The Saga of MBT- Arjun

Following a trials program in Rajistan the Indian Army announced on May 17that it was ordering an additional 124 Arjuns - something of a surprise given the tank's troubled past.

1st Jun 2010


Following a trials program in Rajistan the Indian Army announced on May 17that it was ordering an additional 124 Arjuns - something of a surprise given the tank's troubled past.

In modern-day battle, the Main Battle Tank (MBT) plays a crucial role, on account of its ability to provide lethal fire power with cross country mobility, protection from both conventional and nuclear threats and flexibility with regard to changing battle situations. With two hostile neighbours around it, the Indian Army’s need for state-of-the-art MBT goes beyond any explanation. From time to time the Army has sought to arm its armoury with MBTs of contemporary technology. This started with the Vijayanta in the early sixties to T-90 in the early twenty first century. However, the quest for modern MBTs with indigenous design and technology is still at large. The MBT Arjun which was sanctioned way back in the early seventies in a move to put India as a major defence manufacturer and enhance self-reliance in defence production, has been marred with delays, cost overruns and mistrust between the user and the developer.

MBT Arjun: From 1974 to 2010

With a view to enhance self-reliance in defence production in general and production of major weapon system in particular, the Indian government in May 1974 sanctioned a project for the design and development of MBT-Arjun. The project was based on Army’s General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQRs), which was formulated in 1972. The GSQR however envisaged design and development of prototype vehicle and system integration with imported components. The project was spearheaded by the Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE) of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the premier R&D agency under the Ministry of Defence. The cost of project was fixed at Rs 0.155 billion, including a foreign exchange component of Rs. 0.037 billion. As per the original plan, Arjun was to be inducted into the Army during 1985-2000 to replace Vijayanta tanks which were to be phased out from 1985. The sequence of events leading to the induction of Arjun were: four ‘mild steel’ prototypes for trial by 1980, eight armoured prototypes by 1982, trickle production by April 1983 and bulk production by April 1984.

However the above schedule has undergone several changes. Eight years after the project was sanctioned, the Army in 1982 changed its GSQR, requiring a fresh design to enable Arjun to perform as “a futuristic battle tank with advanced features”. The prototypes developed as per 1982 GSQR were however not up to army’s expectation, leading to further revision of GSQR in 1985. In consonance with the new GSQR, a consensus was arrived at in May 1987 by DRDO and the Army, under which the 12 MK-I prototypes based on imported propulsion units and seven MK-II prototypes with indigenous propulsion units were to be delivered for trial by June 1987 and June 1990, respectively. At the same time it was also envisaged that 23 MK-I pre production series (PPS) tanks would be delivered by the end of 1988 and the bulk production would start from 1990 onwards. As against this, 12 MK-I prototypes with imported propulsion units were produced by February 1989 and 15 MK-I PPS tanks up to December 1996, indicating delays of about two years and eight years respectively. More significantly the building of MK-II with an indigenous propulsion unit beyond the first one had to be abandoned all together due to problems with the development of an indigenous air cooled engine, and the Army’s preference for water cooled 1400 hp power pack.

In addition to schedule delay, the development of Arjun was beset with many technical problems, which were noticed during the user evaluation of prototypes and PPS tanks delivered by DRDO for trial. The two prototypes that were put to trial by the Army until July 1989 revealed ‘major deficiencies’ such as overheating of engine, excess weight, very low mission reliability. Notwithstanding the above problems, the Defence Ministry took a decision for commencement of PPS of six tanks, much to the dissatisfaction of the Army, which insisted on the rectification of deficiencies before going ahead with PPS. In a Steering Committee, held in August 1990 and headed by Secretary Defence Production and Supplies of the MoD, the Army reiterated its position, saying that the deficiencies with regard to bogie wheels, suspension units, ammunition and fuel starvation must be taken care of, before the tank can go for PPS. The decision for PPS however remained intact after DRDO assured that all the deficiencies would be taken care of during the PPS stage.

The expectation from PPS Tanks was however not any better for the Army. During the summer trials of the first 14 PPS tanks, carried out between 1993 and 1996, the Army noticed deficiencies with regard to weapon system performance and the mission reliability of the tank. Being repeatedly frustrated with DRDO’s lack of success, the Army in 1994 laid down ‘ten bottom line parameters/imperatives’ for acceptance of Arjun. The 15th PPS tank, which was modified to accommodate Army’s 10 imperatives, was put to trial in April 1997. The performance of the tank during the trial was found to be much improved, but the overall reliability was ‘far from satisfactory’. The major deficiencies still pertained to accuracy of gun battle ranges, mission reliability, lethality of ammunition bin, and emergency traverse, among others.

Although the Army was not fully satisfied with the overall performance of PPS of Arjun, the government formally closed the project in 1995 at the total cost of Rs 3.07 billion, which was 20 times the original estimate. From the Army’s perspective, what was more frustrating was the MoD’s 1996 decision to go for limited series production (LSP) of 124 tanks, based on the 15th PPS tank as a reference tank, which had yet to convince the user. To accommodate the observations of the Army, a Joint Action Plan (JAP) was formulated in November 1997. The JAP emphasised on time bound implementation of the ‘outstanding observations and recommendations’ of the Army. In early 1999, it came to light that the DRDO had made ‘a substantial number of modifications/improvements’, and reportedly eight out of ten ‘imperatives’ had been met. Based on these improvements, the Army placed an indent on Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), initially for 15 LSP in November 1997 and cumulatively 124 in March 2000. The Heavy Vehicle Factory (HVF) at Avadi – one of the 40-odd factories functioning under the OFB, and also the nominated agency for the production of Arjun – handed over the first batch of five tanks to the Army in August 2004. As per the last information supplied by the MoD, the entire fleet of 124 Arjuns were to be handed over to the Army before March 2010.

The placement of indent and subsequent production of tanks notwithstanding, the Army has so far remained unconvinced about the Arjun’s battle worthiness. It wanted further trials to validate the performance of the tank. Between November 2007 and August 2008, it put two tanks of LSP to Accelerated Usage Cum Reliability Trials (AUCRT), covering more than 8000 km and 800 rounds of firing in each tank. (AUCRT is done primarily to assess the spare requirement for the entire life and the reliability of the tank). As brought by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence in April 2008, the tanks ‘performed poorly’ and encountered ‘four engine failures’. The problems noticed during AUCRT were though reportedly “solved immediately”, the Army wanted third party audit and certification by an internationally reputed manufacturer and a comparative trial with T-90 tanks. As per the MoD, the third party audit “confirmed that the MBT Arjun is an excellent tank with very good mobility and fire power characteristics suitable for the Indian desert”. The audit however provided some ‘inputs’ related to quality auditing, production and calibration procedures for further enhancing the performance of the tank.

Post-AUCRT, the Army put Arjun in a comparative trial with T-90 tanks from late 2009 to early 2010. Although an official declaration of the results was still awaiting as this issue went to press, the Indian media has given a verdict in favour of Arjun, noting that it “outperformed T-90 on every crucial parameter”.

Arjun and Indigenisation

When the design and development of Arjun was sanctioned way back in 1974, the major objectives were to eliminate dependence on foreign countries for armoured vehicles, place the country on a par with super powers in terms of tank design and production, and eliminate completely the outgo of foreign exchange.
After 36 years of development of tanks, the said objectives have however remained a mirage. In 2003-04, the Parliamentary Pubic Accounts Committee, while expressing its concerns noted that major systems of the MBT Arjun, such as, Power Pack, Gun Control and Fire Control systems are based on imported technology. In term of the cost estimates which were worked out for the 15 LSPs in December 1995, nearly 60 per cent of the total cost was related to imported suppliers. To the above concerns, the MoD submitted that given “MBT Arjun’s complexity, even when the different sub-systems are configured/designed indigenously, they will have to feature necessarily some imported components, the percentage of which are dictated by absence of manufacturing infrastructure and scales of economy.” The MoD also submitted that import content can be reduced from around 60 per cent in the prototype phase to 45 per cent with the manufacture of 300 tanks and to less than 30 per cent with the production of about 500 tanks. The MoD was of the opinion that a combination of licensed production based on imported technology and indigenous development of certain systems, can be undertaken to reduce the import content. As regards indigenous development, the DRDO is reportedly working on power pack, gunner’s main sight and track. The DRDO has repeatedly argued that integration of these systems is “feasible with enhanced order.”


Delay in Arjun Induction and Impact on Army’s Tank Inventory

As mentioned earlier, as per the original plan envisaged in 1974, Arjun was to replace Vijayanta tanks, which were expected to be outdated beyond 1985. In fact, from 1999-2000, the Army discontinued overhauling Vijayanta tanks, as they were “no more an operational asset”. As Arjun was nowhere in sight, the Army’s hope for MBT was only T-72. However the production/procurement of T-72 tanks at that point of time was not enough to replace the entire fleet of obsolete Vijayanta tanks, which numbered over 2100 by the end of 2001. As a result, the Army had a shortfall of 1425 tanks, as against 3717 tanks authorised to it based on the then existing Armoured Corps (AC) profile. The deficiency became a sort of national concern in view of acquisition of 300 T-80 tanks by Pakistan in the late nineties. To fill up the gaps, the government had no option but to resort to Russia for the supply of T-90 Tanks. So far India has concluded two major contracts with Russia for a cumulative total of 1657 T-90s. The first contract was signed in 2001 for the import of 310 tanks and license manufacture of a further 1,000 tanks at HVF, Avadi (for 310 tanks, 124 were procured off-the-shelf, and the balance of 186 tanks were assembled in India based on SKD (86) and CKD (100)). The license manufacturing of 1,000 tanks has been planned to be completed by 2014-15, with the annual production capacity reaching a peak of 120 tanks per year. The second contract, was signed in 2007, for import 347 T-90 tanks, of which 124 would be fully formed and the balance would be SKD/CKD kits to be assembled at HVF, Avadi.

Future of Arjun

In 2006-07, the Ministry of Defence in a reply to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence noted that the Army’s total tank requirement was around 3500. Keeping in view the 1657 T-90s that the Army would have by 2014-15, there is a huge scope for the MBT Arjun. However, there are primarily two hurdles which could come in the way of Arjun’s mass induction into Army. The first is the Army’s tryst with upgrading existing T-72 tanks. It has been learned from authoritative sources that the Army is planning to upgrade up to 2400 T-72s with new technologies and equipment, including a 1,000 HP engine, Auxiliary Power Unit, Commander Thermal Imaging Sight, Thermal Imaging Fire Control System, and Thermal Imaging Stand Alone System, among others. It is also learned that each upgraded T-72 would cost around Rs. 0.120 billion a piece. (In comparison, Arjun costs Rs. 0.172 billion a unit.) If the Army succeeds in upgrading the entire fleet of T-72s, Arjun’s chance for mass induction beyond 124 would be slim. However, the DRDO has not lost its hope altogether. It is presently working on Arjun Mark –II, hoping that the new tank, would meet the Army’s future requirements. It is believed that the new version of Arjun would feature in extra armour, and ability to fire anti-tank missile. However, how far the Army would be interested in the new tank remains an open question.

 

PARAMETERS

ARJUN (INDIA)

MERKAVA MK-3

(ISRAEL)

CHALLENGER -2 (UK)

M1 A2 ABRAMS (US)

LEOPARD (Germany)

LECLERC (France)

WEIGHT (TONS)

58.3

62

62.5

63

55.15

54.5

CREW

4

4

4

4

4

3

GROUND PRESSURE (KG/SQ. CM)

0.84

0.96

0.9

0.96

0.13

0.9

SPEED ON ROAD

75

55

56

72

72

71

SPEED CROSS COUNTRY (KM/H)

40

35

40

48

40

50

ARMAMENT MAIN TYPE

RIFLED

SMOOTH BORE

RIFLED

SMOOTH BORE

SMOOTH BORE

SMOOTH BORE

AMMUNITION TYPE

FSAPDS, HESH

FSAPDS, HEAT

FSAPDS, HESH

FSAPDS, MULTIPURPOSE

FSAPDS, MULTIPURPOSE

FSAPDS, HEAT

ENGINE (HP)

1400

1200

1200

1500

1500

1500

TYPE

DIESEL-10 CYLINDER TURBOCHARGED

TELEDYNE AVDS1760-6A TURBOCHARGED, DIESEL

V-12 DIESEL ENGINE

LYCOMING AGT 1500 GAS TURBINE

DIESEL-12 CYLINDER TURBOCHARGED

SACM-1500 VBX HYBER BAR

POWER TO WEIGHT RATIO (HP/T)

24

19.35

19.2

23.8

27

27.5

SUSPENSION

HYDRO GAS

TORSION BAR

HYDRO GAS

TORSION BAR

TORSION BAR

HYDRO GAS

FIRE CONTROL SYSTEM (TYPE)

INTEGRATED STABILISED SIGHT SYSTEM

COMPUTER BASED FIRE CONTROL SYSTEM

COMPUTER BASED FIRE CONTROL SYSTEM

INTEGRATED STABILISED SIGHT SYSTEM

INTEGRATED STABILISED SIGHT SYSTEM

COMPUTER BASED FIRE CONTROL SYSTEM

NIGHT VISION

THERMAL IMAGING

THERMAL IMAGING

THERMAL IMAGING

THERMAL IMAGING

THERMAL IMAGING

 

Defence Review Asia at a glance