First large order for ballistic helmets gives hope to defence industry

NSG commandoes at Rajpath during a rehearsal for the Republic Day parade in New Delhi on Wednesday. The army has fought insurgency for decades without suitable armour. Photo: PTI
In April 2001, Sepoy Govind Ram was the leading scout of a Rashtriya Rifles patrol, moving cautiously along National Highway 1A on the outskirts of Bijbehara. As the patrol came under fire from a two-story building ahead, a bullet grazed his temple and thudded into the interior of the steel “bulletproof patka” on his head - improvised head protection that covers only the top of soldiers’ heads. The bullet ricocheted into his skull; he was dead within seconds.

Fifteen years and hundreds of dead soldiers later, the army last month finally signed a Rs 175-crore contract for 158,000 ballistic helmets. Had Govind been wearing one of these Rs 10,000 helmets, he would probably be alive today.

Unlike the bulletproof patka, the ballistic helmet covers the sides and rear of a soldier’s head, and the upper part of his forehead. It is built to US specification NIJ 40, which means it can withstand the impact of a 9-millimetre (mm) pistol or carbine bullet from close range and a 5.56-mm rifle bullet from further. It also protects soldiers’ heads from flying shrapnel from grenades and artillery shells.

Supplying this first batch of ballistic helmets for regular soldiers (a small number were bought earlier for Special Forces) will be Kanpur-based firm, MKU. The company has supplied 200,000 ballistic helmets to foreign armies, but has only now been selected to protect the Indian Army.

The contract is for about 100,000 ballistic helmets weighing 1.3 kg, and some 50,000 helmets for commanders, with integrated radio headphones. Delivery must be completed within three years, i.e. December 2019.

In winning the five-year-old tender, MKU beat out well-regarded competitors, including Bengaluru-based Tata Advanced Materials Ltd (TAML), and Kanpur-based Shri Lakshmi Defence Solutions; and Integrated Defence Products (IDP).

All these companies anticipate additional orders for helmets. The current order equips less than one-seventh of a 1.2-million-strong army. Of these, some 400,000 soldiers are in operations at any given time.

Besides doing without ballistic helmets, the army has fought insurgency for decades without suitable bulletproof jackets (BPJs). A tender for 186,138 BPJs has made little headway for years; with the army ruling that the jackets offered did not meet the army’s specifications.

To meet its critical operational needs, the army was given a “one time relaxation in existing financial powers of Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS)… to procure 50,000 bulletproof jackets,” Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar told Parliament on December 22.  

In addition, “Commands have been given approval to procure minimum inescapable quantity of bullet proof jackets through Army Commanders Special Powers Fund to meet urgent operational requirements,” said Parrikar.

Yet, there is no answer to the question of why vendors like MKU, who meet global standards while supplying body armour to foreign militaries, like those of Germany and West Asia, are invariably found substandard by the Indian military.

MKU, whose Kanpur facilities Business Standard visited in 2015, has expanded globally over the years. It even has a ballistic laboratory and a fabrication unit in Sittensen, near Hamburg, in Germany, which it called MKU GmbH. Since the government of India does not allow private vendors to set up ballistic testing laboratories, this is where MKU proof-tests its protective gear.

The government has overruled repeated requests from private Indian firms to allow testing of their body armour products at defence ministry establishments like the Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory at Chandigarh.

MKU officials say that, although Indian orders remain a trickle - like an order in 2012 from the Home Ministry for 59,000 BPJs for the central armed police forces (CAPFs) - a steady flow of international orders keeps the company going. Over the years, MKU claims it has supplied customers in close to a hundred countries. To discharge its West Asian orders, MKU established a production facility in 2014 at Ras-al-Khaimah, near Dubai. Yet, the biggest potential customer for MKU and other body armour fabricators remains India. With a 1.6-million-strong military awaiting modern protective gear, the industry’s eyes remain focused on New Delhi.
The author is Consulting Editor (Strategic Affairs). He tweets at @ajaishukla

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