India’s purchase in 2001 of Russia’s T-90S main battle tank (MBT) was touted as a world-class upgrade of our battlefield capabilities at a rock-bottom price. For Rs 3,625 crore, India would get 310 new tanks; a full transfer of technology (ToT) from Russia; and a licence to build 1,000 tanks at the Heavy Vehicle Factory (HVF) in Avadi, Chennai.
A decade later, HVF has built just 150 T-90S tanks, hamstrung by Moscow’s obstruction in transferring technology and the Russia-built assemblies needed even for the India-built tanks. With India’s production line stymied, the MoD bought 347 more ready-built T-90S tanks in 2007, handing Russia another Rs 4,900 crore. Even today, India’s T-90S fleet remains seriously constrained; with war clouds looming after the 26/11 Mumbai terror strike, the army told the government that the strike formations were critically short of equipment.
From multiple interviews with officials who handled this contract, and from a visit to HVF Avadi, Business Standard has pieced together the full saga of the T-90S. It is an account of Russian duplicity in the face of Indian submissiveness. Moscow’s readiness to disregard signed contracts was recently highlighted through its additional demands for money for the Gorshkov aircraft carrier. But the T-90S arm-twisting came before that; and constitutes a blow to the heart of Indian defence.
The Embassy of Russia in New Delhi has ignored an email asking for their comments on this issue.
Here is what happened. After the T-90S contract was signed on January 15, 2001, the 310 made-in-Russia tanks began to flow in quickly from Uralvagonzavod, the Russian facility that builds them. But the transfer of technology (ToT) and the supply of assemblies for building the 1,000 tanks in India quickly hit a Russian stonewall.
First it took one and a half years to transfer to India the ToT documents required for building the T-90S in India. The tonnes of documents that finally arrived were found to be in Russian; translating them into English took another one and a half years.
Then HVF officials discovered that Russia had withheld key T-90S technologies without valid reason. This included technology for crucial components like the tank’s main gun and a key section of the turret armour. When New Delhi demanded those technologies, Moscow blandly responded that they were secret. To this day, Russia has not transferred full technology for building the T-90S in India.
The MoD has not responded to emailed questions about this issue. But when Business Standard asked MSN Rao, General Manager of HVF Avadi, how the T-90S was being built without these technologies, he confirmed: “We developed the tank gun indigenously in Central Ordnance Depot, Kanpur, and the turret armour component in CVRDE (Combat Vehicles R&D Establishment), Avadi. This is still a sticking point between India and Russia.”
That this remains an irritant is evident even from the careful language of MoD press releases. On October 5, 2011, Defence Minister A K Antony met his Russian counterpart, A E Serdyukov, in the apex Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC). The Indian press release noted, “Shri Antony drew the attention of the Russian side to the vexing issue of delayed export clearances for vital repair equipment for already contracted weapons systems. This has been affecting supplies of defence equipment and spares.”
By end-2007, Russia’s blockade of contracted T-90S technologies and components had stalled indigenous production for almost seven years. Under pressure from the army for more tanks, the MoD capitulated to Moscow rewarding Uralvagonzavod with an order for 347 more made-in-Russia T-90S tanks. Only after this additional contract was signed did Russia begin supplying components for building the T-90S in HVF.
An Indian Army officer who voiced his frustration to his Russian counterparts recalls the taunting Russian response: “Starting T-72 production took you 10 years. How do you imagine that you will produce the T-90 in just 6-7 years?”
Meanwhile the army was struggling with a more immediate issue. In 2002, poised for war with Pakistan, the army found that the newly inducted T-90S fleet was not battle-worthy. The Thales-Optronika thermal imaging night sights supplied with the T-90S — essential for firing tank weapons at night — proved unable to function in the blistering desert summer. This remains a problem; in 2008 the MoD approached international vendors to air-condition the T-90S.
“If we manage to reduce the temperature by ten degrees, the performance of the electronics will be improved,” says Sudhakar K, Joint General Manager, HVF.
Veteran tank commanders ridicule the idea of air-conditioning a tank. “It would add weight, and consume more power from the tank’s limited supply. And what happens if the air-conditioning breaks down? Every tank system must function in the environment of the battlefield,” says Brigadier (Retired) Vijay Nair, a former armoured brigade commander.
During that crisis with Pakistan, the army also discovered that the T-90S sights were not calibrated to Indian tank ammunition, which was falling well short of the targets that it was fired at. A panicked MoD appealed to the DRDO and other research institutions to re-orient the T-90S’s fire control computer to Indian ammunition. Meanwhile, shiploads of tank rounds were ordered from Russia at great cost.
A simultaneous crisis developed around the T-90S’s Invar missile, earlier cited as a clinching reason for buying the tank. But the Invar missiles that came were unusable and they were quietly returned to Russia. On March 2, 2006, Antony told Parliament, “The Invar missile on T-90 tank is not a failure. However, the completely knocked down kits received for assembly have been found to be defective.”
Russia’s status as India’s premier arms supplier is being eroded by the US, France, Israel and the UK; and by indigenous advances in areas like tank building that have long been Moscow’s stamping ground. The recent success of the indigenous Arjun tank; and any progress in developing the planned Future Main Battle Tank (FMBT), would ensure that the T-90S is the last tank that India buys from Russia.
(Tomorrow: Part II: T-90S production starts; only to quickly stall)