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Creating Capability: Main Battle Tank (MBT)

The contemporary technology development leads to rapid obsolescence, making it difficult to maintain the capability to produce a comprehensive range of weapons independently. The author deliberates the issue related to the Indian defence industrial base.

India is one of the largest importers of defence equipment, despite having a fairly large defence industrial base in govt domain for strategic consideration. India's reliance on foreign imports has lead to myriad corruption scandals and diversions of resources which could be used for other national priorities. Whereas, it is agreed that few countries have demonstrated an ability to build high-quality, indigenously-produced weapons systems, but we need the capability and we can achieve it, as we have a distinct advantage of captive market. It is also a fact that the Defense industries world over have moved from strategic to economic justification for its existence.

The contemporary technology development leads to rapid obsolescence, making it difficult to maintain the capability to produce a comprehensive range of weapons independently, more so in a set up like Indian Defence industrial base. The industrial base have been taking on the challenges without realizing that its current level of human and production capability is far behind the product that it plans to deliver resulting into a “Build to Print” capability instead of the more logical 'Build to Order' capability. This results into users dissatisfaction with the product line since he cross compares the capability of similar product line in adversary hand.

If India is serious about making itself more self-sufficient in defence production, it will require besides policy tweaks; an entirely new mindset from all stake holders. The users need to understand the existing absorption and production capability. The product design cannot come out from wish list and it has to mature through a process of vigorous research and focus and they need to integrate in the design process. The technical parameters set as part of the GSQR combines the best in the world in all aspects, without realizing that even theoretically, compromises in one factor have to be made to achieve higher limits in another variable factor. The current orientations are organized only for post production equipment capability demonstration and certification. The concept to conduct pre development assessment of technology alternatives through user's active participation does not exist, either in terms of technology scrutiny or verification of the knowledge threshold of technology developers. The Indian scenario can change drastically with understanding of the development process and incremental upgrade of technology through indigenous base. The stake holders participation, will enthuse the feeling pride in co-ownership in development by the production and Users.

Let us consider some specific cases where the user's participation would go long way to create self reliance. After more than three decades of trials & evaluation, the DRDO successfully designed & developed a third generation Main battle Tank (MBT) Arjun for the Indian Army. It was a major step towards self reliance as it was developed indigenously and the nation was proud to have its own MBT. The Arjun was first inducted in 2004 and by 2011 the Indian Army (IA) had two armoured regiments as part of their mechanized forces. A comparative trial between the Arjun and T-90 tanks was conducted in 2010, with the respective units putting up their best tanks and personnel, and it was reported that the Arjun outperformed the T-90 tank almost in all aspects of mobility & firepower.

The DRDO presently, is caught in a catch 22 situation, where the users are not placing more orders for Arjun due to lack of few quality issues, and on the other hand, lack of order, prevents the programme from reaching economies of scale and investing in quality measures. To further improve the Arjun, DRDO continued to develop new technology systems, in order to enhance the overall performance and fielded the Mark-II variant. The Arjun MK-II variant is being developed in coordination with the involvement of the Indian Army and will feature further 89 upgrades, including 19 major improvements that are being sought by the users, out of which 15 are integral to Tankfitable. The Army has ordered additional 118 Arjun MkII in Aug 10. Mk II is currently undergoing user trials, based on which the users are likely to confirm the orders for 118 and the orders may further go up to 500 for Mk-2 tanks depending on the performance. Ordering increased quantity will go long way to increase in indigenous contents, lower cost and increased life cycle support.

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Each Arjun Mk-2 with all improvements is going to cost approximately Rs 34 crore, which is substantially cheaper than contemporary tanks in its class. The Mk-2 will feature:

  • Missile firing capability.
  • Remote controlled weapon system atop the turret.
  • Improved commander's panoramic sight with integrated night vision having hunter- killer capability between the commander, gunner and loader.
  • Improved Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA).
  • Active Protection Systems.
  • APU generating in excess of 8 KW of power, almost double of that present in the Mk-1.

While the Arjun Mk-2 is substantially improved and more capable than the Mk-1; but the army authorities have some issues regarding its weight as they attribute this to its restricted employment. The weight was initially 58.5 T and may increase to approx 67 T with additional armour protection. Arjun project was conceived based on the matching requirement of the current western MBT's and naturally, the weight will also match them. However, the weight factor has not hampered the movement of various prototypes of Arjun during last 20 years, for trials/ training to various sectors, by both, rail and road, by existing means of transportation and no problems have been faced so far. The feasibility report by the railways has also confirmed, the movement of Arjun loaded wagon as class 'C' ODC and the empty wagon as non-ODC. We need to look at the Arjun weight issue in a broader perspective as it is not a reflection of its agility and gradability. Being powered with a 1400 HP engine, its power /weight ratio is 21.0, and the Nominal Ground Pressure (NGP) of 0.95 kg/cm2 compares well with other MBTs of the world and the combination of low NGP and high power / weight ratio, its going ability is commendable. The comparative table highlights these aspects.

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However, its improved performance has got the Army re-thinking, as it incorporates, enhanced firepower with unmatched Automated Target Tracking and destruction with greater variety of ammunition including Gun-fired anti-tank missile and the devastating Thermo baric ammunition; enhanced protection that include Explosive Reactive Armor, Laser Warning come Countermeasure System, a Mine Plough, a Remotely operable Anti-Aircraft weapon, a Roof mounted driving seat; Advanced Land Navigation System, Enhanced night vision capabilities and impressive speed and maneuverability . A comparison with current MBTs and T-90 is given in the table.

The prototype of Arjun Mk II is to undergo five phases of user trials, out of which three have been completed, however, a few of the improvements need to be further refined. On conclusion of the trials, the users are likely to take a call for further orders to be placed as they are also of the opinion, that the Arjun is appreciably more modern in comparison to the T-72 & T-90, in many respects, and is not only comparable but has better features than other MBTs of the world as shown in the table.

The major improvement in the Arjun Mk-2 is its missile firing capability from the gun barrel which was demonstrated in 2004, with IAI's Laser Homing Attack Anti Tank Missile (LAHAT). However, this project seems to be hanging in the

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balance, as apart from accuracy, smoke emanating from the LAHAT missile has been an issue of concern and recently, the DRDO has attributed the delay to the unsatisfactory functioning of some major components of the Missile and have taken up a strong case with the ISRAEL being the co-partner.

Presently, the Indian Army is struggling to maintain the ageing fleet of T-72 MBT's and unfortunately, in case of T-90 also, number of glitches have come to the fore combined with slow production at HVF and denial of transfer of technology related to metallurgy for T-90 gun barrels and armour plates by Russia to the HVF. Progress on prestigious Futuristic Main Battle Tank (FMBT) has also been reported to be very slow as the users are yet to decide the concepts and qualitative requirements for the futuristic tank. In the present state, the FMBT is unlikely to be ready for production before 2027-30. This has put the MoD in a very tight spot with regards to the replacement of ageing T-72s. Under these circumstances, the production and development of the Arjun must be allowed to continue, so that critical design, development and production know-how is retained. Once the orders are confirmed by the Army, it is likely to take another two and a half years to roll out the first Arjun Mk-2, off the HVF production line. Assuming that, the army finalizes orders, by mid- next year, the first Mk-2 tank will enter operational service in 2018. At a production rate of 30 tanks a year, at the present state, HVF Avadi will be able to deliver all 118 tanks by 2020-22. The whole process is with in the MOD domain and the lead time can very well be telescoped by advance information to HVF to enable them to take procurement action.

The Arjun is unlikely to be ordered in significant quantities and hence, no foreign company will be willing to offer Transfer of Technology (ToT), and therefore even the missile firing capability from the gun barrel can be dispensed, in case it runs into serious problem pertaining to ToT. Keeping this in view, even small order of 500, will give the DRDO, volume needed to iron out all production difficulties, and provide a platform for future development and will enable low-rate production to continue till the Future Main Battle Tank (FMBT) programme reaches the production stage. It is imperative that the DRDO and the Army must hasten the FMBT programme, to ensure that it is ready in time to replace the T-72. The DRDO will have to also ensure the Engineering Support Package (ESP) which includes spares, training & training aids and the essential variants for the Arjun.

There is a need to change our mind set and make conscious efforts for a paradigm shift from the 'Buyer-Seller' relationship to that of a healthy 'Partnership' among all stakeholders. Users can not be considered as a buyer as they are one of the major stakeholders and hence we need a consortium approach between the users, industries, the DPSUs & the DRDO, and we not only need to share the responsibilities equally but also need to augment the channels of communication to ensure clear understanding.

Col (Retd.) Arun Kumar

Col (Retd.) Arun Kumar

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