TATA Motors gears up for a new 20 tonne ride

The company is identified with the cars and trucks it makes. But its defence strategy could change things. The Kestrel, an armoured carrier it built for the Indian army, is a sign of things to come.

NO ONE WOULD GUESS that hulking 20 tonne armoured carrier I’m about to jump into for a test ride has anything in common with the toy-like Nano. But, oddly enough, it does. The tiny passenger car and the huge combat vehicle might sit at opposite ends in terms of size, but both were built by Tata Motors, one of the country’s leading automobile companies. An armoured carrier by Tata Motors? Really? But doesn’t it just make cars, trucks, and buses?

True, passenger and heavy commercial vehicles do account for the biggest chunk of Tata Motors’ business. But what few know is that the firm with consolidated revenues of $42 billion (Rs 260,000 crore) also makes a range of defence products from logistics vehicles to armoured carriers that are used for internal security and counter-insurgency operations. The combat vehicle I’m dwarfed by is named the Kestrel—after a predatory hawk found in wetlands across India—and it can move on land and through water, be hooked up with a turret, and work as an ambulance. “This [Kestrel] is the younger brother of the tank,” says V.S. Noronha, vice president of Tata Motors Defence Solutions. “Future combat [vehicles] are on the cards and we are going to go big in that direction. Tata Motors wants to graduate from just the logistics and full combat vehicle segment to a full-fledged global defence manufacturer.”

It’s certainly an ambitious leap. The Kestrel is India’s first indigenous amphibious infantry combat vehicle (ICV), developed in collaboration with Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the country’s premier military weapons developer. It is expected to replace the army’s obsolete Russian-made amphibious BMP vehicles made in the 1980s.

Tata Motors won the ICV bid in 2012, beating competitors such as India’s Larsen & Toubro and Ireland’s heavy-duty mobility systems manufacturer Timoney Technology. DRDO funded about 50% of the project and laid down the technical specifications of the vehicle. Tata Motors says it will not disclose the cost of development but says the Kestrel was built ground-up in a year and a half, with funds coming from the Rs 4,000 crore budget that Tata Motors sets aside for its standalone business every year. While the company also did not divulge the cost of a Kestrel, it does say that an equivalent vehicle sells for around Rs 23 crore.

Even though Tata Motors won the bid about five years ago, the government is yet to sign off on orders. Meanwhile, the Kestrel has been getting its tyres kicked and checked out. Mobility trials started in early 2014, followed by tests that included deep wading of the vehicle and the functioning of its hydro jets in the summer of 2015, firing trials to see how the weaponised turrets work in October 2015, and summer trials for extreme weather conditions last year in the desert town of Pokhran. Tata Motors is awaiting results from the DRDO, after which contracts are expected to be issued. Such long gestation periods are not uncommon in defence deals. The armoured Tata Safari Storme showcased in 2012, for example, was in approval and testing mode for four years before orders came through.

Step in, or in this case climb up and then jump inside the Kestrel, and you get a sense of its strength. A complex array of wires and switches, and metal sheets riveted down give you a hint of the complex workings of the vehicle, as well as its stability. It’s definitely not built for driver comfort; there’s barely enough airconditioning to keep from melting. What it can do is withstand bullets and grenades; ferry troops and deploy them rapidly in war zones; perform well whether on land or in water; and can continue to move at speed even when its tyres are blown out. Add high speed and low maintenance, and it’s easy to see why armoured personnel carriers are so popular, with over 30 leading nations using them.

These carriers are not new; they were used extensively in the Second World War. More recently, they’ve seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, of course, the Indian armed forces uses them. “Army units and paramilitary forces travelling in non-armoured trucks, buses, cars, and jeeps are extremely vulnerable, especially in militancy-prone districts of Jammu & Kashmir, the Northeast, and central India. Even a single casualty in an ambush or IED blast causes strategic, physical, and psychological damage to the nation,” says Amber Dubey, partner and India head of aerospace and defence at global consultancy KPMG.

The Tata Group entered the defence sector more than 60 years ago. Tata Motors has been making three kinds of vehicles for defence and peacekeeping forces: lighter combat vehicles, combat support vehicles, and general service vehicles. The company doesn’t break down revenues from defence vehicles but in the last decade it has sold millions of dollars worth of them. Here’s a quick tally: 3,200 Safari Stormes priced at Rs 10 lakh each, 1,800 high-mobility vehicles priced around Rs 75 lakh, 350 light armoured vehicles at Rs 55 lakh each, and over 40,000 general service vehicles at Rs 20 lakh each.

Then, there’s Tata Advanced Systems (TASL), which produces frames and integration systems for aircraft, and has partnerships with U.S. defence company Lockheed Martin and its helicopter manufacturing division, Sikorsky.

The group’s defence business has been limited so far but is expected to grow substantially because of the government’s plans to turn India from an arms importer to an arms manufacturer. In 2013, the group generated Rs 1,700 crore from its defence business and officials say that 14 companies in the sector have an order book worth Rs 8,000 crore.

But the Kestrel is a special project. Tata Motors is hoping it will be the foundation for a Futuristic Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV), a tracked, armoured vehicle that protects soldiers from small arms fire, artillery shrapnel, and landmines. The FICV is expected to replace the Indian army’s Russian infantry vehicles that were bought in 1987 and have to be phased out by 2022. Tata Motors is one of four private bidders for the contract estimated at Rs 60,000 crore. Larsen & Toubro, Mahindra & Mahindra, Reliance Defence, along with the Ordnance Factory Board, have all thrown their hats in the ring for the order to supply some 2,600 FICVs.

Noronha says the Kestrel and the proposed FICV will share vehicle protection technology, the engine, gearbox, wiring and harnesses, fire control systems, and the turrets. DRDO officials confirmed that “some of the technologies in the WhAP [wheeled amphibious platform] will be realised in the FICV as well”.

The long-delayed FICV contract fits in with India’s plans to build a domestic defence industry. India is one of the world’s largest defence equipment importers with some 70% of its requirements coming from foreign companies. The rest is made by state-owned firms; private firms, mostly, manufacture components. The FICV contract will be a big step forward for public-private participation in the defence sector. “It’s a leap to the next level for defence and manufacturing,” says Saurabh Joshi, editor of StratPost, a defence news site.

Noronha is confident of bagging the FICV contract. The announcement was expected around Christmas last year, but has been delayed for various reasons. Newspaper reports say some competitors have raised objections on the grounds that the company doesn’t meet the bid’s commercial eligibility criteria. Industry officials say it could be announced in the next two or three months.

Regardless of who wins the contract, analysts agree that vehicles like the Kestrel will be a game changer for the Indian army. “It’s imperative for a country with wide-reaching geopolitical interests to have sustainable and reliant capabilities in core sectors such as defence and the only way to get there is to have homegrown companies maintain and control the entire value chain for defence,” says Vikas Sehgal, global head for the automotive sector at London-based NM Rothschild & Sons.

By: Fortune India

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