Chinese experts have given a thumbs up to the Arjun main battle tank (MBT), even as India's own army continues to sideline it, inexplicably preferring to continue a four-decade-long dependence on Russian armoured vehicles.
Last week, a senior People's Liberation Army (PLA) officer at its premier tank design institution, the Academy of Armoured Forces Engineering in Beijing, told visiting Indian journalists that the Arjun tank is "very good", and well suited for Indian conditions.
This could hardly have been pro forma politeness, as PLA is not given to praising India's military capabilities. It would appear that PLA officers, who work closely with China's defence industry in developing their new Main Battle Tank 3000 (MBT3000, also called VT-4), seem more aware than their Indian counterparts of the challenges and benefits of developing an indigenous MBT.
In contrast, India's military has stood aloof, criticising and even undermining the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) as it struggled to design the Arjun tank.
To this day, the army has ordered only 122 Arjuns, the defence ministry told Parliament on April 24. The Arjun equips just two of the army's 63 armoured regiments -the 43rd and 75th Armoured Regiments.
In comparison, the army has almost 2,500 T-72 tanks, many of which are night-blind and nearing the end of their 32-year service lives. The army will also have 1,657 of the more modern T-90S tanks, being built under licence from Russia by the Heavy Vehicle Factory, Avadi, near Chennai.
While the army's vehement opposition to the Arjun was often valid in initial years, the Combat Vehicle Research and Development Establishment eventually overcame a series of glitches that dogged early versions of the tank.
In March 2010, the Arjun outperformed the Russian T-90S, the army's premier tank, in comparative trials near Bikaner. The trials, attended by the army chief and top generals, sent shock waves through the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces, the nodal office for armoured and mechanised regiments and their tanks and infantry combat vehicles.
Yet, the army's opposition to the Arjun continued. Instead of the successful trials eliciting more orders, the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces demanded from DRDO a long list of changes in the Arjun. DRDO was told to incorporate the modifications into a new variant, the Arjun Mark II. If that proved successful in trials, the army undertook to order another 118 Arjuns.
"DRDO is currently engaged in the development of MBT Arjun Mk-II with 73 improvements (including 15 major improvements) over MBT Arjun Mk-I. Out of these 73 improvements, 53 have been found successful based on User trials. No time line for induction into Army can be fixed at this stage (sic)", said the defence ministry in Parliament on April 24.
The Directorate General of Mechanised Forces has taken various positions on why it does not want the Arjun. For years, it argued that the 62-tonne Arjun was too heavy. It claimed the tank would get bogged down in desert sands, and that bridges and culverts on Indian border roads could not withstand such heavy load. The army also complained the tank was too wide to be transported by railway.
This notion was comprehensively disproved during the comparative trials, when the Arjun proved more mobile than the lighter, 42-tonne T-90S, even on soft desert sand. A "third-party evaluation" done by Israel Military Industries, which had developed the highly regarded Merkava tank, concluded the Arjun would outrun most tanks.
Then, even while continuing to argue that the Arjun was too heavy, the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces' demand for 73 modifications to the Arjun quite predictably resulted in the tank becoming even heavier. The army's demand for Explosive Reactive Armour to protect the crew better added on one-and-a-half tonnes. Another one-and-a-half tonnes were added due to mine ploughs demanded by the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces which churn up the ground ahead of the tank's tracks, unearthing buried anti-tank mines. Numerous other modifications, including a commander's panoramic sight, slapped on another two tonnes. From 62 tonnes, the Arjun now weighs 67 tonnes.
Adding missile power
The Arjun Mark II is now held up by the army's insistence that it should fire an anti-tank guided missile through its main gun, which is actually designed to fire armour piercing and high explosive shells. DRDO approached Israel Aircraft Industry for its Lahat missile, which has not proved successful. Now, a Ukrainian design bureau has been approached for its Kombat missile.
Meanwhile, the modifications demanded by the army have doubled the Arjun's cost from its initial Rs 18 crore. On August 29, 2011, the defence ministry told Parliament, "The likely estimated cost of each MBT Arjun Mark-II with all major/minor improvements will be approximately Rs 37 crore."
Nor has the ill-fated Arjun project led to lessons being learnt on the need for cooperation between DRDO and the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces in designing and bringing to service a next-generation indigenous tank. For years, the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces has been unable to specify the design requirements of the Future Main Battle Tank (FMBT), as the project was called. Each successive director general, traditionally a lieutenant general from the armoured corps, has brought his own ideas to the job, which have invariably diverged from those of his predecessor. In the circumstances, the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces has not responded to repeated DRDO requests for clear specifications.
"There has been no discussion on the FMBT, or consensus building across the armoured corps. Each Directorate General of Mechanised Forces chief consults only with a narrow group of officers around him. Without corps-wide consensus, naturally there would be divergent views," says a senior officer serving in the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces.
Without any idea of what kind of FMBT it wants, the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces has now abdicated that decision entirely. In a Request for Information last month that has sent shock waves through the defence industry, the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces asked tank manufacturers across the world to propose the design for a "new generation, state-of-the-art combat vehicle platform" that it has dubbed the Future Ready Combat Vehicle (FRCV).
A retired senior tank officer points out: "An army that keeps abreast with tank design should not need to ask global vendors the specifications of its future tank. Vendors would, in any case, be guided by their commercial interests rather than by Indian operational requirements."
Another striking feature in the new FRCV proposal is DRDO's sidelining. With a foreign vendor leading the design process, and cobbling together a consortium to manufacture the tank, the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces -and, in acquiescing, the defence ministry -has abandoned the option of translating DRDO's experience and expertise gained on the Arjun into a next-generation indigenous tank.
Going by past experience, the FRCV proposal too could end up in the trash can. If the government goes by the principle of seniority, the army chief after General Dalbir Singh will be an armoured corps officer, General Pravin Bakshi. Like other senior tank-men, he has been excluded from the FRCV proposal. Defence watchers believe a new decision will be taken, and DRDO is waiting in the wings to play its role.