By Atul Chandra
On May 1, the Indian Army (IA) celebrated its 71st Armour Day, marking the day when Scindia Horse became the first regiment in the IA to convert to Vickers light tanks and Chevrolet armoured cars. Though questions have been raised on the relevance of the Main Battle Tank (MBT) in the present-day battlefield, the tank with its mobility and firepower has proved its usefulness in combat zones all over the world, time and time again. However, seven decades on, the IA’s armoured modernisation plans lie in a shambles with large parts of the fleet obsolescent and lacking in capability to fight a war in the modern battlefield.
The IA’s armoured regiments are equipped almost exclusively with Russian era T-72M and T-90S MBT and insignificant numbers of the indigenous Arjun Mk-1. The T-90S will be the core of the armoured regiments with upgrades to enhance its combat performance and survivability. The IA has ordered a total of 1,657 tanks of which 1,000 will be built at Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF) Avadi. Approximately 200 T-90S tanks have been assembled at HVF till date and production is expected to be ramped up to 100 units a month over the next couple of years. This will mean that the IA would have inducted its entire fleet of T-90S tanks only by the end of this decade.
The indigenous assembly of the T-90S suffered significant delays of just over half a decade because Russia refused to complete the promised Transfer of Technology (ToT) related to gun barrels and armour plates to HVF.
However, despite all the hiccups the T-90S remains a potent MBT, keeping in mind the capability of potential adversaries in the region. The Army has lined up a number of improvements and upgrades to maintain its combat effectiveness. An Active Protection System (APS) and improved Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) will be fitted to the tank and this will substantially enhance the tank’s survivability. The need for such protection has been demonstrated in many conflicts including the clash between Israeli Merkava 4 tanks and Hezbollah troops in 2006. The Hezbollah’s innovative use of Russian wire-guided and laser-guided anti-tank missiles, including the Kornet, AT-14 damaged and destroyed a number of Merkava 4 tanks (the Merkava is said to have excellent crew protection). The anti-tank missiles used double phased explosive warheads.
An improved commander’s thermal sight will also be fitted. Thales of France supplied the Catherine FC thermal imagers (TI) that will be assembled at Dehradun by Ordinance Factory Board’s (OFB) Opto-Electronics factory. However, to cater for the excessive heat during desert operations which resulted in the sights being rendered inoperable, an environmental control system will be installed. An Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) will also be installed to provide sufficient power to run the environmental control system and keep the electronics running while the tank is stationary with the engine switched off. However, the limited space available on the tank makes the addition of the APU and cooling system a difficult task. Upgrades to the Fire Control System (FCS) are also being planned.
In addition to these, a digital control harness and Software Defined Radio (SDR) will also feature in improved versions of the T-90S. But the case for the digital control harness, which is used for communication inside the tank, has run into trouble with accusations being levelled at each other by competitors. Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and Larsen and Toubro (L&T) were the two companies shortlisted for the order of 6,698 digital control harnesses for the Army’s armoured vehicles. Addition of the SDR will enable secure communication and allow voice, data and radio communication. Presently, voice, data networks, radio communications are not interoperable to desired degree within the services. Current and legacy solid state radio sets differ in frequency bands, wave forms and secrecy algorithms. SDR will allow common standards and protocols to come for enhanced interoperability.
An important part of the armoured modernisation programme is the large numbers of ageing T-72M tanks that the Army has decided to upgrade in an effort to keep them relevant into the year 2020 and beyond. The large numbers of tanks in service with the attendant support and training infrastructure means that the Army cannot have them replaced with a more modern type despite calls to have the far superior Arjun Mk2 replace the oldest T-72s. The T-72 has served well and nearly 1,700 are still in service. However, maintenance and reliability rates have dropped and the tank is now increasingly maintenance intensive. Modernising the T-72 has also meant that the tank is now heavier by a substantial margin and will see its existing engine being replaced by a more powerful engine - 1000 shp V92S2 from the T-90. Summer trials were conducted last year and the upgrade will be done in stages.
Other upgrades in terms of night sights, FCS, navigation systems, radios etc. will also be done. Also added will be digital control harness and improved fire suppression system and improved Nuclear Biological Chemical (NBC) capability as on the T-90. Obtaining and stocking the required ammunition for both the T-90 and T-72 have proved to be problematic and is a situation that needs to be rectified. A recent Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report stated that Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) failed to develop required ammunition. The rounds were being imported even after 15 years. Last year, the Army had approved accelerated user trials with 500 rounds of the improved ammunition. A similar case occurred when a requirement arose for the development of a training version of the Fin Stabilised Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot (FSAPDS) ammunition was sanctioned in August 1996 to be completed by August 1998. The project was closed in December 2003, without the practice ammunition being accepted by the Army.
Surprisingly, ARDE claimed the ammunition to be successful in trial evaluation; an opinion the Army did not share. According to the CAG report in 2009, ARDE accepted the limitations of the practice ammunition it had developed and stated that the new technology established in the project will be utilised for development of practice ammunition for T-90 and Arjun tanks. Indigenously developed ammunition produced at OFB factories have also performed poorly resulting in the import of ammunition. The Army was forced to call for tenders in late 2010 for 75,000-100,000 rounds of FSAPDS (AMK-339) ammunition.
The Arjun Mk-2 is currently undergoing user trials in Pokhran, based on which the Army will confirm orders for 116 Mk-2 tanks. The Mk-2 will see an increase in weight from 62-67 tonne. This is as a result of addition of ERA panels, APS and track width mine plough. The 1,500 shp MTU engine with RENK transmission has been retained as it is proven in Indian conditions. The Mk-2 will also feature missile firing capability and a remote controlled weapon system atop the turret. It will also feature an improved commander’s panoramic sight with night vision, hunter killer capability between the commander, gunner and loader. These will also reduce the wear and tear on the barrel during training. In terms of protection, the Mk-2 will have full-frontal ERA and will use the same structuring as on the T series tanks.
DRDO is redeveloping the explosive element (Russian) with better protection capability and it is being developed at High Energy Materials Research Laboratory (HEMRL). This will be used across Arjun, T-90 and T-72 and represent a significant foreign exchange saving when used across all three platforms. Active Protection Systems that use a laser warning system will also be incorporated on the Mk-2. The Israeli ‘Trophy’ system is being considered for the Mk-2. An APU generating in excess of 8 KW of power, almost double of that present in the Mk-1, is being fitted. While the Arjun Mk-2 with all improvements will cost approximately Rs 34 crores, many of the features available on the Mk-2 are not available on the T-90.
The Indian Army’s armour acquisition and upgrade programme is beset with delays and procurement snafus. There is also the issue of HVF Avadi simply unable to cope with the requirements of overhaul and upgrade of T-72M and assembly of T-90S tanks. Another issue is that with enough orders on hand for the T-90 there is no incentive for HVF to focus on the small numbers of Arjun tanks ordered, or invest in improving the quality of the Arjun tanks manufactured. This is a double-edged sword for the Arjun programme as lack of quality control results in the user not placing more orders and lack of orders prevents the programme from reaching economies of scale and investing in quality measures. Upgrading the Army’s newest T-72 tanks means that the enormous infrastructure that exists for the T-72 can be put to good use. For the Indian Army, more than four decades of using Russian tanks is a hard bond to break. It will continue to field close to 3,000 upgraded T-72 and T-90 MBTs for the next two decades. The T-90s will, of course, go on to serve till 2030 and beyond.
While the T-90 will be the backbone of the armoured tank fleet in the years to come various aspects of its performance have been questioned and product support remains a bugbear. What is surprising, however, is that while the Indian Army has staunchly stood by the T-90, Chief of Russian Ground Forces Col Gen. Alexander Postnikov expressed his unhappiness with the performance of the T-90. In an unprecedented public outburst earlier this year, he called it the ‘17th modification of the T-72’ and suggested that ‘Russia spend the Rbs 118 million (USD 4 million) per tank to buy three German Leopard MBTs instead.
In 2011, the Russian Defence Ministry stopped purchase of T-90 tanks in view of its high price. Another Russian newspaper report later cautioned against acquiring imported tanks, stating that “By purchasing foreign military equipment, we automatically become dependent on its producers, ranging from training of personnel to delivery of spare parts that are easily damaged, and in whose absence this equipment becomes useless scrap metal.” Keeping that statement in mind, it is imperative that the upgrades to the Army’s tank fleet are completed in as short a time-frame as possible to ensure that the combat edge of the armoured regiments is retained. More importantly, work on the Future Main Battle Tank (FMBT) must be taken up as a national project to ensure that a replacement is ready to fill the gap in force levels as the bulk of the T-72 tanks start to retire.