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Why the Army’s order for 118 Arjuns is its last despite being India’s most potent tank

The Challenger 2 of the British weighs 62.5 tonnes, Arjun’s latest version weighs 68.5 tonnes.

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In about a year from now, the Army will place an order for 118 Arjun Mk-1A Main Battle Tanks, or the MBT as they are popularly called. Known as the “hunter killers”, the latest version of the tank, equipped with a massive 120 mm rifled gun and Kanchan armour, will be the most potent armoured system in the inventory of the Army.

During a friendly duel with the T-90 tanks in 2008-2009, the Arjun MBT performed better than the Russian system on various parameters, including firing and stability.

But the Army’s latest order for the Arjun tanks is its last one. One wonders — if these are indeed such a potent equipment, then why would the Army not order more?

India’s Armoured Corps, which has majorly used only Russian tanks, has an operational requirement of medium-weight tanks — weighing anywhere between 40-50 tonnes. It is also looking at a lighter tank for certain areas like the hills, riverines and islands.

The Arjun tank, first envisaged in 1972, was meant to replace the Russian T-72 that is still in service. It was meant to weigh just 48 tonnes but eventually ended up weighing 62 tonnes. The latest version weighs 68.5 tonnes.

But would one entirely blame the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) for this? The blame also goes to the Army, because over the years it ended up wanting more and more from the tank — from bigger guns to better armour. The joke in the defence corridors being that the Army wanted a tank that could even fly!

Also read: Army to get 118 Arjun Mark 1-A tanks as defence ministry clears proposal for ‘Hunter Killers’

The deployability issue

Arjun has a combination of systems but as a single entity, faces many challenges, primarily due to its weight and width.

Former Director General Mechanised Forces Lt Gen A.B. Shivane (Retd) tells me that the greatest challenge for Arjun is its deployability and restricted employability in open desert terrain — all because of its weight.

“It lacks operational and strategic mobility which limits its employment options besides sustenance and logistics challenges,” he told me.

Colonel Ajay Singh (retd), an Armoured Corps Officer, who has seen the Arjun MBT in action, tells me that the indigenous system is a beautiful machine. The Arjun MBT has an excellent 120 mm rifled gun, and a fine fire and control system, he says. Singh is all praise for Arjun’s ergonomics, saying that it provides the crew most comfort and ease of operation.

“But the 68 tonnes is too heavy for it to have any strategic mobility,” Col Singh says, adding that contrary to the belief that the tank is apt for deserts, it is more suited for semi-desert terrains.

Globally, the trend in Western nations is to build heavier, bigger MBTs thatgive more fire power and protection to the crew. This, despite the fact that there is an increasing focus on new warfare. The recent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia showed what the future of warfare would be, along with the reduced operational capabilities of traditional war fighting machines.

But Robert Bateman, military historian and former US Army officer, argues that the Nagorno-Karabakh skirmishing doesn’t tell us anything about the death of armor.

“All it shows is two incompetently trained and equipped military forces that left themselves clumsily open, and the power of quickly produced video making extravagant claims in the social media age,” he said.

Also read: Army places emergency procurement order for Kalyani M4 armoured vehicles tested in Ladakh

Western armies with heavy tanks

You still see the trend in the Western armies of having bigger tanks than ever. The Challenger 2 of the British —weighing 62.5 tonne and having a 120 mm rifled gun firing armour-piercing and high-explosive ammunition — is one such example.

According to Defense expert Ben Harry, the British army continues to argue the case for heavy armour in the future conflict landscape, at least till2040 despite NATO and their increasing focus on hybrid threats.

The UK is working on a new tank, the Challenger 3. It would be heavier than the Challenger 2 which has a combat-ready weight of 75 tonnes. The Leopard 2A7+, the latest MBT of Germany, has a weight of 67.5 tonnes.

The latest MBT of the US, Abrams M1A2 SEPv3 tank, an upgraded version of the combat proven Abrams M1A2, weighs a massive 73.6 tonnes. Its weight has been a concern in the US Army. The Merkava MK 4, the latest Israeli MBT, weighs a massive 65 tonnes.

So if, globally, advanced armies are going in for heavier tanks, then why has India chosen a different path?

But before we come to that, remember that the latest Russian tank, the Armata, weighs just 48.5 tonnes, still heavier than the T90 (46 tonnes) it will replace.

Also read: L&T delivers last K9 Vajra howitzer to Army, firm in talks with DRDO to convert it into tank

India’s operational requirement

The Indian operational requirement is very different from that of other countries. Indian forces move in desert areas like that of Rajasthan, plains and canal-infested Punjab region, besides mountains and high-latitude areas like Ladakh and Sikkim.

The weight of the Arjun MBT is a huge mobility issue because there are not many 70-tonne category bridges along the border — neither on the Indian nor on the Pakistani side.

Even if we assume that India builds new bridges on its own side, capable of taking the weight of the Arjun, can it do the same in Pakistan, a senior officer told me while explaining the lack of strategic mobility.

This affects Arjun’s mobility in the enemy territory and also limits its deployment options for the commanders.

When the Ladakh standoff began, India airlifted thousands of additional soldiers, tanks and armoured personnel carriers to the border. That cannot be done in the case of the Arjun tank. Moreover, one also needs a lighter tank in the mountains because the dynamics are different.

The Arjun MK 1 A can’t easily be transported on trains as well, because this would require building dedicated Mobile Bogie Well Wagons used by the Railways to transport military equipment.

The entire Indian logistics support system is created and fine-tuned for medium-weight tanks and hence, it is a Herculean task to create a parallel network for just four regiments of Arjun MBT, which is more or less a desert theatre-specific system.

The Army has been forced to go in for two regiments of the Arjun Mk-1A for Rs 8,380 crore as part of the Narendra Modi government’s Atmanirbhar initiative.

After having demanded the ‘moon’ from the DRDO, the Army may as well procure the Arjun Mk-1A in limited numbers. However, the need of the hour is for the Army and the DRDO to work together for a lighter tank in a quick time frame. Case in point is the work on a tank version of the Vajra. This project needs to be fast tracked.

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  1. These not only the options, we can made like JCB type of Tank,so dat it can move easily in every situation, like mountain,plain everywhere but light weight machine..on under Make in India tahat,😁

  2. I wonder if the Army had stipulated weight restrictions to the DRDO!
    Our experience is that by the time DRDO develops any weapon it becomes obsolete l. Hence the Army keeps adding new specifications.
    Tanks will shortly become obsolete with
    The advent of drone technology. The joke on Army wanting ‘tanks’ to fly is coming true. But will our DRDO who have over manned administration, unions, football teams and a lot of general purpose scientists be able to develop this new technology?

  3. Ok every body comments.
    Why don’t we develop sumal arms factory at Trichyrapalli.Good amount of area available.And good connectivity by rail,Road and air.
    Let us think of.
    Thanks and regards.

  4. The joke in the defence corridors being that the Army wanted a tank that could even fly!
    Is it a joke or a suggestion that for mobility related operations don’t send 20 tanks, send 20 Attack helicopters! Or maybe 10 tanks and 10 helicopters.

  5. The thing is, if globally most countries are moving to heavier tanks, India will have few import options anyway. We would be better off building the infrastructure to support our tanks as well as creating lighter tanks for mountain warfare.

  6. It is very simplistic to say that the Army wanted a tank that could fly; may be the statement is a bit irresponsible too.
    The problem is, of course not with the DRDO either. It is how the DRDO was designed. Our DRDO was designed for R&D of products rather than of technologies (except in a couple of areas like nuclear, space etc.). When an organization is designed for R&D of products rather than technologies at National level, such problems are bound to occur. Let us see the steps. 1. Requirement of a product (say, tank) is projected. 2.The requirement is accepted. 3. Then research on the technologies required to develop the product are taken up (in many cases some of the technologies are ultimately imported); 4. The product is developed. 5. Various trials take place. Each of the step takes months as many organisations are involved in the process.
    This whole cycle usually takes more than a decade for a major product. This can be verified. Meanwhile there is advancement in technologies which the adversaries have procured by importing etc….
    This situation leads to a rethink…options: 1 Repeat cycle 2. Import.
    That is why there is now a rethink on redesigning DRDO etc…. But we are proud that we are getting there and finally we can make our own helicopters, fighter jets, submarines, guns and tanks which we can used effectively. Let us look ahead.
    Tail piece: If we preserve the technologies involved in making the tank (like metallurgy, ballistics, propulsion etc…), they can be used elsewhere too; even in some civilian applications. Also, it is best that we leave selection of weapon systems to those who have to use them rather than speculate.

  7. The army needs to work with drdo to come up with next generation tanks in light weight and heavy categories. Tanks can be used as a offensive weapons, currently biggest challenge faced by a tank is situational intelligence, which can be over come by adding micro or mini drones that can operate from the tanks and charged by it. Information collected from these can be transferred to the troops and tanks nearby to neutralize it.

  8. Unfortunately Ordinance factory over the years have become the hub for getting paid overtime and doing no work with union problem. DRDO too is lethargic and both need to be closed. Privatize.

  9. There are three aspects to a tank viz firepower, mobility and protection. The tank design is a fine balance between the three. With Arjun, while the protection levels may be adequate, the mobility is severely restricted. The Kanchan armour is vintage technology, at least 35 years old. The Russian tanks have a 125mm smoothbore gun, affording higher muzzle velocities. The attack helicopter is infact akin to a flying tank. So the author needs to present all the facts as he builds his piece and then give his deductions based on those, and not just present the facts that support his hypothesis and leave out the contradictory facts. And there is no scope of blame game as the author would like to indulge in. Poor penmanship if you ask me. And if you analyse the latest trends in mechanised warfare concepts the world over, the latest is to go in for light mechanised brigades rather than heavy armoured divisions.

  10. In modern day warfare, this type of heavy tanks may be used only for certain type of terrain. As situation in Ladakh, it will be not possible to move this tank very speedy due to lacking infrastructure. So govt. should more concentrate on drones and modern day warfare weapons.

  11. Tanks are on their way out .and that was the writing on the wall years before the age of drones . Armour started dying a slow death with the advent of the manpack anti tank missiles in the late sixties . The missile vs tank war was gradually going in the favour of the missiles with each generation. The cheap missile launched from the cheap drone was the final death knell for armour . And no the UK is not investing any further in the tank .

  12. “Moreover, one also needs a lighter tank in the mountains because the dynamics are different.” What an obvious point. After the superb show by our Stuart light tanks in 1947 in J&K to save Leh and Kargil, even a casual observer of military affairs could have come to this conclusion.
    We have a legitimate right to ask what our Army top brass and planners were doing for 70 long years , if they didn’t push DRDO/ Govt for a light tank. As usual, the personnel who neglected all this over decades will go Scot free.
    We actually have to thank China for intruding so frequently, otherwise no procurement action will be seen in vital areas.

  13. So the Army is basically incompetent? Asking DRDO to make a fully-loaded tank, without understanding that the weight would be over the top? Doesn’t sound very intelligent!

  14. Just my thought. The ground based or even sea water-based wars are over in the future. Aviation including Drone and laser guided missiles in addition to that despicable nuclear bombs are in the forecast. Local, less developed and land locked countries may use tanks and that is about it. Occupying a enemy country in a physical sense is a gone concept. Do not see any tank moving from a LOC to the capital of a country. The Russian and the Chinese showed what happens to a tank inside a city. The whole world saw a man standing upfront of a immobile tank!! It did not help both the countries!!

  15. These points have been raised by defence analysts time and again. Notwithstanding these, the point remains that the expertise gained and skills developed while working on this project will prove to be invaluable in future. The DRDO can now be relied on for developing a world class medium weight tank. Arjun is certainly amongst the best in its class. Its just that it is a theatre specific beast which cannot be deployed elsewhere.

  16. The modern warfare is about to take a twist. New requirement will be agile, swift, concealed, micro and digital. Tanks will become second line defence in future or for mobile fortification. Couple of facts, NATO disassembled hundreds of thousands tanks in 90’s. Russian tank divisions terribly failed in Chechnya. In urban and hilly terrain, tanks are suicide canisters. The level of casualties and amount of capital lost due to one busted tank is enormous. Simply not good for war economics. Requirement is to have light weight, fast moving sufficiently armoured ground to ground assault vehicle. There will be a paradigm shift for sure in ground warfare.

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