New Delhi: With the “increased threat” from China along India’s northern borders “likely to remain in the foreseeable future”, the Army is launching Project Zorawar — the induction of indigenous light tanks for quicker deployment and movement in high altitude areas.
These tanks will be used to counter Chinese deployment of a large number of similar armoured columns along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Sources in the defence and security establishment told ThePrint that the Army has finalised the general staff quality requirements and will approach the defence ministry in September for the Acceptance of Necessity (AON) — the first step that will set the project rolling.
The Army is looking at a light tank with a maximum weight of 25 tons — with a margin of 10 per cent — with the same firepower as its regular tanks, but also armed with Artificial Intelligence (AI), integration of tactical surveillance drones to provide a high degree of situational awareness and loitering munition, along with an active protection system.
An active protection system is designed to protect vehicles from anti-tank guided missiles and projectiles away from combat vehicles.
The Army also wants the light tank to be amphibious, so it can be deployed across riverine regions and even the Pangong Tso lake in Eastern Ladakh.
The project has been named ‘Zorawar’ after Zorawar Singh Kahluria — a military general who served under Jammu’s Raja Gulab Singh — known as the ‘conquerer of Ladakh’.
“We will approach the defence ministry for AON as early as next month. This would be an indigenous project which will be designed and manufactured in India. We hope to have the production of a prototype and beginning of trials in three years from the sanction of the project,” a source said.
Sources further said that the proposed conversion of the Vajra-tracked self-propelled artillery into a light tank has been shelved because it won’t be able to meet the weight criteria that the Army is looking for.
They added that the 25-ton weight is the maximum that can allow for the tanks to be airlifted in high-altitude zones.
China’s light tank deployment gave them an advantage
Sources said that the Ladakh stand-off with China has shown that armoured columns are one of the most prominent factors in defining the operational capability of the land forces.
Army sources admitted that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had inducted a large number of technologically modern, “state of art” tanks, which were being employed operationally as a mix of medium and light tanks with high power-to-weight ratios.
The increased threat on the northern borders is likely to remain a threat in the foreseeable future, sources further said, adding that while the Army had also deployed its T-90 and T-72 tanks — surprising the Chinese — lighter tanks would mean faster deployment and increased mobility in mountainous terrain.
The Army currently operates three different types of tanks with the latest being the Arjun Mk 1A, which weighs a massive 68.5 tons. The T-90 weighs about 46 tons and the T-72 about 45 tons.
“Tanks were primarily designed for operations in plains and desert terrain and have their own limitations when employed in High-Altitude Areas (HAAs). They face a similar handicap when employed in the marginal terrain of the Rann of Kutch,” another source told ThePrint.
“It is, therefore, an operational necessity to procure light tanks to overcome the limitations faced by medium battle tanks and equip the Indian Army for all contingencies in HAA, marginal terrain and island territories, besides its utilisation in the plains, semi-deserts, and deserts,” the source added.
Sources explained that the setback that the world supply chain has experienced in defence-related component supplies because of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has impacted both manufacturing and sustenance of the foreign fleet of tanks that India is currently holding.
It’s therefore essential to design and develop the light tank indigenously for the Indian Army, they added.
The sources made it clear that India will not be going in for the Russian Sprut light tanks, but added that they are looking for something with similar capabilities.
The Modi government had in March this year given in-principle approval for the indigenous design and development of light tanks for mountain warfare.
This move sealed the prospect of possible induction of the Sprut tanks that the Russians had offered to India during Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s Russia visit in 2020.
Past history of Indian light tank deployment
The Army has in the past successfully employed light tanks as force multipliers in multiple battle engagements in the past.
This includes the deployment of Stuart tanks of the 254 Indian Tank Brigade in the Battle of Kohima in World War II, at Naushera, Jhangar, Rajauri, and most successfully, at Zojila in the Indo-Pak War 1947-48.
The AMX-13 tanks were deployed at Chushul and Bomdila in 1962 and in Chammb in 1965.
The amphibious PT-76 light tanks were deployed successfully in 1971, with the tanks leading the race to Dacca.
The AMX-13 and PT-76 tanks were phased out in the 1980s after the focus of the Army shifted primarily to the western borders, resulting in the conversion of PT-76 units to the T-72 profile.
The requirement of a light tank capability, which had proved in the past to be a battle-winning factor for the Indian Army in mountainous and riverine terrain, had been voiced on numerous occasions since 1982, sources said.
“Current threat scenario and the contours of the likely future wars have thrown up new challenges for which the Indian Army has to be prepared. The equipment profile of tanks in the Indian Army must have the versatility and flexibility of medium and light platforms,” a third source said.
Sources said that a lightweight agile platform with a high power-to-weight ratio with substantial firepower, protection, surveillance, and communication capabilities is essential to provide the Army the versatility to execute operations in varying terrain against diverse threats and equipment profiles of adversaries.
“Armoured Fighting Vehicle-Indian Light Tank (AFV-ILT) offering capability for multiple employment options along with niche technologies is, therefore, an operational imperative,” one of the sources cited above said.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)