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Indians supply modern combat boots to US army, but our soldiers use ‘130-year-old’ designs

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The wait will go on as the decision to open up sector to private players won’t kick in before 2019. After that, there’s the long procurement process.

New Delhi: The Indian soldier’s wait for an essential part of his kit — a good-quality combat boot — doesn’t look like ending any time soon.

In a recent article, Lt. Gen. H.S. Panag (retd) wrote about the poor quality of combat boots soldiers have struggled with for decades.

“India manufactures some of the best shoes in the world, but the Indian Army wears the worst combat boot in the world, which has remained unchanged in design for 130 years, except for the DMS sole. That it costs only Rs 500-600 in the open market is a reflection on its quality!” Panag wrote.

But despite the fact that Indian manufacturers have been exporting boots, even to the US Army, ThePrint has learnt that the search for lighter and more durable combat boots is likely to be long-drawn. This is because the 13 lakh-strong Army is waiting for its last order of the old type of combat boots to be delivered — around 3 lakh pairs of ‘High Ankle DVS’ boots — by 2019.

A High Ankle DVS (Direct Vulcanized Sole) boot is a military combat boot, which, according to the Ordnance Factory Board website, can be used in all type of terrains and seasons.

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Also adding to the delay is a nod from the defence ministry to farm the existing order to private companies, a policy that the government adopted last year when it de-regulated a number of non-lethal equipment. Sources said private companies have also bid for the first time to make more flexible and better-designed, lightweight combat boots with polyurethane (PU) soles.

Modern combat boots are of different types, depending on the weather conditions of where the troops are placed. These include those with flame resistant material to those with shock-resistant rubber soles made with materials such as Gore-Tex, a lightweight fabric offering increased comfort and durability.

Other popular combat boots include hot-weather mountain combat boots, cold-weather boots for extreme conditions, and intermediate cold wet boots, for varying geographies and weather conditions.

Root of the problem

Alongside essentials like battle equipment and uniform, manufacturing combat boots for the Army has traditionally been the monopoly of the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB). Last year, the Ministry of Defence changed this, deciding to open up several of these products to procurement from the open market.

The various types of boots issued through the corps of ordnance are boot DMS (with a rubber sole), boot drill (with leather sole) and boot jungle — the last of which are basically canvas boots with rubber soles issued to troops operating in mountains and jungles.

There has been criticism and complaints from various quarters about the poor quality of OFB-manufactured boots, which many former officers and experts confirmed to ThePrint.

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Panag himself said: “The quality of boots was not up to the mark with international standards. The boots were uncomfortable and most of the troops bought their own boots.”

He said despite boots being such an essential item, and the various demands for better quality over the years, governments and the Army itself failed to prioritise their procurement.

Another former Army officer, who did not wish to be named, said the boots were of “inferior quality”.

“They were heavy, the leather was hard; we often had to soften them with Dubbin, and the soles used to come off frequently,” the officer said.

“Time and again, there were questions raised on why the combat boots had to be manufactured by OFB — because they were, anyway, sub-contracting it to other smaller manufacturers. There was a whole Kanpur lobby at work here. This should have been opened for procurement from the civilian market long back.”

The officer added that the general quality of products from the OFB had only deteriorated over time.

Complex procurement process

Another reason for the delay in fixing this obvious problem is the Army’s long and complex procurement process.

Explaining the process, a former official said the Army first raises a proposal a couple of times, which then goes through the defence secretary and the defence minister.

“After the approval of the defence minister, the ‘request for information’ is invited, and based on the response, the ‘request for proposal’ is invited. Then the technical evaluation bids are opened, user trials are carried out, and only after that the commercial bids are opened,” the official said.

“Then it goes to the pricing and negotiation committee. In between, the proposal can oscillate between the Army and the MoD several times. This is a process that can take years,” the official said.

Another problem is that of the government’s inability to spend more, this official said. “There is a private company in Kanpur which manufactures good quality boots, which are exported to other countries, including the US. But they are much more expensive than the ordnance factory boots, and won’t find a place among the lowest bidders,” the official said.

However, former defence secretary Shashikant Sharma dismissed claims of government apathy. He said there were indeed some logistical difficulties, but funds were never a problem.

“It is unfair to say that the government did not do enough for providing basic necessities to the Army. I can’t say what happened before 2011, but the government was sensitive to the needs of the Army,” he said.

Army spokesperson Col. Aman Anand told ThePrint that the reason for the delay in procurement of High Ankle PU boots are complexities in the procurement process, a change in the competent financial authority for giving a go-ahead to the order (the Army can give a go-ahead to orders up to a certain amount, beyond which the MoD steps in) and several unwanted representations from various vendors for boots.

He said procurement of 12.72 lakh such boots is currently at the contract or price negotiation stage, under the powers of the MoD, adding that the procurement is being carried out by open tender enquiry and the items will be procured after completion of user trials.

However, the former official quoted above said the Army is at fault for the delay.

“By ordering such a large number of boots in one go, the financial powers have gone to the MoD, and hence, there are chances it would be delayed again. For instance, if six lakh boots were ordered in one lot, the Army vice-chief would have retained the financial powers and the procurement could have been faster,” the official said.

Boots can nullify armies

A US Department of Defense report titled ‘Improvement of the US Army Intermediate Cold Wet Boot” on cold-weather footwear states that injuries caused to frontline troops due to poor footwear is recorded back to the 1700s.

“Even during World War II, 87 per cent of all US military cold-induced injuries were incurred by front line infantrymen, and in many cases, the combat effectiveness of entire infantry units was nullified,” the report had said.

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  1. While procurement issues are well known, the contention that the US Army is supplied boots by an Indian company is factually wrong. No item of the individual soldier kit worn by US soldiers is sourced from outside their country. Local US companies meet all their clothing and equipment needs.

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