June 3, 2015: Strategy Page
India continues to have problems with its tank fleet. The latest disaster is the low readiness of the 120 locally designed Arjun tanks the army was forced to buy in order to keep an Indian tank factory working. After several years of use over 70 percent of the Arjuns are inoperable because of technical problems, mostly relating to imported spare parts. Over half the Arjun components are foreign made and the procurement bureaucracy, the army and the Arjun factory cannot agree on specifications and quantities of these parts. In addition to that there are dozens of unresolved technical problems with Arjun. All this adds up to nearly a hundred separate problems that need to be resolved to increase the readiness rate. The government seems to agree that Arjun is a failure and while the factory only has to make four more, it also now has orders for 118 Arjun 2s.
The order for the 124 original Arjuns came about in 2010 when competitive tests between the Indian designed (by DRDO, the government defense research and development organization) Arjun and Russian T-90 tank resulted in an unexpected victory by the Arjun. The Indian Army had been compelled (by pro-Arjun politicians) to conduct a field test between the domestically designed (but troubled and largely rejected) Arjun tank, and the Russian T-90 (now considered the army's primary tank). Fourteen of each tank were used, and the results were classified. But journalists had no trouble getting unofficial reports that the Arjun managed to best the T-90 in tests of mobility, endurance and gunnery.
This was surprising because until then Arjun was considered an expensive and embarrassing failure. Development of the Arjun began in the 1980s and by 2006 the army had received only five of them, for testing and evaluation. The evaluation did not go well. Originally, the Arjun was to have replaced thousands of older Russian tanks, but after so many delays, the army only reluctantly accepted enough to equip one Armored Brigade. The new test reports resulted in renewed pressure on the army to buy more Arjuns.
One good thing came out of this competition and that was the agreement by the Arjun developers to address the many technical problems with Arjun. To spare government or military officials’ embarrassment this was described as an effort to develop the next generation battle tank. Called the FMBT (Future Main Battle Tank), this vehicle aimed to build on the “success” of the Arjun.
This pitted the Defense Ministry weapons development and procurement bureaucrats against the generals. The bureaucrats were under pressure to deliver because the competition was won by Arjun mainly because it was assumed that Arjun would have fixed all the problems it was having with its electronics and some other components. The main problems were with the fire control system, the engine, and that fact that its size and weight prevented it from being used with current tank transporters. Thus the FMBT was to be lighter (50 tons) and based on what worked in the Arjun and other modern tanks. The FMBT is expected to replace older Russian tanks. The result was called Arjun 2 and it fixed most of the Arjun problems, including the size and weight issues. Arjun 2 weighs 50 tons and 60 percent of the components are Indian made. All this is optimistic, given what happened with the original Arjun and Indian developed weapons in general. The Arjun was originally intended as a replacement for most of the older T-72s and that still might happen.
Meanwhile in 2009 an Indian factory delivered the first ten (of a thousand) T-90 tanks to the Indian Army. The Russian designed armored vehicles are being built in India under license. Many of the components are Indian made, and some of the electronics are imported from Western suppliers. The Indian-made T-90s cost about $3 million each. India has already bought 700 Russian made T-90 tanks, at a cost of $3.5 million each. The Arjun 2 is expected to cost over $5 million each. The high price is due to a lot of high tech. This includes an active defense system to defeat anti-tank missiles, a much more powerful engine, lots of electronics and a hermetically sealed crew department to provide protection against chemical weapons and radiation. All this stuff is tricky to develop, just the sort of thing DRDO excels at screwing up. This is mostly the fault of the DRDO bureaucrats, who are not very good at using all the technical and manufacturing talent India has.
Back in 2006 India adopted the Russian T-90 as its new main battle tank. By 2020, India will have 2,000 upgraded T-72s, over 1,500 T-90s, and few hundred other tanks (including over 240 Arjuns, depending on how the Arjun 2 works out in practice). This will be the most powerful armored force in Eurasia, unless China moves ahead with upgrades to its tank force. The border between China and India is high in the Himalayan Mountains, which is not good tank country. India's tank force is mainly for use against Pakistan.
The T-90 is a highly evolved T-72. Originally, the T-90 was a fallback design. The T-80 was supposed to be the successor to the T-72. But like the T-62 and T-64 before it, the T-80 didn't quite work out as planned. So the T-72, with a much improved turret and all manner of gadgets, was trotted out as the T-90. Weighting 47 tons, its 7 meters (23 feet) long, 3.4 meters (11 feet) wide and 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) high. Same package, better contents. And with well-trained crews, it can be deadly. The original Arjun was a larger vehicle (59 tons, 10.7 meters long and 3.9 meters wide).
Arjun 2 is similar in size to the T-90. Indian armor experts, both military and civilian, are hoping the Arjun 2 is more like the T-90 than the Arjun. But the most worrisome aspect of the Arjun 2 project is DRDO which also developed Arjun. It's feared that the DRDO wonks have not learned from the many errors made with the Arjun. The hope is that the Arjun 2 will not be another DRDO disaster.