Chandigarh: The first prototype of India’s indigenously developed light tank, principally for deployment in Himalayan border regions along the disputed border with China, is expected to begin trials later this month, ahead of the eventual construction of at least 354 examples of the platform for the Indian Army (IA).
Quoting official sources, media reports recently revealed that although somewhat delayed, the 25-tonne air-transportable and amphibious light tank named Zorawar would undergo rigorous high-altitude trials for an extended period.
Developed jointly by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and private vendor Larsen & Toubro (L&T), the artificial intelligence-enabled tank is agile and fitted with an active protection system, industry sources said.
They said that developmental setbacks followed troublesome negotiations with Germany over supplying the DRDO MTU 800-1,000hp water-cooled V8 high-altitude-optimised engines for the tank, which were recently scrapped despite diplomatic intervention to help clinch the purchase.
Thereafter, an alternate 1,000hp advanced combat engine from Cummins in the US was acquired to power the tank, which is armed with a 105mm gun acquired off-the-shelf from Belgium-based multi-national armament manufacturers John Cockerill.
Integrated with tactical drones to provide situational awareness and loitering munition capability, these light tanks were primarily for employment along the line of actual control (LAC) in Ladakh, where the IA has been locked in a stand-off with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since May 2020.
It is believed that the DRDO-L&T designed tanks will more than match the mobility, fire power and accuracy of the PLA’s 30-33 ton ZTQ105/Type 15 light tanks, presently deployed along the LAC.
Fitted with a 105mm rifled gun with a 3,000m range, the Chinese light tanks were capable of being airlifted and even paradropped by the PLA Air Force’s Y 20 military transporters.
The IA ultimately aims on inducting seven light tank regiments of around 315 tanks – with another 40-odd platforms in reserve – for which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had accorded its Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) in December 2021.
An AoN is the first of around 10-11 procurement procedures needing completion under the MoD’s Defence Acquisition Procedure-2020 (DAP-2020) for most materiel purchases.
The DRDO had shortlisted L&T as its developmental partner for the light tank programme in an arrangement in which the latter would, after trials, series-build 59 of these armoured vehicles.
The remaining 290-odd vehicles would be tendered out to other local manufacturers under DAP-2020s ‘Make in India’ category to obviate charges of ‘partiality’ towards L&T, industry officials said, but added that these arrangements were ‘flexible’.
The IA’s light tank project, like a myriad other of its programmes, has endured extended birth pangs.
Desultory attempts to develop one such armoured vehicle were initiated in the 1980s, in which the DRDO replaced the turret of the Soviet-designed BMP infantry combat vehicle (ICV) with a 105mm gun.
But the project was eventually terminated in 1994 due to indifference by the army which, by then, had declared light tanks to be ‘superfluous’.
Undaunted, the DRDO designed another light tank based on the same licence-built ICV chassis by mounting it with a French GIAT TS-90 turret and a 105 mm gun. Firing and stability trials were conducted, but once again due to the army’s indifference the project was shelved.
Consequently, like most such projects which, like a yo-yo, alternate between conception, abandonment and revival, the light tank programme surfaced once again in 2008 after Indian military planners shifted their strategic focus from Pakistan to the security threat posed by China, which was designated the country’s number-one enemy.
This prompted the IA to issue a global request for information (RFI) in 2009 for 200 wheeled and 100 tracked light tanks, weighing 22 tons each, that required the modularly constructed platforms to be ‘highly manoeuvrable’ with surveillance and communication capability to execute multi-purpose operations.
According to the Preliminary General Staff Qualitative Requirements (PGSQRs) formulated by the army’s Mechanised Forces Directorate at the time, both the 8×8 wheeled and tracked light tanks were to be 2.8m high and 7.8m long and needed to possess a low silhouette and amphibious capability.
The PGSQRs further stated that they were required to be fitted with a 105mm or 120mm gun, capable of firing an assortment of projectiles. High ground clearance, defensive aid suites offering protection against laser, thermal and radar-guided munitions and nuclear, biological and chemical protection completed the projected tanks’ specifications.
Operationally, these light tanks were envisaged as being part of the two mountain divisions that were then under raising – since commissioned – for deployment along the 3,488km-long LAC.
A proportion of them were also considered as potential force multipliers to India’s ‘cold start’ doctrine against Pakistan of going on the offensive in a limited war scenario, under the nuclear umbrella, to achieve ‘bargainable’ military gains.
Alongside this, it was argued that these platforms could also be deployed in urban and semi-urban environments, and in riverine terrain and marshy ground along India’s eastern borders.
Responses to the RFI were received, but thereafter no formal tender or request for proposal was issued, as the entire proposal, like many others, was shelved because of the army’s apathy and internal disputes over indigenising the programme.
But above all, competing financial claims concerning existing T72M, T90S and Arjun main battle tank (MBT) ventures sealed the light tanks’ fate, and it was consigned to the ‘out’ tray at army headquarters.
Such short-sightedness and myopia would come back to haunt the IA decades later in 2020, when the PLA occupied large swathes of territory claimed by India.
Meanwhile, with the subsequent induction of light tanks into service, the IA will have the dubious distinction of becoming one of the world’s fewer armies that deployed four different tank types.
Presently, the IA operates 3,500-odd licence-built Russian T72M1 ‘Ajeya’ MBTs, and directly imported and domestically assembled and constructed T90S ‘Bhishma’ platforms, alongside 124 indigenous Arjun Mk1 MBTs.
Another 118 Arjun Mk1A variants worth Rs 8,350 crores were on order from the state-owned Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi near Chennai.
And more incredulously, if the IA proceeds apace with its 2021 plans, made known via an RFI, to acquire a ‘family’ of 1,770 medium weight Future Ready Combat Vehicles (FRCV) by 2030, the army will have the dubious distinction of simultaneously fielding five kinds of light and heavier MBTs.
“Besides the massive capital investment needed to acquire new tanks, their inventory management, which even today poses a formidable challenge to the army, will become even more acute with diverse additional platforms,” said military analyst Major General A.P. Singh (retired).
Adding another two entirely new tank types to the existing assortment will only make this task nightmarish, he warned.
Furthermore, acquiring sector-specific platforms like light tanks, principally for deployment in mountainous regions along the LAC, would significantly exacerbate the army’s logistical obligations by imposing an additional financial burden, the former armoured corps officer added.
Paradoxically, the Pakistan Army (PA) too matches the IA in that it has five MBT types, qualifying such tank-upmanship to be part of the competing rivalry between the neighbouring nuclear states, which underscores sundry aspects of existence in the respective countries.
The PA fields 1,800 to 2,000 tanks, of which only the Ukrainian T-80UD MBT is the outlier platform.
The remaining four MBTs – Type 85-11AP, Al-Zarar, Al-Khalid and VT-4/MBT3000 – are either licence-built Chinese models or have been jointly developed in conjunction with China, thereby conferring a high degree of structural correlation between them.
This renders not only their manufacture but also their logistic and maintenance support less problematic compared to that of the IA.
Of the world’s major armies, the US operates variants of the M1 Abrams MBT, whilst Israel fields the Merkav, Britain the Challenger-2, Canada the Leopard 2A6M, Germany the Leopard and France the Leclerc MBT respectively.
The Russian army, for its part, has T72, T80 and T90 MBTs – all with a high degree of commonality – and has only recently begun inducting the T-14 Armata based on a common Universal Combat Platform.
In recent years, senior military analysts and veterans have critiqued the IA for focusing unduly on major platforms like MBTs and not enough on future technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, and cyber and electronic warfare.
In their writings, they have observed that relatively inexpensive ‘swarm drone’ squadrons have in recent months effectively destroyed advancing columns of hugely expensive MBTs, rendering them ineffective on the battlefield.
Perhaps an operational audit on the nature of future conflicts is overdue for the IA, instead of persisting with what generations of army commanders feel ‘comfortable’ planning for and executing, with numerous tank types like in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan.