India’s Arjun main battle tank, possibly the country’s longest and most trouble-ridden armament programme, has just hit the latest in a history of formidable hurdles. And it’s a big one. One that amplifies the programme’s inextricable quality as a faraway castle that will never be fully realised by its makers or embraced by its customer, a tragicomic meandering that began with a requirement, stupefyingly enough, right after India’s 1971 war with Pakistan. In the tech world, the Arjun would be veritably vaporware.
If you’ve tracked the Arjun tank’s journey, you know that the platform’s weight has been a key factor slowing its acceptance by the Indian Army. Now, over 100 Arjun Mk.I tanks are operational across two tank regiments in India’s western desert sector. The beefed up, improved Arjun Mk.II, of which the Indian Army officially ordered 118 in 2014, is currently going through the paces to prove the smorgasbord of capability upgrades and add-ons. But a new, yet familiar, flashpoint has now presented itself, providing the sharpest sense of deja vu for the team proving the tank. And it has just been detailed in an easy-to-miss report by India’s Standing Committee on Defence in the country’s Parliament.
The Indian Army wants the DRDO to fully redesign the Arjun Mk.II’s hull and turret structures and use newer materials to replace the conventional structure, in an effort to ‘achieve a reasonable reduction in weight, without removing any of the major improvements’. The Arjun Mk.II currently weighs 68.6 tons — a full six tons over the MK.I, owning entirely to the 73 improvements the Army demanded on the newer tank. The Army has stated, in no uncertain terms, that the 68.6 ton weight of the Arjun Mk.II is too much for ‘seamless application in semi-developed and developed sectors of the Western Front’. In other words, the Arjun Mk.II, the Army says, can’t be forward deployed beyond the deserts, in the event of active hostilities with Pakistan. But more on that a little later.
Livefist can confirm that on September 27 last year, the DRDO was left with no choice but to initiate an exercise to redesign the hull/turret structures on the Arjun Mk.II. At at meeting that included DRDO chief S. Christopher, the Army’s Deputy Chief for Policy & Systems and the Director General Mechanised Forces, the DRDO fought the recommendation, stating that ‘redesign of hull/turret including use of advanced armour material is not recommended considering the long development and validation cycle’. It was a painful blow — while the DRDO was hoping to accelerate trials in an effort to nudge the Indian Army into doubling its order for 118 Arjun Mk.II tanks had just been told even the existing ones weren’t really good enough for full operational use. The DRDO’s Combat Vehicles laboratory near Chennai has begun the weight reduction/redesign exercise, with an ambitious target of March 2018 to demonstrate a weight reduction of 3 tons. The DRDO will need to demonstrate each module separately to the Indian Army.
The story doesn’t really end there. In fact it gets more perplexing. While the DRDO gets busy trying to redesign the Arjun Mk.II’s hull/turret structures and use new materials, the Army has already written off the exercise. In fact, at the very same September 2016 meeting where the DRDO committed to a 3 ton weight reduction, the Army stated, ‘There are no major advantages from tactical and operational point of view with 65 t weight reduction also. It is felt that even weight reduction to 62 tons (equal to that of Arjun MBT Mk-I) may not provide any significant tactical/ operational advantages.’
In other words, the Army believes the weight reduction exercise is fundamentally useless. Worse, the Army projects that the ‘cycle time for 65 ton weight reductions of Arjun MBT Mk-II and validation will take about four to six years for successful acceptance by user after trials/procedures.’ The Army clearly has a real problem here — and this could be indicative of government pressure to press on with the programme.
The DRDO, which was hoping the Arjun tank had finally turned the corner, transforming an adversarial relationship with its main customer into one of comfort, has hit another stone wall with the Army. While insisting that the Arjun Mk.II has ‘exhibited the required performance in all aspects of agility, mobility and other operational/functional parameters in the desert and semi-desert terrains during various phases of user trials’ and that it is ‘confident that that Arjun Mk.II will have requisite agility, mobility and other operational/functional parameters in various developed and semi developed terrains also’, the DRDO is also wondering why the Army is averse to a proposal to operationally compare the Arjun Mk.II with the T-90 (a comparison that was conducted over a decade ago on the Mk.I). According to the DRDO, “As directed by Hon’ble RM (Defence Minister), DRDO requested Army for mobility comparative trials with the Arjun MBT Mk-II even with 68.6 t’ along with T-90 to prove its tactical and operational mobility aspects in all envisaged terrains (including developed and semi developed terrains) for its future employability. However, Army intimated that Arjun MBT Mk-II and T90 are of different class & weight classification and their deployment is as per assigned operational roles. Arjun MBT has operational employment restrictions to specific sectors (desert/semi desert) being heavy tank. Therefore, Army intimated that the conduct of comparative mobility trials is not required.”
Even if all goes well, it is now clear that the Arjun Mk.II will only be fully deployable if the government beefs up road/bridge infrastructure to able to handle the tank’s heft. That alone is an alarming development that adds pressure on a system beyond the Army’s direct control. The Arjun family of tanks are principally for a potential war with Pakistan. The tanks are too heavy to be airlifted to any of the sectors India currently shares with China. And the new deployability concerns rule out moving them there by rail either.
What has further eroded the DRDO’s case for the Arjun is the fact that over 100 (of 124) Arjun Mk.I tanks have remained grounded since mid-2015 over a shocking unavailability of foreign spare parts — a deeply ironic situation for a platform that was meant, in part, to preclude precisely such a pitfall. While reports suggest the grounded Mk.Is are to begin rolling again soon, the grounding has slung additional mud on the overall Arjun ownership experience. It was the last thing the DRDO needed as it attempted to build a case for more Arjun sales to the Army.
The redesign exercise on the Mk.II shackles the Arjun tank to its endless, looping development and proving cycle — one that it hasn’t been able to break out of for decades. Top sources in the Army say that while there is government pressure to endorse the Arjun tank as an Indian product, the Army doesn’t believe it makes sense to buy more of a tank that will be operationally restricted to the desert/semi-desert sectors of the west. A maximum of four or five Arjun regiments across variants is what the Army believes it needs, given what the tank has been proven to be capable of. If the weight reduction exercise doesn’t work out, the Army takes delivery of those 118 Arjun Mk.IIs on schedule and will certainly not order any more. If it does work out, it remains to be seen if the Army will sign up for additional units. Couple this with larger numbers of the T-90S and the preliminary Future Ready Combat Vehicle (FCRV) effort, the Arjun’s onward roll gets infinitely steeper.
The Arjun programme, as the DRDO has said before, is a dead loss if the Army doesn’t order more than 500 tanks in total. Right now, the numbers are nowhere close. Nothing is.