Why MBT Arjun should be embraced whole-heartedly by the army
Maj. Gen. Rambir Mann
During archery practice the class was asked to shoot at a bird perched on the branch of a tree. Before starting, Dronacharya asked the class what they could see. All except Arjuna described the bird and the tree, while Arjuna saw only the eye of the bird.
Nothing can better symbolise the challenges of developing domestic defence industrial capabilities than the development trajectory of our Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun. Ironically named after the warrior prince Arjuna, the story of the MBT, which was developed by the Indian defence industrial base, is a violation of Arjuna’s fundamental percept.
Instead of extreme focus towards a clear end-goal within defined timelines, the Indian defence industrial edifice failed as a whole with key elements pulling in different directions. Developed under a multi-laboratory programme of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) mainly at the Combat Vehicles Research & Development Establishment (CVRDE) facility. The development of Arjun Mark (Mk) 1 was followed by the improved variant Mk1A, and the under-development Mk II. Arjun Mk1A, which features 75 improvements including firepower and transmission systems, were trial-evaluated in 2014 and 2015. They completed the final integration tests in 2019 and was cleared for production with orders for 118 MBTs Mk IA placed.
The Arjun Mk II variant is a futuristic main battle tank (FMBT) with lighter net weight, an anti-tank missile, electro-optical sensors and high-power lasers. It is being developed by DRDO with a total of 93 upgrades, as per the requirements of the army and is seen as a potential replacement for the army’s ageing Russian T-72 fleet of 2,400 tanks. The Indian Army placed initial orders for 124 Mk I tanks in March 2000 with deliveries from August 2004 to May 2009. The army received all 124 tanks by 2011. In March and April 2010, comparative trials of a squadron each of the Arjun MBT Mk IA and the Russian T 90 Tank in Rajasthan deserts reportedly saw the Arjuns perform at par or better. The Indian Army subsequently ordered another 124Mk IA with 72 improvements and 14 major upgrades over the MK I, resulting in an increase in weight to 68 tons.
The MBT Arjun Mark I Journey
The progress made in the design and development of Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun was examined by the Public Accounts Committee (1988-89) and their findings were reported in the fifth Report (8th Lok Sabha) presented to Parliament on 28 April 1989. Subsequently, the 57th Report on the ‘Action Taken’ on the Fifth Report was adopted on 8 December 2003 by the Lok Sabha. Both these documents give a good account of the development trajectory of MBT Arjun.
Based on the General Staff Qualitative Requirement (GSQR) prepared by the army in August 1972 for MBT Arjun, the government sanctioned the Project for design and development of MBT Arjun by DRDO at a total cost of Rs 15.50 crores involving a foreign exchange component of Rs 3.70 crore in May 1974. The laudable objective was eliminating of foreign exchange outgo, dependence on foreign countries for design and manufacture of Armoured Fighting Vehicles, and to place the country on par with super powers in tank technology.
But it was only in 1983, that the DRDO laboratory (lab) Combat Vehicles Research & Development Establishment (CVRDE) entered into a consultancy agreement with M/s Krauss Maffei, Germany to provide total cover in the field of design, development, evaluation and establishment of testing facilities at a cost of Rs 89.50 lakh. This consultancy enabled CVRDE to generate documents on integration and evaluation of the Arjun concept and in the design and development of the MBT. Other connected labs of the DRDO and Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) such as Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF), were to support CRVDE in this multi-lab programme.
While designing it, frontline global technology were integrated into the tank with most key components and subsystems imported. The plan was to ensure bulk purchase and where possible licensed production or Transfer of Technology (TOT). As planned in 1974, four mild steel prototypes were to be offered for trials by April 1980 and eight armoured prototypes by April 1982. This time schedule was revised and as per commitment made in May 1987, 14 Mark (MK)-I prototypes based on imported propulsion units were to be delivered by June 1987. Thereafter MK I Pre Production Series (PPS) tanks were also to be produced by December 1988. As against this, the MK I prototypes were produced by February 1989 with trials carried out in March 1990 and 14 MK I PPS tanks up to December 1996.
The summer trials of MK I Prototypes revealed major deficiencies such as overheating of engine, excess weight, very low mission reliability besides others. On 26 July 1989, the army expressed their reservation about commencement of production of PPS tanks on the ground that a fully integrated tank was yet to be evaluated by them. The trials of the Pre-Production Series (PPS) Arjun tanks carried out between June 1993 and July 1996 also revealed major deficiencies with the weapon systems performing well below the acceptable level and the mission reliability of the tank alarmingly low. The tank was thus not acceptable to the army.
Consequently, the Army Headquarters in consultation with DRDO laid down 10 bottomline parameters/imperatives for acceptance of MBT. Subsequently, despite carrying out modifications/ improvements in the PPS tanks, the summer trials of April 1997 revealed continued deficiencies and the army indicated that in its present form, the overall reliability of MBT Arjun was not satisfactory. A time-bound joint Action Plan (JAP) was hereafter evolved in November 1997 for resolving the outstanding observations/ recommendations of the army.
As the army was not satisfied with the performance of PPS tanks l to 14, it was mutually decided between the army and DRDO in March l996 that no design freeze would be made before commencement of production till a fully integrated MBT (PPS 15) was made available and successfully evaluated by the army. The ministry of defence (MoD), however, sanctioned the manufacture of 15 number of Limited Series Production (LSP) tanks by Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) at an estimated cost of Rs 162 crore in August 1996, without CCPA’s approval and also decided to commence LSP work using PPS 12 as reference tank for bulk production in place of PPS 15. This parallel action was sought to be taken by DRDO and MoD to overcome the long lead time required for the planning for bulk production, technology transfer, floating of enquiries for procurement, training of manpower etc.
However, as observed by the committee, most of the related activities for commencement of bulk production started only after obtaining the approval of Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in February 1999 after Army Headquarters’ clearance of the PPS 15 tank as the reference tank for LSP in January 1998. The Committee thus concluded that the sanction for production of tanks accorded by the MoD in August 1996 in the absence of approval from CCS was irregular.
The ‘Action Taken Report’ also noted with concern the steep increase in the estimated cost of the Project for design and development of MBT-Arjun. The initial cost of the MBT Project which was estimated at Rs 15.50 crore in 1974 was revised to Rs 56.55 crore in 1980 and to Rs 280.80 crore in 1987. The actual expenditure was, however, Rs 307.48 crore in March 1995. The Committee noted that the manner in which cost estimates of the Project have been revised from time to time is indicative of a tendency of getting projects sanctioned by under estimation of costs generally and also by omission of several essential requirements which could be later incorporated without much trouble because of their essentiality. While escalation in cost may partly be due to revisions in the GSQR and addition of certain new features, abnormal delay in design and development of MBT also contributed immensely towards escalation of cost.
The production of MBT-Arjun commenced with the release of an indent by the army for the manufacture of 124 tanks (including 15 Limited Series Production) on the OFB in March 2000 with the first tank scheduled to be rolled out in 2002 and two regiments to be equipped by the year 2007. However, no tank rolled out from Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF) till 2003, and the Committee expressed their serious apprehensions about further delays as procurement of a number of major systems like gun control system, fire control system, power-pack and transmission system was still in the preliminary stage of negotiations with the importers. The various reasons adduced to these delays included non-availability of power pack from import sources, challenges inherent in the development of other technology intensive systems and modules, inadequate infrastructure for manufacture and testing, and frequent changes in GSQR by the army.
The Committee, however, opined that in the case of a developmental Project that takes such a long time and involves fast developing technology, the User had no choice but to update GSQRs as new threats and technology becomes available globally. The DRDO project team should have aptly taken care of this aspect while planning the project. In hindsight, the MoD was well aware of the fact that it takes around 15 to 20 years for the manufacture of an MBT of the Arjun class even by the industrially advanced countries. It is thus inconceivable that the ministry initially set targets that were hard to achieve in view of the technological complexities of MBT and the infrastructural inadequacies in our defence production units. The delay in development and production of MBT Arjun was thus attributable to a considerable extent, to deficient Project management and monitoring.
Two regiments of the Indian Army were finally equipped from the first tranche of 124 with MBT Arjun Mk I by 2009 and formed part of an Armoured Brigade operating in South Rajasthan, but without any supporting infrastructure (Overhaul Facility, Armoured Recovery Vehicles, Bridge Laying Tanks, Tank Transporters) and spares back-up. With the production of the tank and ammunition now handed over to the Ordinance Factory Board (OFB), Quality Assurance (QA) issues started arising as the deployed tanks were exploited in training. Gun tubes started chipping during firing and due to non-availability of spares, the tanks were non-operational from 2013 to 2015. This was also adversely commented upon by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). Apparently, the foreign components and sub system manufacturers were charging exponentially due to limitations of small orders. An operationalisation drive personally monitored by the defence minister in 2014 to 2016 resulted in full functionality of these tanks.
There are many key takeaways of the MBT Arjun programme. To start with, the system configuration of MBT Arjun has been done wholly in India by DRDO’s engineers and scientists. Most of the technology intensive sub-systems have also been configured indigenously.
However, due to inadequate design expertise in certain select areas and constraints in manufacturing infrastructure and scales of economy, some subsystems and components, though configured in India were sourced largely from reputed European Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to meet specific needs of the programme. To start with, the import content in the mechanical systems was approximately 20 per cent and 40 per cent in hydraulic, electronic and optoelectronic systems, making a 60 per cent import content overall. As learnt during a conversation with a programme scientist, the import content has now been limited to 35 per cent and mainly comprises the engine, transmission, sighting and gun control systems and gun tube. This will further reduce based on the production volumes.
Variants based on the MBT Arjun hull are under development with the ARV being fielded and well received in the field. Further, a team of well-qualified, trained and experienced professionals comprising 300 engineers, 600 technical staff and 600 industrial employees has been generated for any futuristic task, a proportion of which was made available to the production agencies for TOT activities. The extensive field experience acquired the field evaluation of MBT Arjun has also produced enormous expertise in trial related activities.
The pre-production tanks delivered to users during this period have together covered 60,000 kms of automotive trials and fired well over 6,000 rounds, averaging 4,000 kms run and more than 400 rounds per tank. This would perhaps surpass global testing standards for MBTs of the Arjun class. Officers from the Armoured Regiments and Armoured Brigade fielding the MBT, swear by it. In a conversation with an erstwhile brigade commander and Commanding Officer (CO) of an Arjun Regiment, it was learnt that the only problem has been the lack of supporting infrastructure and spares. As regards the oft criticised 68 tonne weight class, it was learnt that the Arjun has been tested in exercises and operates with ease in all of Southern Command.
While carrying out research for this piece, it was learnt that there exists an anti-Arjun lobby amongst the Mechanised Forces, which has repeatedly stymied MBT Arjun. Reports exist of sabotaging of components during trials and burying of files. Repeated changes to GSQRs by the army exist on file. This is not to say that the DRDO, OFB and the MoD have covered themselves in glory.
Being generalists with limited or no experience of field operational conditions and military technology, officials of the MoD tend to accept weighted opinion from one or the other party, without value addition. Thus, they have to go by whichever advice seems right without accountability. That is how DRDO was able to lay unrealistic timelines, repeated wavers and exponential cost price rise, while the OFB got away with poor quality control. Similarly, despite a national endeavour to create defence capability, the Mechanised Forces could pull differently and continue to import Russian equipment. It clearly emerges that the MoD needs to enforce accountability and have technical as well as military specialists who can see through vested interests and lobbies, to correctly advice the defence minister.
The MoD and army consistently laments the non-availability of budget for capital procurements and modernisation. Doubtlessly, a cost analysis on the adverse impact of the delayed MBT Arjun will be an eye opener. Costs due to escalations, small orders by the army, resultant import of the MBT T 90 and its ToT, operating of multiple equipment types and consequent logistics load, the consequent modernisations of Tanks Vijayanta, T55 and T72 due to non-fielding of the Arjun need to be analysed for its adverse impact on our capital budget.
The army needs to embrace the MBT Arjun wholeheartedly, place orders for additional tanks keeping in view need for ToT and scales of economy, besides planning for provisioning of the entire support infrastructure and variants (BLTs, ARVs, Trawls, Bridging) needed to keep the Armoured Regiments operational. Further close engagement with DRDO and HVF is essential to plan for improved models of the tank including a lighter version, to replace the T 72. The revised threat perception on our northern borders need to be kept in mind while planning the lighter versions.