On 22nd and 23rd July, tank experts from across the world gathered in Delhi. The occasion was a seminar --- organised by the Indian Army’s Directorate General of Mechanised Forces (DGMF) in partnership with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) --- aimed at advising the Indian Army on how best to go about designing its next generation of armoured vehicles: the Future Main Battle Tank (FMBT) and Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV). Despite two years of labour, the army’s tank directorate, the DGMF, has failed to decide on a suitable design.
As many of these experts told me, on condition of anonymity, the DGMF’s problems lie in its decision to start designing an MBT all over again. Instead of building on two decades of experience gained while designing the indigenous Arjun tank, perhaps by framing the requirements for an advanced version of the Arjun, the army is going back to the start line.
Experts at the seminar --- including Israeli tank legend, Maj Gen Yossi Ben-Hanan, who designed that country’s successful Merkava tank --- pointed out that tank design is evolutionary, each design building upon the previous one. The Israelis began designing their Merkava-1 MBT in 1970; today they have the world class Merkava-4. The US Army put all their World War II experience into designing the M-47; that led, through the M-48 and the M-60, to the successful M-1 Abrams design. The Russians started in 1940 with the T-32 tank; the great tank battles on the Eastern Front during the Second World War saw the T-32 fathering the T-54. That led to the T-55; the T-72 followed, which was further refined to today’s T-90.
India, like many religious fundamentalists, has rejected the theory of evolution. The Combat Vehicles R&D Establishment (CVRDE) in Chennai, which has designed the Arjun, is now offering an improved Arjun-2 with more modern electronics. But last month, the army’s top tank-man, Lt Gen D Bhardwaj, trashed two decades of indigenous design work on the Arjun; he declared that the army would buy just 124 Arjuns for its 4000-tank fleet.
On 23rd July, Maj Gen Yossi Ben-Hanan warned the audience, “A decision taken today to build an Indian tank will yield an MBT only 15 years hence.”
And so, for the next15 years, while India grapples with a fresh design and fresh design problems, Russia will fill the Indian inventory, just as it has for the last 35 years. Frustrated army procurement manages point out that Moscow has flagrantly violated the February 2001 contract to supply India with 310 Russian-built T-90s and then transfer the technology, materials and components to build another 1000 in India. Seven years after that contract was signed, not a single T-90 has rolled out of Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF) Avadi, where they are to be built. Senior MoD sources explain that Russia has failed to provide the critical technologies and components needed for T-90 manufacture.
Russia has not been sued for this breech of contract; instead it has been rewarded. Last December, India ordered 347 more fully built T-90s, at prices far higher than the first batch. (I understand that the first 310 T-90s cost India about Rs 9 crores apiece; the second batch of 347 T-90s will cost Rs 14 crores each, an escalation of over 50%) But most crucially, the December 2007 contract for 347 T-90s will delay the indigenous manufacture of T-90s even further, since the Russian plant cannot transfer any components or materials until it meets the fresh Indian order.
A furious official from HVF Avadi calls it “the perfect Catch-22 situation.”
Meanwhile, the 310 T-90s, which have been delivered by Russia and introduced into service, are far from battle worthy. The crucial tank Fire Control System (FCS), especially the Thermal Imaging Sight, through which the crew aims and fires at the enemy, has failed to function in Indian summers. An obliging Russian industry body, Rosoboronexport, offered to sell India “tank air conditioners”, even though no other tank in our inventory needs or uses air-conditioning.
The Russian air-conditioners were put through trials, which were a miserable failure. The driver of the trial tank fainted from heatstroke. Now the MoD has floated a global tender for air-conditioning the T-90s, as well as the T-72s which have functioned without air-conditioners for the last 29 years.
Meanwhile, the new Arjun production line at HVF Avadi has already churned out close to 70 Arjun tanks. They like there uncollected, even as the rate of production is quickening. The army continues to stonewall the Defence R&D Organisation’s (DRDO’s) pleas for comparative trials between the Arjun, the T-90, and the near-obsolescent T-72. The Arjun has successfully completed Phases IV and V of the Accelerated Usage cum Reliability Trials (AUCRT) which finished last month, during which the Arjun’s electronics worked flawlessly, without any air-conditioning.
But the DGMF is sticking to its guns; the army refuses to accept more Arjuns.