The month-long "comparitive" trials of the indigenous Arjun main battle tank end on March 15, but the DRDO's Combat Vehicles R&D Establishment (CVRDE) will have to gear up to face its worst fear, this time officially -- the Army will not order more tanks over and above the 124 already ordered. I've just spoken with a senior Defence Ministry official, who said that the DRDO would be formally told later this month that no further orders will be placed on the current configuration of the Arjun by the Army, and that further orders would be only possible on the Mark-2 or the FMBT as and when they are ready. So there it is: two regiments of the Arjun Mark-1. No more.
In July 2008, the DRDO had told the government in a note, "If the army does not place further orders for Arjun we cannot even amortize the infrastructural investments made by the government for its productionisation, thereby resulting in wasteful expenditure. The Army should place orders for additional 300 tanks before we can break even."
The official I spoke to says that concerns about recovery of investment by the Heavy Vehicles Factor (HVF) and CVRDE are being addressed by Secretary (Defence Production) and some sort of "back-up measures" will be taken.
He explained, "The point is the Army has been putting up its submission that it already has a main battle tank in the T-90 and that inducting the Arjun in its present configuration will be a logistical challenge. They have been repeatedly saying that Arjun must be progressed to a more modern design and configuration so that it can find greater usability in the Army. There might be some ill-feeling because after all it is a prestige issue also, but that is separate. Now everyone is in agreement that the Arjun in its present configuration is a closed chapter. It has to move forward."
The official also echoed what DRDO chief VK Saraswat said at his recent press conference about how the trials currently on in Rajasthan are not true comparative trials, but rather "to identify the optimum placement, positioning and deployment of Arjun MBT taking into account its capabilities and logistical signature." He explained that there was no longer any question of testing the Arjun's capabilities. "User trials have been carried out extensively and the tank has been accepted as a proven platform. But the Army feels it is a dated design, though the Army also observes that it is an excellent platform for further development indigenously," he added.
The DRDO lobby is a powerful one, and they won't like any of this. Can they pull off the impossible? This month, we'll know. What we know for sure is that the DRDO wants an order of at least 176 more Arjuns from the Army to arm three more regiments.