Why Indian Army Could Be Concerned With Indigenous Arjun Tanks Amid ‘Make In India’ Drive?

Do the ‘Make in India’ and the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ schemes of domestic procurement of military hardware compromise the quality of arms and weapons that the Indian armed forces are now expected to use?

This question assumes relevance, with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) approving recently the induction of 118 Arjun Mark 1A Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) into the Indian Army at a cost of Rs 8,400 crore.

In fact, during his visit to Chennai on February 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi handed over the indigenously-developed Arjun (Mark 1A) tank to Army Chief General MM Naravane at Ordnance Factory Board’s Heavy Vehicles Factory Avadi.

Now that this symbolic handover is complete, a formal contract will be signed, and accordingly, the delivery of the first Arjun Mark 1A will start within 30 months with all 118 units to be delivered within four to five years.

Is the Indian Army happy with this contract? Technically speaking, it has no reason to be unhappy as its senior officers had given the tank a clearance more than a year ago after the MBT had undergone numerous trials. And what is more important, the tank comes with some features that the Army itself had sought.

So much so that according to V. Balamurugan, director of the Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment(CVRDE), “The tank comes with 14 major improvements that the Army has sought, which will make it the most potent and self-protective tank in the Army’s inventory.”

It is said that compared to its earlier version Arjun 1, the Mark 1-A boasts an improved gunner sight (a 120mm main gun), fitted with automated target tracking capabilities. This allows the tank’s crew to locate and track mobile targets automatically, enabling attack even when the MBT is moving.

It also incorporates day-and-night stabilized sights. Besides, it is integrated with thermobaric and penetration-cum-blast ammunition, in addition to the conventional fin-stabilized armor-piercing discarding sabot and high explosive squash head ammunition.

Arjun Mk2

It has been reported that the Arjun Mark 1A can run at a maximum road speed of 58 km/h and 40 km/h in cross country with a maximum cruising range of 500 km. It can negotiate a gradient of 30% and a vertical step of 910 mm. It can cross natural or man-made trenches 2,430 mm wide. The tank can cross a water obstacle of 1.4 m depth without preparation and 2.15 m with a kit.

However, if the Army is really happy with Arjun Mark 1A, then why is it being said that “this is the end of the Arjun series and that DRDO officials believe this order of 118 tanks will be the last orders for the 68-ton Arjun”?

Secondly, if the Arjun Mark-1A, which is widely regarded as India’s response to the Russian-made T-90S ‘Bhishma’ tanks that currently form the bulk of India’s armored vehicle regiments, is so potent, why is it that the Army has placed a Rs 20,000 crore order for the manufacture of 464 T-90S tanks to add to the 1,191 Bhishma tanks already inducted?

The above two are troubling questions, given the not-so-rosy history of Arjun, which has seen numerous changes in design and been over-budget and long-delayed. It was planned in 1972 and the DRDO started the work on it in 1974. It was to be a 40-ton vehicle, small enough to be strategically mobile and capable of being shuttled on internal lines (roads and railroads) to the borders.

But when in 2009, 35 years after it was originally conceived, Arjun was “ready” for production, its weight turned out to be 62 tons. It had other shortcomings too, which the Army did point out.

And yet, the Army was persuaded (pressured?) to buy 124 of them, with the last batch being procured in 2013. However, by mid-2015, two years after the purchase was complete, nearly 75 percent of the Arjun force was inoperable due to technical problems.

A 2016 report from the Comptroller and Auditor General of India noted that most of the tanks had not been in operation since 2013 due to a lack of spare parts. And the DRDO, in 2017, informed that it had imported spare parts to repair any faults that had sidelined 75 percent of the Arjun tanks

Side by side, all these years (after 2010), the DRDO declared that it would work for Arjun 2 where many shortcomings of the Arjun 1 would be rectified with additional features. In 2014, the Union Cabinet decided to procure 118 of these, but the proposal was formally cleared by the DAC (Defence Acquisition Council) only in 2018, with Arjun 2 being rechristened now Arjun Mark 1A.

PM Narendra Modi after handing over the Arjun Mk1A tank to the Indian Army, in Chennai.

But the Army said that even this version did not meet all its requirements like the ability to fire a missile from its main gun and battlefield management system. Besides, the Army, which had found problems with the 62-ton weight of version 1, had to cope with the 68-ton weight with the latest version of 1A.  It was only in 2020 that the Army gave its final “clearance”.

In 2018, this author had a detailed discussion with the then DRDO Chairman Dr. S Christopher. On asked about the weight problem, he had counter-questioned why was it that people were not enquiring as to what our bridges are not good enough to withstand the passage of 70-ton tanks.

He had also taken great pains to explain that people often question the DRDO when things went wrong without realizing that the DRDO’s job is only designing whereas the manufacturing was done by the OFBs, which were not under his control as these do not belong to the DRDO and operate under the domain of the Secretary, Defence Production. He also had said that for qualitative improvement, there should be joint productions with the private sector as the government ones are not worried about the losses and delays.

However, Dr. Christopher was proud that in many field trials, the Arjun had fared better than even the T-90s and that the indigenous products had the greatest advantage in the sense that one could do product improvement on the system and follow what is called spiral methods of development.

His point was that unless you get bulk orders from your armed forces, there will be lesser chances of quality-improvement. And this is something that China does well. It goes for large quantities of arms that are the high-volume, low-cost version(s) of the foreign products.

Here, the idea is that even if inferior in quality and performance to the foreign products, these low-cost lower-tech versions can be used by the Chinese forces in “high volume” to neutralize the qualitative gap. And in the process, you will learn lessons to improve your product.

Viewed thus, the Modi government’s procurement of Arjun Mark 1 A is understandable, but what remains confusing are the widely shared apprehensions that it is the “last order” for the Arjun series.

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Prakash Nanda
Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com