Ar­jun Mk.II be­gins user trial-by-fire

SP's MAI - - FRONT PAGE - By SP’s Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent

It’s the most cru­cial phase for Pro­ject Ar­jun. The new and im­proved Ar­jun Mk.II has be­gun user tri­als in the deserts of Ra­jasthan, an ex­er­cise that hope­fully con­firm its use­ful­ness to the In­dian Army. With over 90 im­prove­ments to the base Mk.I ver­sion, the Chen­naibased Com­bat Ve­hi­cles R&D Es­tab­lish­ment (CVRDE) has been steeped in fine-tun­ing the plat­form for the last 24 months, hop­ing to meet the strin­gent de­mands of the Army, a cus­tomer who was hard to please with the Mk.I as well. The re­sults of the Mk.II user tri­als will be cru­cial to the fu­ture of a pro­ject that traces its ori­gins to the af­ter­math of the 1971 war. The Army has placed an in­dent for 116 Mk.IIs, in ad­di­tion to the 124 Mk.I tanks al­ready in ser­vice with two tank reg­i­ments in the Ra­jasthan sec­tor.

In June last year, the Ar­jun Mk.II Pro­ject Di­rec­tor G.K. Ku­mar­avel was trag­i­cally killed near Jodh­pur when he was be­ing driven to Pokhran to wit­ness a round of de­vel­op­ment tri­als. Still mourn­ing the loss, Team Ar­jun now has fresh re­solve to see the Mk.II put into ser­vice with no fur­ther delays or slip-ups. The De­fence Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tion’s (DRDO) new Chief Av­inash Chan­der has also placed em­pha­sis on see­ing the Ar­jun pushed into ser­vice as quickly as pos­si­ble.

The Ar­jun Mk.II is a hugely im­proved weapons plat­form com­pared to the base Ar­jun Mk.I. This month, the Army will see fi­nal tri­als on many of those new ca­pa­bil­i­ties, in­clud­ing the mis­sile fir­ing ca­pa­bil­ity from the pri­mary 120mm gun tube, the abil­ity to fire ad­di­tional types of am­mu­ni­tion (in­clud­ing pen­e­tra­tion rounds, pen­e­tra­tion and blast com­bined rounds) and ex­plo­sive re­ac­tive ar­mour cov­er­ing the front por­tion of the tank akin to the T-90 and T-72 in ser­vice. Other im­prove­ments in­clude a cru­cial night-fight­ing ca­pa­bil­ity (ab­sent on the Army’s other tanks as well), ther­mal imag­ing, an air-de­fence sec­ondary weapon, laser rang­ing, tar­get track­ing, larger wheels for greater sta­bil­ity and a more com­fort­able ride for the driver and tank com­man­der.

While the scene seems set for some suc­cesses, the Ar­jun Mk.II, in re­al­ity, is stacked up against huge odds. On the one hand, the In­dian Army has of­fi­cially clar­i­fied that the T-90 will be its main bat­tle tank, and that the Ar­jun will not. On the other, the Army has made no com­mit­ment to in­duct­ing the Ar­jun Mk.II in large num­bers even if tri­als are suc­cess­ful, which means there is no guar­an­tee that the Army will op­er­ate a fleet of 240 (124 + 116) Ar­juns of both vari­ants. The DRDO in 2008 had ap­pealed to the govern­ment in 2008, and is do­ing so again now, that the Ar­jun pro­gramme as a whole is a dead loss if the plat­form isn’t or­dered in a cer­tain min­i­mum quan­tity. As time has passed, this num­ber has in­creased. In 2008, the DRDO had cal­cu­lated that the Army needed to or­der at least 500 Ar­jun tanks (in any com­bi­na­tion of vari­ants) to amor­tise costs in­fused into the pro­gramme over decades. Now, the DRDO is of the view that the Army will need to pur­chase at least 500 of just the Ar­jun Mk.II to make good on in­vest­ments in the pro­ject. In ef­fect, the DRDO is say­ing that un­less the Army im­me­di­ately adds 384 units of the Mk.II to its ex­ist­ing in­dent, the pro­ject is un­vi­able, un­eco­nom­i­cal and a loss to the pub­lic ex­che­quer—a se­ri­ous is­sue for a pro­ject that has taken so long to de­liver re­sults.

“The DRDO has been ex­tremely pro­fes­sional about the Ar­jun Mk.II, and gone with the user at ev­ery stage, ac­cept­ing the re­quire­ment and ful­fill­ing them in a steady man­ner. It would be ex­tremely dis­ap­point­ing if af­ter so much hard work from all sides, the pro­ject is a loss for the coun­try. The Army should feel proud to in­duct the coun­try’s very own tank,” says a se­nior DRDO of­fi­cial, ear­lier with CVRDE. What the DRDO also has to ac­count for is the fact that the Ar­jun Mk.II is still far from a fully in­dige­nous ma­chine—more than half the tank in value terms is still im­ported, in­clud­ing the Ger­man powerpack, Delft-SAGEM gun con­trol sys­tem and Bel­gian gun­ner’s main sight. The DRDO has ar­gued in the past that while the per­cent­age of im­port con­tent is 60 per cent in the first lot of 124 tanks, it would re­duce to un­der 45 per cent with the man­u­fac­ture of first 200 tanks and un­der 30 per cent with the man­u­fac­ture of about 500 tanks. For now, those re­main hy­po­thet­i­cal fig­ures.

A for­mer Di­rec­tor Gen­eral of Mech­a­nised Forces, who over­saw tri­als on the Ar­jun Mk.I, says, “The Ar­jun in any vari­ant is a heavy ma­chine. It is not suited for the ter­rains it is in­tended for. It is not a sys­tem con­ducive to strike corps op­er­a­tions. It is an im­pres­sive de­vel­op­ment in terms of the tech­nolo­gies we have been able to build in-house within our lab­o­ra­to­ries, but the DRDO must not ac­cept that it can­not con­tinue to harp on the Ar­jun. There are other more press­ing so­lu­tions to think of, like the Tank-X and the fu­ture main bat­tle tank (FMBT).”

While the Tank-X (an Ar­jun tur­ret on a T-72 chas­sis) hasn’t been ac­cepted as a vi­able propo­si­tion by the Army yet, the FMBT is still only in the con­cep­tual stage. The Army be­lieves that the DRDO must in­vest all lessons from the Ar­jun MBT pro­gramme into the FMBT, and en­sure that the sim­i­lar pit­falls are never en­coun­tered. For in­stance, the Army needs light, nim­ble tanks that can be de­ployed in deserts, and are air-trans­portable (the Ar­jun wasn’t even rain-trans­portable be­fore BEML made spe­cial wag­ons that could carry it—the Mk.II is about 10 tonnes heav­ier than the Mk.I).

As with any long and ar­du­ous in­dige­nous de­vel­op­ment ef­fort, cross­roads like the ones drawn in the sand at Pokhran throw up crit­i­cal ques­tions for both the DRDO as well as the Army. For the DRDO, the ques­tions that arise are: (a) Can it rec­on­cile it­self with the very real pos­si­bil­ity that the Army will in­duct no more than 240 Ar­jun tanks? (b) Will the DRDO raise the lev­els to force the govern­ment to in­ter­vene on its be­half and force the Army to in­duct more tanks, thus risk­ing the good­will of one of its largest cus­tomers? (c) Is the DRDO will­ing to con­duct a re­al­is­tic as­sess­ment of its achieve­ments, de­void of rhetoric that the Army ac­cuses it of, and make a clin­i­cal plan for­ward? For the Army, the ques­tions are equally se­ri­ous: (a) Is the Army re­ally bet­ter off with­out more Ar­jun tanks? (b) If the Ar­jun has proven to be a more po­tent plat­form than the T-90, why does the Rus­sian tank re­main the In­dian Army’s MBT? (c) Will the Army com­mit it­self to be­ing a more re­li­able and rea­son­able part­ner in the FMBT pro­gramme, so the ghosts of Ar­jun are never raised again?

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