Mine protected vehicle or coffin on wheels?

L'affaire Rushdie, government's shenanigans and other events at the Jaipur Literary Festival have grabbed most of the headlines these last few days. This means that the death of 13 policemen in Garhwa district of Jharkhand at the hands of the Maoists on Saturday afternoon has barely registered on the national consciousness. 

Led by officer-in charge of Bhandaria police station, Rajbali Chowdhary, troopers of VII battalion of Jharkhand Armed Police were accompanying local BDO and Zilla Parishad chairperson to resolve a dispute over a health centre. The policemen who were travelling in the Mine Protected Vehicle, or MPV, could not survive an IED blast initiated by the Maoists. Maoists then ambushed the policemen following the blast, opening fire from point-blank range, taking away all the police weapons. Finally, the Maoists set fire to the toppled MPV.

This is not the first instance when an MPV has failed to protect its occupants against an IED attack. More than 200 troopers are estimated to have lot their lives while using the MPV in the last three years. On September 3, 2005, 23 policemen and a civilian were killed in an explosion that tossed the MPV 20 feet in the air and split it into two on the Gangalur road in Dantewada. In July 2008, the Maoists blew up an MPV carrying 24 CRPF and Chhattisgarh policemen. In June last year, 10 security personnel were killed in another IED blast on an MPV in Katekalyan, again in Dantewada.

Although their total requirement has been estimated to be 1,500, more than 300 MPVs have already been supplied to the paramilitary and police for use in the anti-Maoist operations across the country. These MPVs, christened Aditya, are supplied by the Ordnance Factory, Medak. Originally based on the design of South African Casspir landmine-protected personnel carrier vehicle, Aditya was later upgraded to weather blasts of higher intensity.

What purpose does the MPV serve if the Maoists continue to blow it up with ease? These MPVs are designed to withstand blasts of up to 14 kg of RDX, as used in conventional military landmines. But the Maoists don't use military landmines or RDX-based IEDs. They use fertilisers, gelatins, emulsions and slurries in their IEDs, which have a heaving effect and not a shattering one which RDX produces. 

Because Aditya copies the South African design, it can't withstand a heaving explosion which topples the MPV over, trapping the passengers inside. Last year, the CRPF seized a Maoist military magazine, Awam-e-Jung from the Orissa-Andhra Pradesh border which revealed the Maoist tactics against the MPV. In an article titled 'Mine-proof Vehicle -- Its Shortcomings', the Maoists identified the vulnerabilities in the MPV while advising the cadres in great detail on how to 'handle' it. "It is an utter lie to call it a mine-proof vehicle. The vehicle is being propagated as mine-proof to boost the morale of forces that have lost it," the article said.

The Maoists are right. The MPV has failed to boost the morale of our forces. A senior CRPF official labeled the MPVs, "coffins on wheels". Obviously, most paramilitary and police forces are reluctant to use the vehicle in Maoist-affected areas. 

From Sri Lanka to Jammu & Kashmir, Indian security forces have a long experience of battling IEDs. Despite facing a serious Maoist threat for a decade, India's failure to get an effective MPV raises serious questions about our intent and will to fight the Maoists.

Compare this to the US example in Iraq. In May 2007, then US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated that the acquisition of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles or MRAPs was his highest  priority and earmarked $1.1 billion for them. In 2007, Pentagon ordered 6,400 MRAPs from 7 manufacturers while inviting 14 firms to design a second-generation MRAP. By June 2008, roadside bomb attacks and fatalities in Iraq were down by almost 90 per cent, largely due to the use of MRAPs.

Yes, countering IEDs needs much more than better MPVs -- intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support, and better training matters. But MPVs reduce operational risk and minimise casualties. They are far simpler to acquire. We should able to get at least this bit right.

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review

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