India’s indigenous tank production — a stalled effort

  Patron Lt Gen (Retd) SARDAR FS LODI goes over India’s frustrations in tank production.

Pakistan’s tank production effort has been crowned with unprecedented success. The manufacture of Al-Khalid tank shows Pakistan’s technical skills, her dedication and determination in trying to make the country self-sufficient in major armaments. This will eventually obviate the requirements of costly imports, which are often influenced by political and regional considerations. Manufacturing a tank is a highly complicated venture particularly when it is accomplished on a shoe-string budget and in a remarkably short period of time. Pakistan’s effort is particularly laudable when we compare it with the major project launched by India to produce her main battle tank ‘Arjun’, which is still not in production after 16 years of ‘tinkering’ and an expenditure of over $500 million. On the other hand Pakistan’s Al-Khalid tank is now in serial production, the first batch has already been handed over to the Army and is in squadron service.

India has a large manufacturing base with 39 ordnance factories employing over 550,000 workers and producing a variety of military equipment, arms and ammunition for the three services. Some of these factories she inherited at the time of independence in 1947 and others she built later with much foreign assistance from the former Soviet Union and the western democracies. India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) is large as well including ground, air and sea components with a manpower strength of around 40,000 scientists and unlimited financial backing. Over and above these India has eight defence PSUs (public sector units). All these account for around Rs 15,000 crore of the annual defence consumption

According to the Journal of Military Ordnance: “After the 1971 war with Pakistan, senior Indian Officers decided that the Army needed more powerful and reliable tanks, ones that were especially suited to the harsh desert conditions on the northwestern frontier that borders on Pakistan. These conclusions led to the initiation of the MBT-80 (later Arjun) tank project in 1974.” The Army’s requirement or what is known in military jargon as the GSQR (General Staff Qualitative Requirement) in other words the official statement of the users requirement called for the development of a main battle tank weighing 52 tons or less. The Army wanted a tank capable of operating in the extremely hot, dry and sandy conditions found in Rajasthan along the Pakistan  border. It wanted a more powerful 120-mm rifled main gun and also state-of-the art, meaning enhanced protection and mobility.

The first prototype of the MBT-80 tank was to be produced by 1983. This was to be followed by the production of 12 more prototypes at the rate of one tank per month. The plan was to enter serial production of the new tank by 1984. It seems the user requirements kept being modified and the Army’s Directorate General for Combat Vehicles did not even “freeze” the design until 1984. In the same year the first prototype called the “Chetek” was produced and displayed on India’s Republic Day. The following year in 1985 another prototype was produced and officially named “Arjun”. Further production slowed down forcing a major review of the entire tank programme in 1987. A year later in 1988 the first technical trials were carried out. The results were very disappointing, prompting the Army Chief to recommend the cancellation of the entire programme in 1991. The programme, however, continued with the production of more prototypes for field trials. Six were produced in 1993 and another nine in 1994.

The field trials uncovered numerous design flaws, which could only be rectified by several major design changes. After making modifications to rectify the deficiencies uncovered during field trials, the much revised design profile was “frozen” for a second time in 1996. The new design still did not meet the Army’s “diluted” requirements. Despite the Army’s reluctance the Ministry of Defence allowed limited pre-series production of 14 tanks to begin with the hope of presenting the Army with a ‘fait accompli’ and obtaining its grudging acceptance of the design. 15 pre-series production models were handed over to the Army in April 1997, almost a year behind schedule. These tanks were also tested in extensive field trials, again with unsatisfactory results.

The results of the 1997 field trials were so bad that they prompted India’s Comptroller and Auditor General to issue a scathing report in mid-1998 about the serious design flaws in the tank and to complain about a 20-fold increase in development costs. This did not deter the Ministry of Defence from placing an order for another 124 Arjun tanks in 1999. Politics and other considerations, it seems, were taking precedence over the Army’s operational requirements. This was being done while India was negotiating for the purchase of Russian T-90S tanks, which were later to be produced under licence in India. Some confusion was consequently apparent at the government decision making level in India.

The Indian Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment, which is the overall contractor of the Tank project has built 32 Arjun tanks so far. Of these, 12 are prototypes, 15 pre-series production tanks, two are torsion bar tanks, one test vehicle, one recovery vehicle and one Mark II model. Each vehicle differs from the others in some way. The 15 pre-series tank Models are the ones designed for series production as the Arjun Mark I tanks. The original requirement of the Army demanded a tank designed to provide state-of-the art and updated mobility, protection and firepower. The designers claimed that the Arjun Mark was at par with the most modern American Abrams MIAI tank. But the final product fell far short of the tall claims to the detriment of the Army’s operational capabilities.

The weight of the Arjun Mark I tank has reached 58.5 tons. It was 6.5 tons above the maximum weight contained in General Staff Qualitative Requirements and as much as 18.5 tons over the Army’s desired requirement. Final weight of the tank could exceed 60 tons, when explosive reactive armour is added, as is expected. Excessive weight is one of the drawbacks of the Arjun tank. It will be too heavy to cross many of Inida’s bridges and be able to operate only on national highways. It cannot be lifted by standard Army tank transporters now in use and is also incompatible with present bridge-laying equipment. The Arjun tank is also too wide to use the existing transporters used by the T-72MI tanks. The Indian Army had, therefore, to invest $3.9 million to develop three rail cars to carry the new tank. The railways has classified the new tank as an “over-dimensional consignment” requiring an increase of 150 per cent over normal transportation rates.

After major problems with the Indian engine the Arjun tank is now equipped with an imported German 1,400 HP diesel engine. This gives the tank a maximum speed of 70 km per hour on highways and 40 km per hour off-road. It has a cruising range of 200 to 250 km on its 1,610 litres of fuel. Pakistan’s Al-Khalid tank on the other hand has a cruising range of 400 km. The German MTU 838 engine and the transmission have given several problems. To start with the new engine and its associated transmission were too large for the original engine compartment which had to be modified. Field trials demonstrated that the engine lost 20 to 25 per cent of its power while operating in desert temperatures of 45 to 50 degrees Celsius. This was well above the 10 per cent that the Army expected as normal.

A report by India’s Comptroller and Auditor General noted six premature transmission failures and frequent overheating of transmission fluid during trials in the summer of 1997 because the imported transmission assembly had been overloaded. The excessive loss of engine power was attributed mainly to the cooling unit, which failed to function adequately during prolonged use. As reported by some Army officers the cooling unit experienced sharply rising temperatures during full throttle runs and made excessive demands on the electric system because there was no auxiliary power unit to handle peak demand. A worse problem was the sand blasting effect in the desert, which caused leakage of the coolant and damaged the cooling fan blades. Field trials showed that life of cooling fan blades was only 600 km instead of the declared 4,000 km. Designers tried to rectify the flaws by installing an improved cooling unit on the rear deck. The unit is so bulky that the main gun can no longer fire at zero degrees elevation over the rear pack.

The Arjun tank uses a hydro-pneumatic suspension system, which has been giving problems. This system required recharging every 300 km in desert and semi-desert conditions. On soft ground it required recharging every 250 km. In the desert heat and dust sealing of fluids and gas malfunctioned causing leakage and requiring more frequent maintenance. Inherent design flaws in the hydro-pneumatic suspension were aggravated by the increase in the tank’s weight, which was above the maximum specified by the Army. Owing to these problems two prototype tanks were equipped with torsion bars as an alternative.

There are problems with the tank’s bogie wheels as well. These have to be changed every 600 to 1,000 km. Failure rate of the bogie wheels is due to poor quality material, early disintegration of rubber parts and poor bonding of rubber with steel. Aside from the technical failures the induction of the tank in the Army would be costly. India’s Comptroller and Auditor General reported in 1998 that any regiment equipped with 45 Arjun tanks would require 16 additional three-ton lorries and 45 extra men to maintain operational mobility. The fire control system of the tank has performed poorly in field trials. Army officers are concerned that the tank’s armour cannot defeat Pakistan’s Baktar Shikan ATGM (anti-tank guided missile), therefore, explosive reactive armour may have to be added, thereby, increasing the weight still further.

In view of the constant problems with the manufacture of the Arjun tank the US journal of Military Ordnance writers: “It is tempting to describe the Arjun as a failure because of the numerous problems it has experienced and its many technological shortfalls. This judgement especially tempting since Pakistan’s Al Khalid tank entered series production last year.” The journal goes on to say, that such an assessment is too harsh and fails to appreciate the challenges faced by Indian designers. Indian experts are satisfied with the experience gained and the “understanding that results from 23 years of tinkering.”

The Hindustan Times of India in its issue of August 13, 1999 comments on the success of Pakistan’s Al Khalid tank and compares it with the Indian Arjun tank which at 50 degrees Celsius can “travel only at a snail’s pace and is a sitting duck.” The paper goes on to describe the problems with the engine that has “forced other compromises that gravely impair the Arjun’s offensive capability and increases its vulnerability. Not surprisingly, the Indian army has flatly refused to induct the Arjun into the armoured corps in more than token numbers and is insisting on the purchase of the T-90.” The paper sums up by saying: “After 16 years of ‘research’ the DRDO (defence research and development organization) has produced a lemon.”

Writing in the Frontline, Chennai on March 16, 2001, John Cherian is of the opinion that it is no secret that the Indian Army’s top brass is not very enthused with the capabilities of the Arjun tank. There have been complaints about its engine and fire control systems, which adversely affect its operational mobility. The public accounts committee (PAC) had reported that the project “fell short of even bottom line parameters” and its schedule for commercial production had overshot the deadline by more than 16 years. With the induction of the T-90s from Russia the scaling down of the Arjun project seems to have begun in right earnest, concludes John Cherian.

This short review of tank production in India is an effort to explain the difficulties faced by developing countries in the manufacture of heavy armaments. Pakistan has to a great extent overcome these problems in key areas of defence production, which may not have been appreciated by the people. Pakistan should be proud of its achievements in trying to reach a stage of self-sufficiency in armaments production so vital for the defence of the country.