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Arjun Battle Tank:IS IT THE END OF THE ROAD?By Radhakrishna Rao, 3 November 2008 Print E-mail

Defence Notes

New Delhi, 3 November 2008

Arjun Battle Tank


By Radhakrishna Rao

India, which is the second largest importer of defence hardware in the world, has made little headway in the indigenous design and development of military systems required by the three wings of the Services. This is mainly due to lack of synergy between the user, on the one hand, and the developer on the other. Indeed, analysts keeping a close watch on the defence scenario have expressed surprise as to why India, which has already made spectacular advances in space exploration as exemplified by the recent launch of Chandrayaan-1, has failed to repeat this success story in defence research, development and production.

The unsavory spat between the Army and the state-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) on the performance of the Arjun Main Battle Tank (MBT), designed by the Combat Vehicle Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE) and produced by the Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF) at Avadi, near Chennai could have serious repercussions. It could well mean that the Army would continue to depend on the import of Russian built T-90 tank, whose technology is by no means contemporary and whose performance is no way better than that of Arjun.

Citing delays in delivery and deficiencies in performance during field trials, the Army has refused to buy more than 124 Arjun MBTs. “Army is now looking 20 years ahead and wants a futuristic MBT. Arjun, at this stage would only mean India lagging behind in the technological race in the armoured fighting vehicle. Arjun is a contemporary tank and may be used in the next decade or so but not for technologically advanced next generation warfare, some two decades hence”, the Army’s Director General (Mechanized Infantry), Lt. Gen Dalip Bharadwaj has observed. However, he was unclear as to what kind of futuristic tank the Army was looking for and how it would go about acquiring it.

In fact, Yossi Ben-Hanan credited with designing Israel’s highly-successful Merkava tank pointed out during his visit to India that tank design is evolutionary, in that each design builds upon the previous ones. “A decision taken today to build an Indian MBT is only 15 years hence,” he explained. Clearly, the Indian army has not followed this well proven path if its fascination for the Russian built T-90 tank is any indication.

Like many other Indo-Russian defence deals, the 2001 contract for the supply of 310 T-90 tanks had its fair share of controversy. To begin with, Moscow has flagrantly violated the agreement by not transferring the technology and components to build 1000 T-90 tanks at HVP. Even seven years after the deal, not a single T-90 had rolled out of HVF. Evidently, Russia had failed to provide India with critical technologies and vital components for the production of the tank on home ground.

On top of this, the fire control system of T-90 had failed to perform as per specifications during field trials in the sandy stretches of Western India. What was the most galling part of the whole exercise was that the air conditioning system supplied by Russia could not prevent the fainting of the tank driver! India has now floated a global tender for a suitable air conditioner for T-90.

Far from taking Russia to task for failing to honour the commitment, the Army has ordered an additional 330 T-90s. Interestingly, Indian defence analysts see this as the Indian deal saving Russia’s largest tank manufacturer Ural Vagan Zavod from bankruptcy. For, there are hardly any takers for the T-90s. The Army hopes to field a force of over 21 regiments of T-90 tanks and 40 regiments of modified T-72s.

Moreover, thanks to India’s poor expertise in designing armoured vehicles, it took over three decades to develop Arjun, which on expected lines was deficient in technology and had slippages in performance. But after each field trial, the shortcomings were rectified. CVRDE researchers say that Arjun is the most advanced tank in its class and asserts that it “can handle all present and future threats.” 

Last year, CVRDE had supplied 14 Arjun tanks to the Indian army for trials but all were returned with a list of defects. DRDO sources claimed that each individual defect and deficiency pointed out to by the army was set right. The refusal, according to a former member of the Indian Ordnance Factories Board R. Sundaram basically means that the Army was not impressed with Arjun even at this stage although on all parameters, such as horse power, speed, suspension, mobility, rifled barrel and communications set was way ahead of Russian built tanks.

The Army has also rejected DRDO’s proposal for a futuristic main battle tank Arjun-2 with advanced technology features, including upgraded engines, digital fire control system and a battle field management system. The Parliament’s Standing Committee attached to the Defence Ministry in its 14th report had stated that Arjun-2 production will be taken up after the completion of the order for 124 Arjun MBT. The report had also observed, “MBT Arjun is a 60-tonne class battle tank with a state-of-the-art product specifically configured to meet the requirements of the Indian army”.

CVRDE claims that the firing accuracy of Arjun is far superior to the Russian-made tanks. It has second generation thermal imager and can engage targets at a distance of 2,500-metres. Its 1,400 hp engine makes for smooth mobility and has the capacity to fire Laser Homing Anti Tank Missile. Further, the tank features a gas-based suspension, unique “Kanchan” composite armour capable of withstanding hits from tanks and kinetic energy penetrators, which can shatter enemy tanks. However, for the CVRDE to break even, a minimum order of 500 is a vital requirement. This is so as it has made a massive investment on the infrastructure meant for designing the Arjun.

The DRDO is of the firm opinion that the Army’s complaint of Arjun failing crucial trials does not reflect the ground reality. According to it, the failure occurred during extended trials. “Normally, a tank is supposed to operate for 3,000-kms before it goes for overhaul. The Army forced Arjun to do another 2,000-km and the reported failure happened after the tank went on for over 4000-kms trial. Nothing will progress if the Army keeps shifting its goal posts. Why don’t they do a comparative trial between Arjun-T-90 against a laid down set of parameters”, is the DRDO’s argument.

All said and done, Arjun is not a 100 per cent Indian product. Over half of the components in the first batch of 124 tanks are imported. However, DRDO points out that imported content in the tank will eventually be reduced in a phased manner. The goal is to reduce the imported component to less than 30 per cent after 500 tanks are produced.

In this context, defence analysts say “the time, effort and money spent on developing indigenous fighting equipment, including Arjun should not be squandered away in pursuit of pipe dreams on technology or mindless fascination for foreign equipment.” But then, the defence establishment is yet to involve the Army in the entire process -- of designing, developing, producing and testing the hardware for meeting its “stringent specifications” and get a commitment for the procurement of the product. ---INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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