifications a secret. Explaining the reluctance to share details, a source connected with the MMPV programme says, "The last MPV was heavily advertised at the onset of its utilisation. As a result, its specifications were studied religiously by Maoists, even brought out in a booklet for the cadre. This time, we want them to work a little harder." But is even the MMPV a sure-fire defence against IEDs? There is a section of the CRPF that believes MPVs too are extremely vulnerable. Existing MPVs produced by the OFB can withstand a blast of 10 kgs of TNT under the wheels and 14 kgs under the hull. The Maoists realised this chink in their armour as far back as 2005. Since then, a wave of Maoist IED attacks, some using the equivalent of 50 and even 80 kg TNT, targeted MPVs. In several cases, troopers were killed because they sustained grievous injuries after being flung about inside the vehicle during the blast. The most horrific attack in Dantewada district happened in September '05, killing 23 policeman and a civilian. The IED blast tossed the MPV some 20 feet in the air.
The threat from high intensity IEDs remains. Last September, the CRPF unearthed a 50 kg IED buried on a road in Chhattisgarh's Narayanpur district. Which is why a handful of officials question the MPV's utility. In 2014, the CRPF even decided to limit the use of MPVs to emergencies, ambushes or operations. "Mounting foot patrols or motorbikes is the best strategy," says a senior CRPF officer. "After all, if you upgrade the MPV, the Maoists will just make heavier IEDs. It's an endless race of armour." (The MHA and CRPF refused details on casualties in IED attacks on MPVs till date. india today had sought a list of MPV attacks over the years but the CRPF didn't respond to that too.) But then foot patrols and motorbike recces aren't safe either. Security personnel on the ground say both modes have been the target of the smart pressure IEDs the Maoists are now using. Meanwhile, the existing MPV numbers are insufficient even for those special operations the CRPF decide to use them for. Just how useful an MPV can be is evident from the incident where an IAF Mi-17 transport helicopter was shot down in Chhattisgarh's Sukma region on January 17, '13. The pilot crashlanded the machine in the fields of Temilwada, a Maoist 'liberated zone'. A lone MPV of the CRPF which reached the spot, evacuated the injured crew, brought in logistics, ferried senior officers and, most importantly, acted as a mobile, bullet- and landmine-proof guard post. No lives were lost in the operation which lasted from the early hours of January 18 to the evening of January 22, till the Mi-17 was repaired at the site. Durga Prasad too admits that MPVs play a vital role. "In a situation where I have to rush a body of equipped troops in a protected environment, the MPV is the answer. After all, to hit an MPV you need a sizeable quantity of explosives. That said, there have been instances where MPVs were blasted. Does that make them useless? I don't think so." The utility of the MPVs has been known at least since 2009 when the MHA adopted an aggressive stance against the Maoists and authorised the 352-MPVs fleet for the CRPF, at a cost of over Rs 250 crore. The MHA's calculation was based on a simple formula-it allotted seven MPVs for every general duty (GD) battalion (1 battalion has approximately 1,000 men) and 10 MPVs to the special troops of CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) battalion. Since 2009, the CRPF deployments in the nine Maoist-affected states have doubled from 50 battalions to nearly 90 battalions. Expectedly, the shortfalls of outdated, poorly-maintained MPVs have also become glaringly obvious. There are 120 central forces battalions deployed to assist the state police in the nine states. Yet, to date, the MHA fleet of MPVs is merely 170-strong, of which the CRPF has around 120 vehicles. The police in Maoist-affected states swear by the MPV. Superintendent of police in Maharashtra's Gadchiroli, Sandip Patil, told india today, "We lost several CRPF men in a major blast in our district in 2012. They were inside a bus. That was a turning point. Our reliance on MPVs has gone up tremendously. I have traveled in it myself and it does make you feel secure." Patil is ordering 20 more MPVs to add to the existing fleet of 31 vehicles. "There hasn't been a single IED casualty in 2015 and till date in 2016," he added. The Jharkhand police today have 100 MPVs. "Against the ever-evolving threat of IEDs, there is no final solution. But the MPVs constitute an important line of defence. If personnel inside MPVs observe all precautions, chances of survival are more than 50 per cent," says S.N. Pradhan, additional director-general, Jharkhand police.
After a tour of Chhattisgarh in October 2009, an irked Union home minister P. Chidambaram had written to A.S. Gill, then director-general of the CRPF, "On the issue of MPVs, we cannot follow a leisurely or long drawn timetable." Sadly, both seem to have become the norm.