(Photo at left: Mahajan Ranges, Rajasthan, 29th June 2006. Major General BS Grewal, GOC 33 Armoured Division, posing with his target after firing two rounds from an Arjun tank. The holes made by the armour piercing rounds are visible in the upper part of the bulls-eye. With Gen Grewal is Maj Gen HM Singh, the officer who has spearheaded the Arjun's development for 28 years)
(Photo at right: The same day, Maj Gen Shiv Jaswal, Chief of Staff, 10 Corps with his target. This was the first time he had ever driven or fired a tank)
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th June 08
India’s own Arjun tank is finally proving its worth. Despite continuing criticism from an army establishment that judges the Arjun far more strictly than foreign purchases like the T-90, the Arjun is successfully completing a gruelling 5000-kilometre trial in the Rajasthan desert. During six months of trials, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO), along with tank crews from the army’s 43 Armoured Regiment, have proved not just the Arjun’s endurance, but also the ability of its computer-controlled gun to consistently blow away suitcase-sized targets placed more than a kilometre away.
The army’s Directorate General of Mechanised Forces (DGMF), which must eventually okay the tank, is not impressed but key decision-makers are rallying behind the Arjun. The head of the Pune-based Southern Command, Lieutenant General N Thamburaj, strongly backs the Arjun. On a visit to the Mahajan Field Firing Ranges in Rajasthan to watch his troops exercising, Lt Gen Thamburaj noticed the Arjun firing nearby. After walking across, he was invited by the DRDO team to drive and fire the tank. Half an hour later, the general was an Arjun backer; two holes in the target he aimed at testified that a soldier without previous experience operating tanks could get into the Arjun and use it effectively.
Business Standard has evidence of many more such incidents. On 29th June 2006, the commander of the elite 31 Armoured Division, Major General BS Grewal, visited the Mahajan Ranges along with a colleague, Major General Shiv Jaswal. Both drove and fired the Arjun for the first time that day; the two rounds that each fired punched holes through targets almost two kilometres away. (see picture)
That same month, 43 Armoured Regiment, which is the first army tank unit equipped with the Arjun, pronounced itself delighted with the Arjun’s firing performance. After firing trials in summer 2006, 43 Armoured Regiment endorsed, “The accuracy and consistency of the Arjun has been proved beyond doubt.”
But the establishment was quick to strike back. Barely three months after that report, the commanding officer of 43 Armoured Regiment, Colonel D Thakur, was confronted by then Director General of Mechanised Forces, Lt Gen DS Shekhawat. Eyewitnesses describe how he was upbraided for “not conducting the trials properly”. But in a career-threatening display of professional integrity, Colonel Thakur’s brigade commander, Brigadier Chandra Mukesh, intervened to insist that the trials had been conducted correctly.
In a series of interviews with the army, including the present Director General of Mechanised Forces, Lt Gen D Bhardwaj, and with the MoD top brass, Business Standard has learned that opposition to the Arjun remains deeply entrenched. This despite the soldiers of 43 Armoured Regiment declaring that if it came to war, they would like to be in an Arjun.
Minister of State for Defence Production, Rao Inderjeet Singh recounts, “I’ve spoken, off the record, to officers who have gone through the trials. Even the crews (from 43 Armoured Regiment)… who have been testing the tank… I forced them to choose between the Russian tanks and the Arjun. I said, you’ve driven this tank and you’ve driven that tank (the T-90). Now mark them out of ten, which tank is better? And I’ve found that the Arjun tank was given more numbers than the T-90 tank.”
With new confidence, the Arjun’s developer, the Central Vehicles R&D Establishment (CVRDE), is arguing strongly for “comparative trials”, in which the Arjun would be pitted head-to-head, in identical conditions, with the army’s T-90 and T-72 tanks. But the DGMF continues to resist any such face-off.
(Next: Part II: The DGMF’s back-pedalling on comparative trials)