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Ajai Shukla: Friendly fire damages the Arjun


Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

The Arjun tank is in pitched battle even before fully entering service with the Indian Army. Ironically, the most hostile fire is coming from the men who will eventually ride the tank into war: the army's mechanised forces. These experts, it now emerges, have rubbished the tank before Parliament's Standing Committee on Defence; they say they will not accept the Arjun unless it improves considerably. What benchmarks it must meet remain undefined.

The Arjun saga encapsulates the pitfalls in any attempt to build a complex weapons system. It all began in 1974, when the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) undertook to build India's own Main Battle Tank (MBT). The euphoria gradually waned as the DRDO missed deadline after deadline, eventually losing the army's trust with unfulfilled promises that the tank was just around the corner. The army undermined the project in equal measure, periodically "updating" the design as technology moved on. DRDO scientists joke that whenever they approached a technology solution, the next issue of Jane's Defence Weekly would give the army new ideas for upgrading their demands.

Exaggeration notwithstanding, the DRDO has a point in complaining about changes in the Arjun design goalposts. There is logic too in the army's plea that it could not accept a 1970s, or a 1980s design in the 1990s and 2000. But there was neither logic nor reason in the recriminations that followed. Instead of design and R&D partners with equal stakes in the Arjun, the DRDO and the army locked themselves into mutual finger-pointing: no matter how much the Arjun was improved, there were always some flaws that remained to be sorted out.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD), meanwhile, watched mutely. With the Arjun ploughing through endless trials "" 15 Arjuns have already run 75,000 km, and fired 10,000 rounds in the most extensive trials ever "" the army insisted on another tank. In the late 1970s, the army bought the T-72; in the 1990s, the T-90s came along. But despite thousands of crores of rupees paid to Moscow, the Russian tanks have been raddled with problems; now hundreds of crores more are being spent in upgrading their night fighting capabilities, navigation equipment, radio sets, and their armour. Tens of Indian soldiers have died as the barrels of Russian tanks burst while firing.

In contrast, just Rs 300 crore was used in building and developing the Arjun. This is not to say that the Russian tanks are worthless. Operating military equipment is fraught with danger and upgrading is a continuous process. But the army's tolerance for Russian defects contrasts starkly with its impatience for the Arjun.

Some army exasperation was, perhaps, understandable when the DRDO was plugging a tank that was not yet fit for the battlefield. But it is no longer justified when the Arjun is performing well. Soldiers from the 43 Armoured Regiment, which operates 15 trial Arjuns, praise the tank whole-heartedly. Problem solving will remain a part of operating the Arjun, just like with India's Russian fleet. But while the soldiers and junior officers accept that the Arjun has come good, the generals remain fixed in the past.

As a result the army, incongruously, finds itself defending its Russian tanks from the Indian challenge of the Arjun. The tank's developers, the Central Vehicle R&D Establishment at Chennai, has been clamouring for face-to-face comparative trials, where the Arjun, the T-72 and the T-90 are put through the same paces. After first agreeing "" and even issuing a detailed trail directive in 2005 "" the army has backed away from comparative trials. Instead, it told the MoD that it was buying 124 Arjuns, and trials were needed only to ascertain its requirements for spares. While doing these trials "" which have nothing to do with the Arjun's performance "" the army has testified before the Standing Committee on Defence that the tank's performance was suspect.

Contrast the Indian Army's approach with how other countries approach complex defence R&D projects with long gestation periods, where technology gets outdated during the development cycle. The four-nation Eurofighter consortium bypassed the "technology trap" by agreeing to first develop a simpler fighter, which all participants would buy as Tranche 1 of the project. During Tranche-1 manufacture, newly developed technologies would be harnessed into a newer, more capable Eurofighter. The last Tranche-1 aircraft was delivered last month; the new multi-role Tranche-2 aircraft has been developed, meanwhile; deliveries will start now. Clear development milestones and a more accepting approach by the users have made Eurofighter a success.

The army placed an order for 124 Arjuns eight years ago, when the tank was not even a viable fighting platform. Now that the Arjun is pulling its weight (almost 60 tons!) and those 124 tanks are rolling off the production line in Avadi, this order should be seen as Tranche-1. The CVRDE is refining many of the Arjun's systems with technologies that have been developed more recently, particularly through harnessing India's growing IT proficiency. Assuring a Tranche-2 order for improved Mark 2 Arjuns, and allocating R&D funding would set the project on a path where India might never need to buy a foreign tank again.

One reason for the army's judgemental approach to the Arjun is its lack of involvement in the tank's development. Unlike the navy, which has its own directorate of naval design, and which produces itself the conceptual blueprints of any new warship, the army has no technical expertise "" nor any department "" that designs its tanks. The Directorate General of Mechanised Warfare (DGMF) is staffed by combat officers from the mechanised forces, most of whom see the Arjun not as a national defence project, but as a tank that they must drive into battle. A whole new approach is needed.

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First Published: Tue, April 22 2008. 00:00 IST