More than 30 years after the project was conceptualised, the Indian Army will finally have a sizeable number of the indigenously developed Arjun tanks in its inventory. With the order for 124 additional tanks finalised by the government, the Army will have close to 250 Arjun MKI tanks in its mechanised forces over the next few years as the Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment ramps up production.
The Army, on its part, is looking forward to the Arjun MK II, an improved, new, next generation tank that will meet its future requirements. The project to develop the newer version of the tank was approved by the government last month on the recommendation of the Rama Rao Committee and on the insistence of successive top Army officers. The Arjun’s excessive dependence on foreign equipment — the engine, gun control system and gunner’s main sight are all imported — has come under criticism and DRDO wants to bring down the foreign components from 60 per cent to 30 per cent.
While the project seems to have got some respite after the Army turned around from its initial stance that the order book would be frozen at 124 to make way for a new generation tank, it has been fraught with setbacks, delays and cost overruns since being sanctioned in May 1974. DRDO was allotted Rs 15.50 crore to develop the tank within 10 years. However, the first prototype rolled out only by 1983. The project suffered repeated delays and deadlines and costs were revised on three occasions — 1980, 1987 and 2000.
When the project was officially closed by DRDO in 1996, its cost stood at Rs 306 crore. The first of the 14 pre- production versions of the tanks were handed over to the Army for trials in 2005 but they failed to satisfy. The real saga of the Arjun began post-2005 after DRDO started to aggressively push for large orders of the tank by the Army.
From 2005 till the present, when the order book stands at close to 250, a series of critical reports and observations by experts have haunted the tank. Over the years, the tank failed to impress the Army, which kept pressing for improvements and modifications in order to make it combat-worthy. The tank’s dismal performance in the trials carried out in 2006 was of particular concern to the Army.
In its trial report, the Army reported problems with the laser range finder of the gunners main sight and the piston rods of the suspension system. One of the Army’s major concerns was the tank’s fuel efficiency and its trial report said that the “high fuel consumption was evident during the validation trials in June 2006”. Defence Minister A K Antony, who had been pushing for early induction of the tanks in the Army, too had to concede that problems remained. “Some more problems are there but I am hopeful that we will be able to remove that,” he said after the report was made public.
After months another batch of the improved tanks were handed over for trials in 2007-08. Again, this round of trials ended in disappointment.
After the tank failed to clear a round of winter trials, the then Army chief General Deepak Kapoor wrote to Antony saying that a “lot of improvements” are needed before the tank can be cleared for bulk intake. The letter had its roots in the five months of Accelerated Usage cum Reliability Trials in Rajasthan in which two Arjun tanks were tested by the Army. The tanks suffered engine failures on four separate occasions after being put through only 1,000 km of trials.
‘NEED A NEW TANK’
An Army report in April 2008 said: “The tanks have performed very poorly. There have been four engine failures so far. The tanks have done about 1,000 km each. There is a problem”. A parliamentary panel monitoring the Arjun project then called for immediate modifications in the tank. “The causes for failure of the tank should be identified without loss of time and necessary modifications carried out at the earliest so that the tank becomes acceptable to the Army,” the panel said, adding it was “startled” over the poor performance.
A month later, in May 2008, the Defence Ministry too conceded that the tank was suffering engine failures and did not even manage to fire straight during the trials. Admitting its poor performance during the trials, the Ministry said five major faults, including low-firing accuracy, have been identified in the indigenous tank. Listing the problem areas, the then Minister of State, Defence, Rao Inderjit Singh informed Parliament that the tank had “low accuracy and consistency”, chipped its gun barrels while firing live rounds at the Accelerated Usage cum Reliability Trials and suffered a failure of the hydro pneumatic suspension units.
The dismal performance prompted the Army to tell DRDO that the tank should be treated as a technology demonstrator and a platform to work on a totally new tank design for the future. Months after retiring as the Director General of Mechanised Forces at Army HQ in 2008, Lt Gen K D S Shekhawat told The Indian Express that it was time for a new next generation tank. “After 30 years, the Arjun has not fructified and now we need to start with a new design and a new tank. We have always said that a next (generation) tank has to come out in due course of time. We now have a base and expertise to start on the futuristic tank,” he said.
It finally took the Rama Rao Committee, which was instituted to suggest a revamp plan for DRDO, to give a clear direction for the tank. The report said that the main reason for the repeated delays on the project was the over-optimism of developers who underestimated the time needed for making weapon systems. “Too much time and effort was spent in developing an engine for the tank without meeting success. DRDO looked at outsourcing turret control systems only in the mid-eighties after failing to develop it in-house. Inexperienced and overoptimistic developers underestimated the time required. The tank suffered from poor product quality and sub-optimal performance during development, testing and production stage,” said the report. “DRDO should immediately start work on a MK II version of the tank to meet requirements of the Army”. It also said advanced versions should be built on a “joint development model and foreign collaborators should be roped in to gain expertise”.
After repeated improvements, the first regiment of the Arjun — 124 had been originally ordered at the start of the project — was officially inducted into the Army in May 2009. The first armoured regiment of 45 tanks was inducted symbolically on the day Antony took charge in his second term as the Defence Minister.
The decision to induct the regiment came after DRDO carried out major modifications to suit the Army’s needs. A major improvement was modifications in the transmission by its German manufacturer, Renk. The failure of the transmission had been identified by DRDO as the main reason for the repeated engine failures during the trials. Improvements were also carried out on the suspension system.
THE ARJUN VS T-90 DEBATE
Since the first induction, there was immense pressure from the DRDO on the Army to conduct comparative trials between the Arjun tank and the T 90 MBT. However, the unfairness of comparing two different tanks rankled experts both within and outside the military establishment.
With adequate pressure from the ministry, the trials were carried out earlier this year but reluctantly, as the huge difference in the class of the two tanks did not leave much scope for comparison. The biggest difference is the weight. At 58.5 tons, the Arjun is more than 10 tons heavier than the T 90. The added weight and size gives it several advantages over the Russian machine in terms of more armour, greater capability to carry ammunition as well as extra sensors.
DRDO on its part said at that time that there is “room for both tanks” in the Army’s inventory and the trials were carried out to find a role for the Arjun tank in the Army. While the report has not yet been made public, the DRDO officials have said the trials were successful and the Arjun’s performance has been satisfactory for the Army. After more than 10 years of trials and improvements, the tank was finally found fit for limited induction.
The additional order for 124 more tanks is being seen as a victory of sorts for the Arjun but after more than three decades in development. The Arjun is the smallest part of the Indian tank fleet, well behind the T 90 and T 72 tanks that make up the armoured backbone of the Army. This is still a far cry from the concept behind the development of an indigenous Arjun tank. The whole idea was to develop the Arjun as the Army’s main battle tank to reduce dependence on imports. However, the frequent delays in the project appears to have given the Armed Forces a tank that will only be produced in limited numbers and is likely to get outdated after just a decade of service.
While DRDO is pushing for larger orders of the Arjun to justify developmental costs, the Army is constrained by the fact that it has already ordered sizeable number of the T 90 tanks to fulfill current requirements. Experts say it takes several years to train and optimise crews and tactics for a new class of tanks. Interestingly, while creating new infrastructure and training personnel means extra finances, the Army also finds it hard to justify the cost of the Arjun tank that comes close to Rs 17 crore per piece. On the other hand, the ready-to-use, battle-hardy and in-production T 90 tank costs the Army around Rs 13 crore per tank. And, this cost would go down progressively as the Avadi Ordnance Factory churns out T 90s in larger numbers.
The mainstay battle tank of the Army is the T 90 that was first ordered from Russia in 2001. The Army has placed orders for 660 T 90s from Russia to replace the ageing fleet of T 72s. The orders were placed again in 2007 after it became clear that the Arjun was not even close to induction. In addition, over 1000 T 90s will be manufactured at the Avadi Heavy Vehicles Factory. Given Arjun’s slow progress, the Army has also decided to upgrade 650 of the older T 72s.
The tank has a 120 mm calibre rifled gun that fires indigenously developed Fin Stabilised Armour Piercing Discarding Sabot (FSAPDS) ammunition. It has a German-origin computer-controlled fire control system with an all-weather sighting system. The DRDO says that this gives the Arjun a “very high first round hit probability and reduced reaction time”.
The rifled 120 mm gun is the main fire power of the tank that is designed to beat the armour used by contemporary tanks. While the tank cannot fire missiles from the gun like the one atop the T 90 tank, DRDO says that the capability has been demonstrated and can be incorporated if required.
The Arjun has a co-axial 7.62 mm machine gun for an anti-personnel role and a 12.7 mm machine gun for anti-aircraft and ground targets, similar to the T 90 Main Battle Tank (MBT).
Gunner’s Main Sight
The Delft-SAGEM Gunner’s Main Sight that has been imported from Belgium, has all weather, day-night capability. The thermal imager gives the gunner night vision and also the ability to engage targets even in the presence of haze, dust or smoke.
The tank commander has a “panoramic sight” that gives him an “all round surveillance” capability. Without removing eyes from the sight and despite the turret motion, a stable a view of the environment is available. This view can also be magnified if the need arises.
The Arjun is being equipped with two types of ammunition, the FSAPDS ammunition is the main battle ammunition of the tank and has performed satisfactorily in trials. The tank will also have High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) ammunition. DRDO is also developing an anti-helicopter round to combat aerial threats.
One of the major systems imported for the Arjun is the power plant provided by German company MTU. The transmission has been imported from German company Renk. The tracks are being manufactured by Larsen and Toubro but are again of German origin.
The Arjun has come under criticism for the hydro-pneumatic suspension. While the new generation suspension makes the tank a very stable platform for firing , the system requires high maintenance and is prone to failures.
The main feature of the protection system is the indigenously developed Kanchan armour. The developer claims that the armour gives the tank much better protection than current Russian origin tanks in the Army’s inventory. In its trials in 2000, the armour withstood a direct hit from a T 72 tank at point blank range. Newer versions of the tank may be equipped with a new reactive armour under development by the DRDO.