(Photographs: by Ajai Shukla: An Arjun MBT goes through its paces on the test track at the Central Vehicles Research and Development Establishment, or CVRDE, at Avadi, Chennai)
by Ajai Shukla
(Business Standard: 19th April 2008)
The battle-lines have been drawn. At stake is the future of one of India’s most prestigious defence products: the Arjun main battle tank (MBT). In its 29th report, which was tabled in parliament yesterday, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence writes that it was “startled” to be told that the Arjun tank had performed poorly in winter trials conducted by the army, and that it was miles away from meeting the army’s requirements.
Business Standard has learned from three different members of the Standing Committee on Defence that it is more than “startled”; it is frankly disbelieving of the army’s deposition. In its last annual report for 2007-08, the committee was told by the MoD that the Arjun tank was:
- “A product unique in its class”, and “an improved system over the T-72.”
- “Rs 6-8 crores cheaper than its contemporary system in the West”.
- “Far superior (in firing accuracy) to the other two tanks (T-72 and T-90)”.
- “Driven for over 60,000 kms and fired more than 8,000 rounds. There was no problem.”
After the army representative slammed the Arjun, the Standing Committee chairman, Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, as well as the Defence Secretary, and several other members agreed that the committee would formulate a clear policy on India’s tank of the future. Underlying this decision is the belief amongst most members of the Standing Committee that the army is biased against the Arjun tank, and in favour of continuing to use Russian T-72 and T-90 tanks.
There were clear factual inaccuracies in the army’s deposition before the Standing Committee. The most glaring of them is the army’s suggestion that it is carrying out trials on the Arjun’s performance. In fact, the army has already accepted the Arjun for introduction into service, based upon its driving and firing performance over years. After firing trials in summer 2006, the trial report (written by the army) said, “The accuracy and consistency of the Arjun has been proved beyond doubt.”
The ongoing trials in Pokhran that the army is citing are Accelerated Usage cum Reliability Trials (AUCRT). In these, two Arjun tanks were run almost non-stop for 3000 kilometers, not to judge performance, but to evaluate the tank’s requirement of spare parts, fuel and lubricants during its entire service life. In fact, it is the Arjun’s developer, the Central Vehicle R&D Laboratory (CVRDE), Avadi, that has long demanded comparative trials, where the performance of five Arjuns would be gauged against five Russian T-90s and T-72s. The army has consistently sidestepped that invitation.
The army has also testified incorrectly to the Standing Committee about four engine failures during the recent AUCRT. In fact, sources closely associated with the trials say, the problems were with four gearboxes, manufactured by German company, Renk AG. A world leader in transmission systems, Renk representatives are already in Pokhran and Avadi, analysing and resolving the problem.
The army does not mention, but problems were also experienced with four hydro-pneumatic suspension units (HSUs), which leaked after the Arjuns had run 2000 kilometers. But the Arjun’s makers say 2000 kilometers is the service life of the suspension; normally they would have been replaced before the point at which they leaked.
Officers closely associated with the Arjun, as well as several members of the Standing Committee on Defence contrast the army’s approach to the Arjun with the navy’s acceptance of indigenous projects. They say the navy has achieved striking success in building its own warships, by associating itself with the project right from the design stage; warships are accepted into service and many hiccups overcome during their service lives. In contrast, the army is resisting accepting the Arjun until every last hiccup is resolved by the DRDO.
An application to interview the army’s Director General of Mechanised Forces (DGMF) was approved by the MoD eight months ago. However, the DGMF has not granted an interview so far because of “scheduling problems.”