A look at the Indian Army's Main Battle Tank programs
Posted By Saurav Jha
|The Arjun MK II MBT|
In August 2014, the Defence Acquisition Council(DAC) finally gave the go ahead for 118 Arjun Mk-2 MBTs for an order value of about Rs 6600 crores.This signalled a return to production for the Arjun MBT line at Heavy Vehicles factory (HVF), Avadi that had been lying idle since 2010-11 when the last Arjun Mk-Is rolled out. Nevertheless the piecemeal order is indicative of the fact that the Indian Army (IA) continues to insist upon the demonstration of a potent missile firing capability from the Arjun Mk-2's gun before it places an indent for a much larger order. And a much larger order, as has been known to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is absolutely needed to make it viable to indigenize various sub-systems in the Arjun Mk-2. Meanwhile, the IA continues to face issues with its pool of T-90S MBTs and is increasingly turning to the Defence Research & Development Organization(DRDO) to upgrade these tanks with domestically developed technologies in a manner resembling DRDO's Combat Improved Ajeya (CIA) program for existing T-72s in the IA's inventory. Be that as it may the IA has to support economies of scale in the overall Arjun program as that will have a direct bearing on India's ability to productionize the Future Main Battle Tank (FMBT) that is needed to replace the IA's ageing T-72 park heading into the 2020s.
The Arjun Mk-2 variant developed by DRDO's Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE) essentially grew out of the IA's recommended upgrades post the Arjun Mk-I's comparative trials with the T-90S which included among other things the incorporation of an anti-tank missile firing capability, an increase in penetrating power of ammunition used and the mounting of explosive reactive armour (ERA) panels. In order to comply with these requests besides generally updating the Mk-I design and making its assemblies more production friendly, CVRDE has made some 89 upgrades to the baseline Mk-1, including 19 major improvements such as the incorporation of animproved commander's panoramic sight, a track width mine plough, automatic target tracking,power driven air defence gun, advanced running gear system, final drive with reduction ratio, an improved slip ring, capability to fire new thermobaric ammunition,ERA, a laser warning countermeasure system, and a new auxiliary power unit (APU) generating in excess of 8 KW of power i.e double that of the Mk-1's APU.
The Arjun Mk-2 also features the capability to fire the Israeli LAHAT missile in an anti-tank role through its 120 mm main gun. However the LAHAT has turned out to be a sticking point between the IA and DRDO since besides uneven accuracy, smoke regurgitation from the LAHAT missile into the fighting compartment as it is fired through the main gun has been deemed as too hazardous by the IA. As of now DRDO has dropped the LAHAT from its Arjun Mk-2 MBT plans and is instead pursuing the Canon Launched Guided Missile (CLGM) being developed indigenously at the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL).
The missile firing capability requirement grew out of the fact that though the Arjun Mk-I with a score of 25.77 beat the T-90S with a score of 24.50 in the firepower criteria during the 2010 comparative trials if the T-90S's missile firing capability were to be kept aside, the T-90 fared marginally better in the overall final score primarily on account of its Invar missile firing capability. The comparative trials were on four parameters viz. fire power, survivability, reliability and miscellaneous issues of the tank with weightages of 40, 35, 15 and 10 respectively. As per the trial report, MBT Arjun performed better than the T-90 tank in accuracy and consistency of firepower. However, the T-90S seems to have performed better in lethality and missile firing capability. Importantly, the IA concluded (April 2010) that "Arjun had performed creditably and it could be employed both for offensive and defensive tasks with same efficacy of T-90 tank'.
Now if the Mk-I itself could do that, then the Mk-2 given its technology, will certainly do far better. In fact in terms of both firepower and survivability the Mk-I will easily surpass Eastern Bloc tanks with or without taking into account a missile firing capability. As such the Arjun Mk-2 is clearly something that the IA should be using to overmatch Pakistani tanks, especially in the desert sector where the T-90S's electronics and sights have been known to function erratically. This is now sought to be remedied, by retrofitting existing T-90Ss with an air-conditioning unit being developed by DRDO. In fact other sub-systems developed by DRDO for the Arjun Mk-2 program are also expected to be featured in the T-90S including CVRDE's ERA Mk-II. A DRDO developed commander's non panoramic thermal imaging sight for the T-90S has also entered production with Bharat Electronics Limited and the Ordnance Factory Board. The T-90S will also use indigenous high accuracy fibre optic gyros developed by DRDO's Research Center Imarat (RCI) and feature fire control systems originally developed for the Arjun Mk-2.
So, the T-90S upgrade path is similar to that followed for modifying T-72M1s to the CIA standard which includes indigenous ERA, navigation aids, an uprated 1000 HP power pack, fire suppression system, new displays and sights. Almost a 1000 CIA's have been delivered to the IA, which now probably feels that the time is ripe for upgrading older T-90S lots besides building new ones with the improved features, since production seems to have finally stabilized at around 90-100 units a year.
The T-90S's domestic production at HVF after all has been a difficult process with the Russian OEM refusing to transfer technology for vital assemblies such as the gun system (including the barrel) and turret armour plates. For the first 175 T-90s produced at Avadi, the gun system had to be imported off the shelf from Russia. However starting 2012, an indigenous 125 mm smooth bore gun developed by DRDO with a 'modified chemistry barrel' of the existing T-72 gun has gone into production having completed trials in 2010.This modified chemistry barrel has also successfully completed a life cycle test conducted at Armoured Corps Centre & School Ahmednagar. The last two years have also seen the indigenization of the T-90S's commander hatch control unit, indigenous production of 50 types of critical optical components of the T-90Sand indigenously developed cable harnesses for the same. Overall the latest batches of T-90Ss will be between 80-90 percent indigenous by value. At the moment HVF is racing to fulfil the old indent of 300 tanks (of which 80 percent may have been delivered) and is looking to commence production for some 236 more tanks as per the December 2013 indent given to it by the IA. Overall the number of T-90Ss in the IA's inventory today is just over 900 units.
Even as the domestic production of the T-90S stabilizes there may be a move underway to procure some 354 T-90MS tanks from Russia directly to counter the Chinese at some points on the LAC. Proposals for any more direct import from Russia however is a little strange given that the focus instead should be on producing sizeable numbers of Arjun Mk-2s and deploying them in the Punjab and Jammu sectors as well which would free up enough domestically built T-90Ss to be deployed against China. With a power /weight ratio of 21.0, and the nominal ground pressure (NGP) of 0.95 kg/cm2 the Arjun Mk-2 is more than capable of being deployed in these areas. Moreover the .feasibility report by the railways has confirmed that the movement of Arjun loaded wagon anywhere is not a problem. The Arjun Mk-2 is strategically mobile enough to be deployed to Punjab especially given that enough bridging equipment of maximum load class 70 is available anyway.
A larger production run for the Arjun Mk-2 say of the order of about 500 units will allow its developers to indigenize about 70 percent of its systems, from the current 40 percent. This is important because having domestic suppliers for these systems with stabilized quality will make it easier to productionize the proposed FMBT at a future date which will use sub-systems of this variety that have been refined and improved. It must be noted that while CIA induction is well and good many of the IA's T-72s will run out of their designed service lives by the early 2020s which would mean that new tanks would have to replace them given the IA's authorized tank strength of some 3717 units.
Some of the replacements will be Arjun Mk-2s themselves, others however will be the FMBT that will have to be kept at around 50 tons by weight as far the IA's broad requirements go. The IA however has still not been able to narrow down precisely what it wants from the FMBT, but broadly speaking this tank will feature either a 125 mm or 120 mm smoothbore gun with missile firing capability, an active protection system, next generation hydro-pneumatic suspension that will be succeeded by fully active suspension and a power pack that generates either 1500 or 1800 HP. At the moment it seems that the 1500 HP Bharat Power Pack under development as a national mission mode project involving DRDO and industry will power the FMBT which the IA may want to be closer to 45-50 tons than not.