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Will Atmanirbhar Bharat revive the fortunes of the Indian Army’s Main Battle Tank Arjun?

The changing dynamics of Mountain warfare, more specifically in respect of India China Line of Control kind of terrain with a heady mix of mountains and open hard track terrain, “requires a rethink on our operational philosophy for deployment of mechanised forces with tailor-made equipment to suit our requirements” says an Indian Army veteran.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has recently released its Import Embargo list as part of its Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative. Efforts are on to ensure that the Indian Armed Forces cut down their dependency on imported platforms, and help use the platforms manufactured locally. The changing dynamics of Mountain warfare, more specifically in respect of India China Line of Control kind of terrain with a heady mix of mountains and open hard track terrain, “requires a rethink on our operational philosophy for deployment of mechanised forces with tailor-made equipment to suit our requirements” says an Indian Army veteran.

The debate on indigenous production in the defence sector to cut down import dependency has been going on. There has been some positive outcomes including the classical case of Main Battle Tank `Arjun’.

When did MBT `Arjun’ project start?

It was in 1996 that the Indian government decided to mass-produce the tank at the Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF) in Avadi, Chennai. Order for 124 Arjun tanks (MK I) was placed in the year 2000. India thus joined the select group of 10 countries worldwide that have designed and developed their own Main Battle Tank. The other countries that have designed and developed their own MBT are the UK, France, Germany, USA, Israel, South Korea, Russia, Japan and China

In spite of a proven, indigenous MBT and DRDO having created capabilities within the country for the fabrication of Hull and Turret for accelerated deliveries, the Cabinet Committee on Security in 2019 approved the procurement of 464 Russian made T-90MS main battle tanks in a Rs 13,400 Cr deal.

Interestingly, as per the result of the comparative trials held between the Arjun MK I and T 90 tank in 2010, the Arjun outperformed the T 90 on several parameters including accuracy and consistency of firepower, mobility and agility. The Arjun also boasts of a superior power to weight ratio, which is necessary for combat on the move.

CAG Report in December 2014 observed that the benchmark fixed by the Army for the evaluation of the T-90 tank was more relaxed vis-à-vis MBT Arjun on the multiple parameters including scientific stress technique, Check of lubricants/oils, System reliability, Laser range finder, the firing of armour piercing ammunition ad medium fording amongst others.

In the last few years, based on Army’s requirements, Arjun MK I has undergone 89 improvements. This has transformed Arjun into a highly advanced platform, comparable to the most technologically advanced MBTs globally which includes the likes of Merkava from Israel, M1 A2 Abrams from the USA, and Challenger from Great Britain amongst others. Upgraded Arjun MK I A was successfully demonstrated to the Army in December 2019.

The pertinent question, therefore, is if Arjun could prove its superiority over the T-90 on some critical aspects then certainly, the Arjun MK I A, with significant technological advancements, will be far better positioned for both offensive and defensive tasks.

Arjun Vs T-90

According to a senior officer T-90 has had its own share of challenges. In a tank biathlon held in Russia in August 2017 where tank crews from 19 countries competed in simulated battlefield conditions to determine which is the best, Indian Army was knocked out after both the main and reserve T-90 tanks developed mechanical problems.

T-90 tanks also suffer from night blindness as its night vision system does not work in high temperatures of the desert regions. Electronic systems of the tank also have failed consistently l in the desert heat. By comparison, Arjun has a much advanced night fighting capability, has not faced any troubles in high temperatures and does not even require any air conditioning due to its rugged systems suited for desert conditions.

“Arjun MBT presents a great potential to further the “Make in India” and self-reliance vision of the Government. Arjun MBT line has been lying idle since 2010-11 when the last Arjun MK-Is rolled out. Will the renewed emphasis on cutting down imports will bring a fresh lease of life to Arjun, like LCA Mk 1A and Basic Jet Trainer programs is yet to be seen,” observed the senior officer quoted above.

Expert View

Sharing his view with Financial Express Online, Brig NK Bhatia (retd) says, “With Chinese PLA having modernised at a rapid pace with the creation of mechanised formations in its Western Theatre Command, necessitate a matching capability enhancement in respect of our own mechanised formations.”

Currently Indian Army’s armoured formations are equipped with Russian built T-72 and T-90 MBTs with a limited number of indigenously produced Arjun tanks. These are essentially medium/heavy tanks that are more suited to the plains of Western India.

According to him, “The requirement of a tank for mountains would essentially encompass agility, mobility and manoeuvrability to facilitate rapid deployment. Mechanised/armour units would primarily be required to act as anti-armour platforms to counter enemy’s armour thrusts through the gaps in the mountainous terrain.”

“This needs a relook in our deployment philosophy of placing medium tanks in the mountains due to the inherent problem in their deployment and connected issues relating to mobility and logistics. Another factor that weighs in heavily against the deployment of current series of tanks in the mountains is their vintage and issues connected with their serviceability in mountains,” Brig Bhatia opines.

“The need for a new tank exclusively for mountains with modern platforms incorporated in it, in the backdrop of current Indo China stand-off, is not only justified but timely. Any decision with respect to fresh acquisition of a modern tank will need introspection to suit their deployment specific to our requirements.

The decision need not be rushed through as any new acquisition will take considerable time to train and deploy with setting up of matching logistic facilities,” he concludes.

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