by Pradip R. Sagar

Four Indian soldiers, including Major Moharkar Prafulla Ambadas, could have warded off splinter injuries, had they been wearing a fully protected bullet proof jacket while patrolling in the Chingus area of Rajauri, on the Line of Control. All four martyred, during an attack by the Border Action Team of Pakistan army on December 23.

Similarly, Colonel M.M. Rai, Commanding Officer of the 42 Rasthriya Rifles, died fighting two militants in a hideout in Tral area of Pulwama district in the Kashmir Valley. Bullet hit him on his neck, an unprotected area of the bullet proof jacket that he was wearing during the operation.

But, now the Army's long wait for nearly a decade will come to an end as the new modular Bullet Proof Jacket (BPJ) clears trials, which is designed to ensure maximum body coverage of the soldier and similar to the ones being used globally. According to sources, the existing BPJs used by the army in operation can only secure a smaller body area, which is far below the standards used internationally.

Indian army's programme to acquire 1.86 lakh bullet proof jackets, to bridge the gap in its requirement of 3.53 lakh jackets, has been pending since 2009 is reaching its conclusive stage and is expected to be finalised by next month.

According to infantry directorate official, all three Indian players, who were in the fray have met requirements of the Indian Army and have cleared the evaluation trials. "Trials have been completed and the report has been accepted. Now, the commercial negotiations will start to select the vendor. We expect the selection process to get over by the end of next month, so that the production and then delivery of the BPJs can start quickly," said a defence source. But, it may take another few months before it reaches the soldiers.

Indian Army has approved Rs 900 crore for the purchase of 1.86 lakh bullet proof jackets. Each jacket costs between Rs 50,000-60,000, will be ultra light and easier to wear during combat situations, that will also provide protection to the neck, chest, and groins. "New modular BPJs can withstand 7.62mm bullet at a distance upto 10 meters," said an officer.

Last week, a parliamentary panel has come down heavily on the ministry of defence for not providing basic infantry weapons including the life-saving BPJs to the armed forces.

Standing Committee on defence, headed by Major General B.C. Khanduri (Retd), in its report tabled in the Lok Sabha last week noted that there was a serious deficiency of Bullet Proof Jackets. Even after the approval of Defence Acquisition Council was obtained on October 19, 2009 for purchase of the desired BPJs, the necessary purchases could not be made due to various reasons, the committee observed. The parliamentary panel also said that it regret that even after the approval in 2009, our soldiers continue to suffer due to the ‘insufficiency’ of BPJs.

Based on the present position regarding BPJs and the progress made in its procurement, the Committee was intimated that, 'based on the emerging threats', the requirement of BPJs is increasing. However, as on date, the total authorisation of BPJs in Army is to the tune of 3,53,765 pieces.

While analysing the information submitted by the ministry on comparison of BPJs currently available with Indian soldiers and other developed countries, the Committee noted the aspect of lesser body coverage area existing in Indian BPJs as compared to the BPJs of other developed nations. "The Committee hope that the new BPJs are designed and made keeping in mind the aspect of ensuring maximum body coverage," parliamentary panel stated.

In 2015, Army had to cancel its Request for Proposal (RFP) due to rejection of all samples in the trials, citing lack of technology and manufacturing expertise as main reasons for cancellation.Eventually, a year later, Army initiated a fresh process by RFP in April 2016.

The Committee observed that when the trial is rejected, all the expenditure incurred from sanction of procurement to trial stage goes in vain. "Therefore, there is a need to conduct extensive research before tendering for the BPJs. At the same time, the decision should be more specific and timely so that delays in procurement do not occur," the Committee observed.

Last year, with the increase in terrorists initiated incidents in the Kashmir valley, Army had to make an emergency procurement of 50,000 jackets to meet the urgent requirement of the forces. Ministry officials confirmed that the deliver of these 50,000 BPJs have been completed.