by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 11th Sept 2007
The Mahajan Field Firing Ranges (MFFR), near Suratgarh, in Rajasthan, a hive of army activity between September and March, transforms into desolation during the summer months. During that interregnum, the emptiness, the blazing 50-degree-plus heat, the absence of water, and the unrelenting sandstorms make MFFR an ideal testing ground for equipment that the army proposes to buy.
Here, over the last 33 years, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) has carried out scores of often-unsuccessful trials on India’s Arjun tank. It is here, during this bygone summer, that the MFFR was to host the mother of all duels: full-scale comparative trials, in which the Arjun tank was to be compared with the army’s workhorses, the Russian T-72 and the new-generation T-90 tanks. If the Arjun performed satisfactorily (nothing better was even imagined) the army would buy 124 tanks, a miniscule purchase considering that its fleet has 3500 tanks. This token order, worth Rs 2250 crores, is believed to constitute a face-saving closure to the three-decades old DRDO project that had spent Rs 300 crores on developing the Arjun.
But this long-playing tale has taken a rousing twist comparable with the most unlikely of underdog success stories. Recent technological breakthroughs in the Arjun project appear to have transformed what was an underperforming liability into something close to a world class 60-tonne Main Battle Tank (MBT) that could literally kick sand in the face of the Russian favourites. Army sources reveal that there was apprehension that the DRDO-built Arjun could outperform the Russian-origin tanks in all three determinants of tank ability: mobility, firepower, and protection. Now, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), at the request of the army, has cancelled the comparative trials.
Confirming that comparative trials would no longer be held, the MoD reasoned that it wasn’t possible to compare “a Maruti with a BMW”. The MoD’s logic that the 60-tonne Arjun couldn’t be compared with the 46-tonne T-90 is hardly credible; neither tank has gained or lost much weight since the comparative trials were ordered. The real reason for cancelling the trials is that if, in head-to-head trials, the Arjun proved to be the better tank, there was no way the project could be buried with an order of only 124 tanks. Instead, the army’s entire tank procurement programme would need to be reworked; the Arjun would take a sizeable bite out of the T-90’s share of the pie.
That would be a huge boost to India’s indigenous tank programme, but a blow to the army’s preference for the Russian T-90. Even as the Arjun’s designers fume at the Central Vehicles R&D Establishment (CVRDE) near Chennai, army chief General JJ Singh will visit Russia next week. High on his agenda is a billion-dollar deal for the purchase of 347 more T-90 tanks. Next month, Defence Minister AK Antony will be in Russia too; the T-90 deal could be signed during his visit.
It is ironical that the MoD, which financed and supported the Arjun programme through three decades of failure, has turned away just when the tank seems to have overcome its major problems. After a miserable failure in 2005, when the tank’s electronics proved utterly inadequate, the turning point came last year. In summer 2006, firing trials established, in the words of the army’s own trial team, that the "accuracy and consistency of the Arjun tank was (sic) proved beyond doubt". Later, the MoD stated to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence that, "Arjun's firing accuracy is far superior to the other two tanks." This summer, the army raised another objection: the Arjun should be able to drive for 20 minutes in six feet of water. The CVRDE has managed that as well.
At the Arjun test track at Avadi, I drove the tank for an hour over a series of obstacles that would stretch any tank in the world. The Arjun’s chronic problems with the suspension and with overheating were nowhere in evidence. While this hardly constituted a serious trial, the Arjun surely deserves to be put through comparative trials, if only to empirically determine which of India’s options is the best. This is especially important in the light of many reports that the T-90 is facing serious problems with its electronics in the desert heat. The army is planning to air-condition all its T-90s, a situation that is unlikely to work.
For now, despite the Arjun turnaround, its future seems uncertain. From October 07, the army will put the tank through trials; without the baseline parameters that would have been provided by the T-72 and the T-90 in comparative trials, its designers fear that the tank could be accepted or rejected based on arbitrary criteria.
If there is a silver lining in the dark clouds over the Arjun, it is in the fact that army officers and jawans who are involved in the tank’s development and trials are developing confidence in the Arjun. Once the tank enters service, this constituency could grow in size and influence. As Secretary of Defence Production, KP Singh observed, “When the army uses this tank, who is to say what they think about it. God knows, they may just fall in love with it and decide that the entire production line should be Arjuns only. Who knows?”