Delay in ordering Arjun tank underlines the army’s reluctance to “Make in India”

By Ajai Shukla

Although “Make in India” has been the central motif of the on-going Defexpo 2020 in Lucknow, the army continues to block further purchases of the Arjun main battle tank (MBT), years after it has met all the army’s ever-increasing demands.

With the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) awaiting a long-cleared order for 118 Arjun MBTs, the ministry of defence (MoD) instead asked the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) last November to build 464 Russian-origin T-90S tanks at the Heavy Vehicles Factory, Avadi (HVF).

With each T-90 costing about Rs 28 crore, the order is worth an estimated Rs 13,000 crore. The army continues to block the indigenous Arjun tank even though, in a comparative trial the army conducted in the Rajasthan desert in March 2010, the Arjun proved itself equal to, or better than, the Russian T-90. In the trial, one squadron (14 tanks) of Arjuns was pitted against an equal number of T-90s.

Top army generals who witnessed the trial admitted the Arjun performed superbly. Whether driving cross-country over rugged sand dunes; or accurately hitting targets with its powerful main gun; the Arjun established it was a tank to reckon with. Yet, the army refused to order more Arjun tanks, beyond the 124 it had already inducted into service. Army insiders say there is an ingrained belief that Russian tanks are better than Indian ones.

However, it was officially stated that the 62.5-tonne Arjun was too heavy for roads and bridges along the Pakistan border, and too wide to be transported by train. Under pressure from the MoD to order another 118 Arjuns, the army then demanded several capability enhancements in the tank to make it more effective. At a meeting of the MoD-led Arjun Steering Committee in 2010, the army demanded an improved version of the tank, which would be called the Arjun Mark 2.

The Arjun Mark 2 was required to have 83 capability enhancements, including 15 major and 68 minor changes. Incredibly, given the army’s complaint that the tank was too heavy, the new enhancements would make the tank heavier by another 6 tonnes. These included the fitment on the tank of mine ploughs (1.6 tonnes extra), explosive reactive armour (1.5 tonnes), suspension improvements (one tonne) and another two tonnes in other areas.

Having complained earlier that a 62.5 tonne Arjun tank was too heavy, the army signed off on a six-tonne weight increase to 68.5 tonnes. In August 2011, the MoD announced it had “cleared the proposal for placement of indent for 124 MBT Arjun Mark 2”. It said each enhanced Arjun would cost Rs 37 crore and the first batch would roll out by 2015.

By June 2012, the DRDO offered the Arjun for trials with all the enhancements, except one: a cannon-launched guided missile (CLGM) the army wanted to fire through the Arjun’s main gun. The DRDO had sourced the Lahat CLGM from Israel, but that could strike targets between 2-5 kilometres (km) away. The army insisted on being able to strike targets as close as 1.2 km.

The DRDO pointed out that the Arjun’s powerful main gun had already proved its ability to destroy targets at ranges out to 2 km. But the army insisted the CLGM should be usable against targets 1.2 km away. So the DRDO began work on an indigenous CLGM to meet those specifications.

By 2015, a series of trials had validated the improvements the army demanded. Even the CLGM’s laser designator was tested and validated with Lahat missiles. The DRDO asked for production order, promising to develop and supply the missile on priority.

However, the army dilly-dallied for three years, until March 2018, when it was agreed that the next batch of Arjuns would be supplied without missile firing capability, which would follow up separately. This version would be designated Arjun Mark 1A.

After several months of delay, Arjun Mark 1A trials were held in December 2018 and the tank found fit in all respects. The army’s trial team recommended the Arjun Mark 1A be inducted into service. Incredibly, more than a year later, the army has not yet placed an indent for 118 Arjun Mark 1A.

It has raised numerous issues including ammunition availability, non-availability of spares and low indigenous content to successfully avoid placing an order. Were an indent to be placed today, it would still take HVF about 36 months to start delivering completed Arjun tanks.

The DRDO is confident it would develop the CLGM by then, so those 118 tanks will actually be Arjun Mark 2, with full CLGM capability. Asked whether there was frustration over the lack of orders, DRDO chairman, Satheesh Reddy told Business Standard: “No, we cannot get frustrated. We are very positive. The user trials for the Mark 1A have been completed in December 2018 and we have even developed the ammunition now. I am sure that the Indian Army will soon be inducting the Arjun Mark 1A.”

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