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!
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.
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.
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.
Views are personal.