With most of our armour unfit to fight at night, the project is crucial.
In March this year, during trials in the Rajasthan desert, the Defence R&D Organisation’s Arjun tank conclusively outperformed the Russian T-90, the army’s showpiece. Buoyed by that success and by the army’s consequent order for 124 additional Arjuns, the DRDO is now readying to develop India’s next-generation tank, currently termed the Future Main Battle Tank (FMBT).
While costs are still being evaluated, the projections are mind-boggling. The development cost alone could be Rs 5,000 crore. Then, the replacement cost of the Indian Army’s 4,000 tanks — at a conservative Rs 25 crore per FMBT — adds to Rs 1,00,000 crore. The bulk of this would flow, over years of production, to Tier-I and Tier-II suppliers from small and medium industries.
For the first time, the DRDO has outlined the FMBT project’s contours. Talking exclusively to Business Standard, DRDO chief and Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister, V K Saraswat, revealed, “While the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) has been handed over to private industry, the DRDO will develop the FMBT. We need about seven-eight years from the time the project is formally sanctioned. The army and the DRDO have already identified the major features of the FMBT, which are quite different from the Arjun. While the Arjun is a 60-tonne tank, the FMBT will be lighter… about 50 tonnes. It will be a highly mobile tank.”
The FMBT project, says the military, is crucial for India’s future battle readiness. As army chief, General Deepak Kapoor pronounced 80 per cent of India’s tank fleet unfit to fight at night, which is when most tank battles take place. The bulk of our fleet, some 2,400 obsolescent Russian T-72s, are being shoddily patched up (see Business Standard, Feb 3, ‘Army to spend billions on outdated T-72 tanks’). More modern T-90 tanks were procured from Russia in 2001, shorn of crucial systems to reduce prices, after parliamentary dissent threatened to derail the contract (Business Standard, Feb 4, ‘Piercing the army’s armour of deception’). Only now, after nine years of stonewalling, has Russia transferred the technology needed to build the T-90 in India.
Urgently in need of capable tanks, the army has worked with DRDO to finalise a broad range of capabilities for the FMBT. These have been formalised in a document called the Preliminary Specifications Qualitative Requirement (PSQR). The detailed specifications of the FMBT, once finalised, will be listed in General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQR).
Amongst the capabilities being finalised for the GSQR are: active armour, which will shoot down enemy anti-tank projectiles before they strike the FMBT; extreme mobility, which makes the FMBT much harder to hit; the capability to operate in a nuclear-contaminated battlefield without exposing the crew to radiation; and the networked flow of information to the FMBT, providing full situational awareness to the crew, even when “buttoned down” inside the tank.
Also being finalised is the FMBT armament, a key attribute that determines a tank’s battlefield influence. The Arjun already has a heavy 120mm ‘main gun’, and two small-calibre machine guns; the recently ordered batch of 124 Arjuns will also fire anti-tank missiles through their main gun. The army wants all of those for the FMBT, with ranges enhanced through technological improvements.
However, the DRDO chief ruled out an electromagnetic gun, the next generation in high-velocity guns towards which armament technology aspires. “The Future MBT is not so far in the future,” Saraswat quipped.
With the FMBT project squarely on its agenda, the DRDO also envisages a major role in developing the FICV. Says the DRDO chief, “The FICV is not just a conventional armoured vehicle for transporting soldiers. It involves advanced technologies and multidisciplinary integration, which private industry has never done. Only the DRDO and the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) have that experience. DRDO teams are already thinking about the technologies that should go into the FICV. But this is only to support private industry in making the FICV project a success.”
While private industry weighs its options about where to manufacture the FICV, the DRDO has already chosen the Heavy Vehicle Factory (HVF) in Avadi —- the OFB facility that builds the Arjun —- as the FMBT production line.
“It will definitely be produced in HVF. I see no way that we can go away from HVF,” says Saraswat. “The HVF will work with us from the preliminary design of the FMBT, so that we can go from prototype to mass production without any hiccups.”