Why the Arjun MK-1A Main Battle Tank May Prove to Be a Costly Mistake for the Army

The MBT’s size also restricts its transportation, a critical requirement for tanks, limiting it to either being moved via ‘dedicated’ broad gauge tracks, or on special road transporters which are under procurement.

Chandigarh: The hoopla over the approval accorded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in imminently procuring 118 indigenously developed Mk-1A Arjun main battle tanks (MBTs) for the Indian Army for Rs 8,350 crore, appears misplaced, considering the operational and logistical handicaps encasing this overweight platform.

Official sources said the MoD is poised to finalise a contract with the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) for its Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF) at Avadi, near Chennai, to series build 118 upgraded Mk-1A variants. Thereafter, five MBTs would be delivered to the army 30 months later, followed by 30 MK-1As each year, till the remaining 113 platforms are handed over to complete two armoured regiments by 2025-26.

But senior Indian Army armoured corps officers told The Wire that deploying the 68.25 tonne Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)-developed Mk-1A MBT amongst the world’s heaviest would remain limited largely to Rajasthan’s desert region. They maintain that the MBT’s bulk and weight excluded positioning it in Punjab or adjoining areas, as its cross-country mobility was restricted by the sizeable nominal ground pressure (NGP) it exerts.

The NGP pertains to pressure exerted on the ground by the MBT during movement, and remains an operational measure of its relative un-deploy-ability in this critical region where the Indian Army has fought decisive tank battles with the Pakistan Army in 1965 and 1971, which are still analysed by militaries around the world. At 62.5 tonnes, the basic Arjun Mk1 version of which 124 are currently in the army service too suffers from a similar weight handicap.

Besides, the majority of bridges across Punjab were built to withstand loads averaging 50 tonnes, some 18 and 12 tonnes less than what the Mk-1As and MK1s weigh. And though the Mk-1A variant has been fitted with wider tracks, with an NPG of 0.85kg/cm sq so as to evenly distribute its weight, it still remains a problem with regard to easily traversing the area, army sources said.

A 2017 parliamentary standing committee on defence too had advised the government to strengthen and upgrade culverts and bridges in strategic thrust areas in ‘developed and semi-developed terrains’ a euphemism for regions like Punjab to facilitate Arjun’s deployment beyond ‘presently envisaged desert terrains’. It directed the administration to consult with the army to realise this, but to undertake such a hugely expensive endeavour merely for a handful of Arjuns is unrealistic.

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Sustaining the Arjun fleet

Former armoured corps officer Major General A.P. Singh concurs. “The Mk-1A MBT will not deliver the Indian Army any operational flexibility, as re-enforcing roads and bridges across Punjab and other places like Ganganagar on the Pakistan border for its deployment, is too exorbitant and simply unworkable,” he said. At best the Mk-1A will remain an overweight ‘boutique tank’, capable only of being employed in select pockets in the desert, where it does not need to be overly mindful of the terrain, he added.

The two existing Arjun regiments 43 and 75 comprising some 124 Mk1 MBTs that are divided equally between them, have been stationed in near Jaisalmer for almost a decade and are unlikely to be rotated soon, creating manpower management issues. Both units too were sustained by a ‘dedicated’ DRDO workshop at Suratgarh, as local army MBT maintenance  facilities were ill equipped with spares and related systems to sustain the Arjun fleet.

Other armoured corps officers said the reverse engineered Arjun MBT fell between two tank types: the heavier western MBTs that focused on enhanced protection, like the 64-tonne British Challenger-2s or the 63-tonne US Abrams tanks, and the lighter, rival Russian T-series platforms, that concentrated on mobility and speed for battlefield survival. The backbone of the Indian Army’s 67 armoured regiments includes some 1900-odd 44 tonne licence-built T-72M1s and some 1,500 48 tonne directly imported and locally constructed T-90S MBTs. Arjun, however, falls between two stools, said General Singh. It’s turret and overall silhouette are similar to the T90S, but its indigenously developed Kanchan explosive reactive armour (ERA) emulates heavier western models, rendering it a blend with limited operational capability, he stated.

The MBT’s size also circumscribes its transportation, a critical requirement for tanks, limiting it to either being moved via ‘dedicated’ broad gauge tracks, loaded aboard limited rolling stock developed at great cost, or alternately, on special road transporters which are under procurement. A 2017 Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report had revealed that an Arjun regiment of around 60 tanks would need 16 additional three-ton vehicles for transportation, and at least 50 extra personnel to ensure mobility.

Earlier attempts to transport Arjun Mk1 in its earlier years by rail to Rajasthan, said General Singh, resulted in it badly damaging a station platform as it roared past. The MBTs considerable protrusion over the edge of its rolling stock had left no gap between it and the platform leading to the accident, the officer declared.

Arjun Mark-I tanks during republic day parade in 2010. Photo: Prem Singh Kanwar for MoD/GODL-India/Wikimedia Commons

Accordingly, in May 2020, the MoD invited responses from indigenous and global manufacturers to its request for information (RFI) to supply the army 36 costly general service high mobility load carriers with a 12-ton payload capacity to transport Arjun. The RFI responses are presently under evaluation and would only add to the Arjun’s already exorbitant cost.

Meanwhile, the price of each upgraded Arjun Mk-1A at the officially projected rate of 118 MBTs for Rs 8,350 crore would also be astronomical. This would make it a whopping Rs 70.7 crore or $9.77 million per tank, or almost twice the Rs 37 crore per unit, which the MoD in 2011 had informed parliament the under-development upgraded MBT variant would cost.

In comparison, the T90S MBTs cost around $2-2.5 million each and the T72M1 even less at $1.5 million per tank. Further afield, the proven 62-tonne German Leopard-2 MBT is pegged at $5.74 million each, while France’s equally competent 56-tonne Leclerc tank costs around $4 million per platform or almost half the Mk-1A’s estimated cost. Even the export price of the comparable 65-tonne battle-hardened Israeli Merkava is $4.5 million.

And, despite the government’s propagation of atmanirbharta or indigenisation, some 69% of Arjun’s components, according to the 2017 CAG report, were imported when the induction of 124 Mk1s began in 2004-05, doubtlessly adding to the platforms astronomical cost. The CAG had also observed that owing to the failure of the DRDO’s Combat Vehicle Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE) in indigenising Arjun’s required components, and that of the HVF in providing spares support, too had adversely impacted the MBT’s operational efficiency and availability.

Arjun’s imported systems and components include its MTU MB838 ka-510 1,400cc diesel engine and semi-automatic Renk RK 304-I transmission system and Bosch gun control equipment, all from Germany, while the gunner’s main sight is from Belgium’s OIP. Other foreign and licence-built components include the MBTs Diehl tracks manufactured locally by L&T, its fire control system (FCS) from Israel’s Elbit, day sight and thermal imager (TI) earlier from Sagem of France and now from Israel’s El Op besides Israeli frequency, hopping radios, amongst other equipment.

Recent reports, however, indicate that the imported component has fallen somewhat to a little over 50%, but industry officials said the concomitant-related shortage of spares from overseas suppliers that had closed down, endured.

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Operational and logistical issues

The earlier mentioned 2017 report by the parliamentary committee on defence disclosed as much, stating that Arjun Mk1’s two regiments of 124 tanks were ‘grappling with many shortcomings’. Other than its considerable bulk, the committee reported ‘incidents’ of the MBT’s 120mm rifled gun barrels ‘bursting and chipping’. Collectively these deficiencies prompted the committee to urge the MoD and the DRDO, that unlike Arjun Mk1, the upgraded follow-on variant needed to (better) serve the (operational) purpose of the army.

Operated like the Mk1 by a four-man crew, the Mk-1A features 72 improvements, including 14 major ones, over the Mk1 model, that include advanced thermal imaging sights for night fighting, improved navigation systems, a digital control harness and a mine plough. The variant  is also fitted with a new panoramic sight for the tank commander, a more powerful auxiliary power unit (8.5KW capacity) and an enhanced communication system for real time data-transmission.

The MK-1A’s hull and turret have been modified to provide the MBT a lower silhouette to make detection more difficult, its ammunition has been containerised and its 120mm gun upgraded to fire thermobaric and armour-piercing incendiary ammunition and high-explosive and squash-head (HESH) rounds. The MBT has also been fitted with ERA panels for enhanced protection, which the Indian Army armoured corps officers said had increased its weight by six tonnes over the Mk1 model.

The MBT’s re-designed nitrogen-based hydro-pneumatic suspension system and larger wheels help support its additional weight, while its driver has been provided with an un-cooled night-vision camera to enable travel at a reasonable speed in total darkness. The MBT, however, is not armed with a gun-launched guided missile system that the army had demanded, as part of the improvements over the Mk1 version, and to provide it battlefield advantage over the enemy.

Having rejected the Israeli Laser Homing Attack (LAHAT) missile firing system in 2014, the DRDO took it upon itself to develop its own by 2017-18, but has failed to meet its deadline. CVRDE officials claim that securing this missile capability is at an advanced stage, and the weapon system could be integrated onto the M1As after they go into series production. The impending Mk-1A order also incorporates a two-year engineering support package (ESP) for the MBTs that includes maintenance, spares including engines and instructing crews in simulators to operate the platforms.

Initiated in 1974, Arjun MBT’s development has been torturous, riddled with financial overruns and recurring technological challenges. It has also been peppered with bitter three-way skirmishing, bordering on vicious between the MoD, DRDO and the army, which, on occasion even threatened the project with closure.

The Arjun’s first prototypes were unveiled in the mid-1980s, but it was only a decade or so later that the government decided to mass produce the MBT. Extended delays, in the meantime led to the MoD, under the army’s pressure, importing T90S tanks, christened ‘Bhishma’.

In mid-2004, the first five of 124 Arjun Mk1s were inducted into the army’s 43 armoured regiment, but four years later then Army Chief of Staff General Deepak Kapoor declared that there would no additional orders for the MBT because of its poor overall performance and technological shortcomings. He said that the MBT demonstrated ‘mid-level’ technology, whilst what the army needed was an MBT of ‘international quality’.

The tripartite war had escalated.

But soon after, in 2010 and under DRDO pressure, the Arjun was pitted against the T90S in ‘comparative trials’ to assess its firepower and manoeuvrability. In the face-off, one squadron of 14 Arjuns was ranged against a similar number of T90S in the desert, with each platform driving over 150km, firing between 30-50 rounds apiece and manoeuvring 4-4.5m deep water channels. Arjun performed well and the DRDO claimed vindication, but Indian Army armoured corps officers claimed the appraisal was undertaken in a ‘controlled environment’ and that the DRDO was ‘forcing’ the ‘below par’ Arjun upon it.

The DRDO, for its part, charged the army with continually changing Arjun’s qualitative requirements (QRs), making it impossible for it to categorically freeze its design parameters and work towards improvements and indigenisation. Over a decade later, the organisation’s doggedness has paid off, propelled in recent years by the government’s atmanirbharta drive that has potentially subsumed all of India’s long list of pending materiel needs for operational efficiency.

“Arjun’s development is being pursued avidly by the DRDO, eager to prove itself and vindicate its existence” said Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle (retired) of the New-Delhi based Security Risks Asia consultancy. The army, on the other hand, considers the MBT a logistic nightmare and incapable of being employed in operationally critical areas, he added.

Recent media reports, meanwhile, have indicated that the Arjun manufacturing line will cease once the forthcoming order of 118 platforms is completed, replaced by one to build light, air-transportable tanks weighing 25-30 tonnes each to augment the IA’s firepower in Himalayan regions like Ladakh.

If these reports are indeed accurate, it would make the last 46 years of Arjun’s developmental cycle an absurdity and render its future sustenance, and possible mid-life upgrades, an even bigger and costly nightmare with spares and systems shortages.