The Indian Army has already placed an order for 118 indigenously-built Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun with the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), and it will probably be its last order for the heavyweight tank.
The order is scheduled to be completed by 2025-26, and to keep the production line running, India is scouting for potential customers for its MBT, also known as ‘hunter-killer.’
The Indian Army already has 124 Arjun MBTs, among the world’s heaviest tanks at 68.25 tons. The contract with the OFB is to build 118 upgraded Mk-1A variants.
The first five MBTs would be delivered to the army 30 months after signing the agreement in 2021, followed by 30 MK-1As to be delivered each year until the remaining 113 platforms are handed over to complete two armored regiments by 2025-26.
“India has spent both time and resources in developing the MBT. Its export seems only logical to keep the production line running. And African countries are potential buyers,” a defense official told the EurAsian Times. The deployment of Arjun tanks, made bulky by their heavy armor, is restricted to Rajasthan’s desert region of India.
Arjun Mk1 is a 62-ton tank with a 120-millimeter gun, advanced composite armor, a 1,400-horsepower turbocharged engine, and advanced fire control and thermal sights. The Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) imbibed the Western philosophy for Arjun tanks and gave them heavy armored protection.
The Arjun tank induction in the Indian Army also catapulted India into a select group of 10 countries that have designed and developed their main battle tanks. The group comprises the UK, France, Germany, the US, Israel, South Korea, Russia, Japan, and China.
For African countries seeking armored tanks, the Indian tank is an economical and better option. So far, Russia has been the leading defense exporter to Africa. But as Moscow remains embroiled in the protracted war with Ukraine, there is a void.
A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report tabled in the Indian Parliament in 2014 said that a comparative trial between the Arjun and the imported Russian T-90 tanks was done in April 2010 by the Indian Army. The report stated that the Indian Army fixed different benchmarks – very stringent for the Arjun and relaxed for the T-90. The Arjun still scored over the T-90 in certain aspects. The trials were conducted on four parameters — firepower, survivability, reliability, and miscellaneous issues.
African countries operate lots of tanks. According to data, Egypt has a total of 4,295 tanks, followed by Algeria with 1,195 tanks and Sudan with 465 tanks. In Africa, the average size of the battle tank fleet of countries is around 166.5 tanks.
During the DefExpo 2020, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh revealed that in the next five years, India was considering export of military hardware worth US$5 billion, and African countries will form a big chunk of it. For African countries facing myriad security issues like piracy, coups, insurgency, and terrorism, India can be a trusted defense partner.
“India is geared up to provide Offshore Patrol Vessels, fast interceptor boats, body and vehicle armor, Night Vision Goggles, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Dornier aircraft, and arms and ammunition to our African counterparts,” Singh said at the DefExpo 2020 in Uttar Pradesh. Singh was addressing the first Indo-Africa Defense Ministers’ Conference, attended by 12 African defense ministers and representatives from 38 countries.
The joint declaration that followed the conference called for deeper cooperation in the defense sector, including joint ventures for developing military hardware and software.
Since then, India has extended a line of credit of around US$14 billion to 42 countries in the African Union. While most of it will be used for infrastructure development, India has shown openness to using lines of credit for defense deals. At the beginning of 2023, India hosted the first India-Africa Army Chiefs’ Conclave in Pune.
India showcased its home-grown equipment, like the Arjun battle tank and Pinaka rocket launchers. Indian military vehicles manufacturers such as Tata Motors and Ashok Leyland supply troop carriers, trucks, buses, and other military vehicles to various African countries like Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, Djibouti, Seychelles, and Botswana.
Arjun – A Heavyweight Candidate For Africa?
In terms of weight, MBT Arjun is at par with Challenger 2 of the UK, weighs 62.5 tons (combat-ready weight of 75 tonnes), Leopard 2A6M of Canada weighs 62.5 tons, and Abrams M1A1 of the US weighs 67.5 tons.
The Arjun tank project was envisaged in the 1970s, and the tank is fitted with locally designed composite blend Kanchan armor. And this armor gives the tank enormous protection and its weight. This increase in protection came at a cost—decreased tactical and operational mobility. The tank is fitted with a German-made MTU 1,400-horsepower water-cooled diesel engine. Its horsepower-to-weight ratio is 22.5 to 1.
The Arjun was envisaged to replace the Soviet-built T-72 tanks, but the non-compatibility of the heavyweight Arjun with the infrastructure in the Western sector has held back the Indian Army from ordering more units.
More than the weight, it is the Nominal Ground Pressure (NGP) of Arjun Tanks that limits its cross-country mobility and thus ruling out its deployment in Punjab and other areas, which saw major armored battles in the wars that India fought with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971.
“More than the weight, the NGP is concerning,” an Indian Army official stated anonymously. NGP is the pressure exerted on the ground while moving.
The Indian Army has maintained that most bridges across Punjab were built to withstand a load of around 50 tons. The Arjun Mk-1A has been fitted with wide tracks to distribute the weight evenly; with an NPG of 0.85kg/cm sq, it is still difficult to traverse the area. The wide body restricts its movement by rail lines.
The incompatible infrastructure and terrain have been the biggest reason for the Indian Army’s hesitation to induct the MBT Arjun in large numbers. On the eastern front against China, dominated by hills and in Andamans and Nicobar, the Indian Army will prefer to have lightweight tanks.
But, a foray into the African market will be a big win for the MBT. “So far, the tank has only operated in India. Exposure to different operational environments will help make further improvements to the tank,” the Indian Army official added.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com