A lot has been written on the whipping given by our very own home-grown battle tank Arjun to that upstart of a Russian import T 90, in recently concluded comparative trials between the two. More muted are the voices about the Army’s dissatisfaction with Arjun. Passions often run high between the unfortunate adversaries in this drama, who rightfully should be on the same side of the fence. On one side is the user – the Army. At stake for the Army, if the tank fails to perform as promised, are possible lost battles and wars, own casualties and loss of reputation. On the other side is the developer – the DRDO, who feels its professional competence and reputation hinges on the acceptability of the tank, after taking a beating through all the years of delays and disillusionment. So it is understandable if each side wants to give and take no quarters. In this melee where each side is tearing down the other’s stance, often drumming up non issues to support their respective arguments, a balanced dispassionate view of the real concerns doesn’t seem to be emerging. Let us examine some of them.
National pride – indigenous vs imported equipment is one plank of DRDO’s argument. It has been insinuated that the army prefers the latter for reasons other than performance, despite availability of the former. The implied and sometimes stated slur is that there are vested interests involved in importing costly equipment when better, cheaper indigenous alternatives are available. The fact is that based on past experiences, institutional memory of the Army is instinctively distrustful of the promises and claims made by DRDO. The history of Project Arjun itself is one of delays, cost over runs and shortfalls in performance and reliability – as in the case of a number of other critical equipment. Army ends up as the loser, having to do without equipment upgrade since imports are stalled by DRDO’s promises of impending fructification of projects, which are not kept. As regards the cheaper indigenous alternative, it is neither cheaper (the Arjun is apparently costlier than the T 90) nor indigenous (from the engine to the fire control system to the transmission, all major components are of foreign origin ). Apparently the major components will be indigenized and the prices will fall as the numbers to be produced go up. There is also a basic difference in the perception of the relationship between DRDO and the Army by either side. The Army views itself as the user and DRDO as one of the vendors, and expects the same standards of service that a customer would from a vendor. DRDO on the other hands sees the Army as a captive customer that must have no option but to buy the equipment that is developed by it in order to support the development of indigenous technologies. The Army is not keen to be the guinea pig, particularly when testing grounds could be the next war.
Then there is the curious case of comparative trials. Curious because it is difficult to understand the parameters on which comparisons can be made between two tanks which are of different classes – one weighing 58 tons and the other 46 tons. The DRDO has gone to town in the press about how Arjun outran and outgunned the T 90 in the trials. Since there has been no views to the contrary from the Army, one must believe that either this is true, or that they have either been gagged into silent agreement or have resigned themselves to a silent submission.
Even if we take the most optimistic view, that our own indigenous tank is living up to all the promises made by the DRDO and outstripping the T 90 in every attribute, two major areas of concern remain. The first is regarding quality control. Even if Arjun has reached maturity of design and is capable of all that is claimed, manufacturing of each tank would require the highest standards of quality control, something that has been less than satisfactory in previous experience with indigenous production. The frequent bursting of gun barrels of indigenously manufactured T 72 Ajay tanks is an example of this. In fact, this is an issue that will require attention even for the T 90 tanks that are being manufactured indigenously. Often this concern does not find a distinct segregation from the aspects of design of the tank per se, and thus is affects the Army’s overall bias against Arjun. It would therefore be a good idea to understand design concerns separately from those of quality control during overall evaluation, and state these distinctly to avoid quality control issues clouding judgement about design.
The second major area of concern, which surprisingly has so far received a broad brush every time the Army has expressed it, is that Arjun weighs almost 25% more than tanks presently in service. Not only does this weight penalty pose severe restraints on logistics, it is a major stumbling block in the Army’s ability to use the heavier tank across different terrain configurations. Logistically, it means that the tank transporters and railway rakes required to carry these tanks from peacetime locations to the front and switch them between theatres of war will have to be upgraded – a major exercise in itself. Operationally, the weight poses severe restrictions in the movement of the tank in the developed areas astride the western border which is criss-crossed with canals and other obstacles. These have bridges of lower classifications which could be used by existing lighter tanks. Even the Combat Engineering equipment such as the assault bridges cater to a lighter tank, and will have to be changed. Also, the bigger size of the tank and its correspondingly higher silhouette makes it a bigger, more vulnerable target to enemy anti tank weapons.
Unfortunately, in its zeal to redeem itself, DRDO has been riding roughshod over all these objections of the Army. And, quite apparently it has better media management capabilities and clout with the government since not only has one not heard of these issues being discussed beyond perfunctory mention in any of the mainstream media, the army has been made to double its current order for Arjun tanks. While the Army had found a solution to the mobility problem for the first lot of Arjuns by employing them in the desert sector where bridges don’t pose a problem, the defence planners must now be scratching their heads on what to do with the additional numbers imposed on them.
Considering all this, there is a need for pragmatic reassessment. Arjun in its present form must be viewed as a big achievement, but a major step in the journey and not the destination. Rather than trying to prove its success through forcing more numbers on to an unwilling Army, DRDO must take pride in all that it has achieved so far, and move onwards to a design that is closer to the overall requirement of the customer.