Why Are India’s Own ‘Hunter Killer’ Main Battle Tanks Missing From Action In Ladakh?

Indian PM Narendra Modi’s jaunty swagger as he rode atop an indigenously built Arjun tank on the occasion of Diwali made global headlines. Donning a military uniform, his seemingly stern gesture had the overtones of his hawkish ambitions towards the country’s growing list of adversaries, according to his critics. 

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He was on a trip to the Longewala Post in the Jaisalmer sector of Rajasthan to celebrate Diwali with the soldiers. Longewala is a town situated near India’s border with Pakistan in the western state of Rajasthan.

Many of the nation’s indigenously-built Arjun tanks are in service in the Jaisalmer desert, which is a battle-prone region, with its close proximity to neighboring Pakistan. 

The Arjun Mark 1-A ‘Hunter Killer’ tank, built indigenously by the country’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is a 68-tonne monster and features a 120mm main gun.

PM Modi on Arjun Tank – Wikipedia

Modi’s ride aboard the made-in-India tank was construed as his commitment to promote indigenous military equipment or his campaign call for ‘vocal for local’ push. DRDO seemed euphoric over this gesture and hoped the army would place a long-pending order for the 118 Arjun Mark 1-A tanks.

Currently, the Indian Army’s Armoured Regiments are equipped with T-72, T-90 and Arjun tanks, with the mechanized infantry battalions equipped with the BMP-2, which is a second-generation, amphibious infantry fighting vehicle.  

When India’s conflict with China on the Ladakh border intensified, with heavy military build-up on both sides of the border, the Indian Air Force, using its heavy-lift aircraft, airlifted dozens of additional tanks and armored personnel carriers to the Himalayan heights to beef up its firepower. 

The Indian infantry forces faced the war-ready Chinese troop formations with anti-tank guided missiles, rockets and other weapons. India deployed its own missile-armed T-90 tanks in addition to upgraded T-72M1 tanks in high-altitude areas in the region. 

However, India’s own Killer Hunter tank, Arjun Mk-2, the upgraded version of the original Arjun tank, was missing from action. Arjun, which has been in development for over three decades has failed to impress the army due to a number of reasons.

Despite a series of upgrades since 2010, the tank remains unviable for battle operations due to its extremely bulky structure.

According to the army, Arjun is too heavy to be deployed across the border with Pakistan. The tank has been unable to traverse difficult terrain in various war theatres and areas where it needs to cross rivers and canals.

It has, therefore, been difficult for the army to deploy it in war-prone regions such as Rajasthan, Punjab and the mountainous terrain of the J&K sector.

Consequently, it will be even more difficult to deploy Arjun in Ladakh where every military equipment needs to be airlifted at extremely high altitudes. The tank is unviable to be part of the Indian Army’s strike corps formations since there is a high chance it will lag behind in unfamiliar terrain.

Its presence can hugely impact armored formations, designed for mobile offensive operations, engaged in a battle deep inside enemy territory.

Arjun Mk2

The main challenge comes from the inability of the IAF aircraft such as the IL-76 and C-130 J to airlift such bulky tanks to high altitudes, while on the other hand, they can easily lift the T-series of tanks, which are comparatively lighter.

Even India’s recently inducted C-17 Globemasters have a maximum payload capacity of only 75 tonnes, and it will be difficult for the aircraft to airlift the 67 tonnes Arjun Mk-2 with attendant support equipment.

Nonetheless, the Arjun MBT has significantly outperformed the Russian T-90s employed by the Indian Army during previous trials conducted in 2010. However, the tank’s excess weight, problems with certain parts, and availability of spare parts have severely impacted its performance in trials.

After the feedback from the Army, the tank had undergone almost 80 improvements, which included 15 major ones, but that exercise increased the weight of the bulky machine further, complicating its race to win the army’s confidence even further.

The latest version, Mark 1-A, has improved features, including potent firepower, besides other developments including new transmission systems. The other improvements include the deployment of a gunner’s main sight, integrated with automatic target tracking. The feature will help the tank crew to track mobile targets automatically, and engage them even when the tank is on the move. 

After a plethora of upgrades, DRDO is finally hopeful the tank’s latest version will impress the army. Even the Arjun’s 120 mm gun has been upgraded with a computerized integrated fire control system, which ensures that the Mark-1A has a high first-round-kill capability.

Besides, the inclusion of day-and-night stabilized sights with its automatic target tracker enhances the combat edge of the tank.

The renowned Indian strategic affairs analyst Ajai Shukla writes in his blog, “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.”

He further observes that the army had been under pressure from the defense ministry to place the order of 118 tanks from DRDO. The Indian Army’s dilly-dallying also pushed the timeline of Arjun’s induction, and only in December 2018 did it recommend inducting the tank into service.

Interestingly, it has been almost two years since, and the army is yet to place an indent for the 118 Arjun Mark 1A. The army again raised many issues which included the issues with ammunition availability, non-availability of spares and low indigenous content – to successfully avoid placing an order, Shukla writes. 

However, with the defense ministry pushing for more indigenization, there is a chance that Arjun MBTs will get lucrative offers from the Indian Army. DRDO is keeping its hopes high on Narendra Modi’s commitment to ‘vocal for local’, and it is yet to be seen if the Army goes ahead with ordering the MBT Arjun.