Columnist ADAM GEIBEL writes about the addition of the Russian T-90 to India's armour inventory
Pakistan's purchase of 320 Ukrainian T-80UD/T-84 MBT in 1996 caused a rippling reaction in the Indian Army and India's defence establishment. Quite simply, successful integration of the Ukrainian tanks would create a shift unacceptable to India in the region's conventional ground power. With the indigenous 'ARJUN' MBT still nowhere near series production and the capacity to convert its existing fleet of T-72M1's to the upgraded 'Ajeya'/Rhino variation apparently overloading its Avadi facility, they began to look for external sources of modern MBTs. Two Russian tanks and two suppliers were short-listed; Rosvoorouzhenie's T-90 and Prom-Export's T-72S.
Russia's T-72S was an early favourite, since it's simply a product-improved T-72 that would easily match the Indian's current logistical stocks. By the early-1990s, Russia's Uralvagonzavod State Production Association had developed and put into series production the T-90S, which incorporated features of both the T-72 and T-80 tank families.
The Russian's T-90 offer was made to Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav during his September 1997 visit and early in 1998, the Indian Government began negotiations with the Russians to add this MBT to its inventory. Dissenting Indian Army officers quickly claimed that they did not need (nor could they afford) this tank.
An Indian technical evaluation team went to Russia in February 1998 to test the T-90 at one of Russia's proving grounds and came back with praise for the Russian tank (other Indian Army officers doubted the testing could be done in mid-winter snow). The Russians produced an initial lot of 150 T-90's of which 94 equipped the Siberian Military District's 21st Motorized Rifle Division and a few were sent to the 5th 'Don' Guards Tank Division (stationed in Buryatiya). This heightened interest was due in part to the Indian Army's doubts about the T-72S' abilities, since the testing tankers at Babina (Jhansi) found that Prom-Export had repainted and overhauled old T-72's that were apparently offered as 'new'.
With the T-90S going into final production still some time away, India continued to express an interest despite doubts about the Uralvagonzavod (Nizhny Tagil) factory's ability to supply the tank. While it has many of the same features, the Indian Army considers the T-90 even lesser capability than the Ajeya (eg; lacking the Global Positioning System). Both the MOD and DRDO want the funds directed to the Arjun project and the T-72 production line at Avadi, near Chennai (At a cost of Rs 4,000 crore, it has a capacity to retrofit 250 tanks per year).
The Indian Army finally announced a decision to buy two Regiments worth in early November, 1998, to augment it's armoured forces on the western border with Pakistan. While Indian Armoured Regiments usually field 45 MBTs, a figure of only 70 tanks has been mentioned. This smaller deal, would still worth $US 250 million (Rs 800 crore).
One early estimate the Indian press floated for a 300-tank T-90 deal (a figure the Russian Defence Ministry obviously wanted) was $US1 billion (Rs 3,200 crore), a fraction of which would ensure the Arjun and Ajeya projects completion. This placed the individual T-90S price at $US 3.75 million (Rs 12 crore).
In addition to trials at the Indian Armoured Corps Center and School (at Ahmadnagar) with hot weather tests in the Rajasthan desert, some T-90S' were deployed during Exercise 'Shiv Shakti' in November/December 1998. An Indian defence spokesman said, 'Shiv Shakti' was the biggest exercise in a decade and involved about 66,000 soldiers (1,800 senior officers, 4,500 junior officers and 60,000 troops (known as 'jawans'). They were equipped with 700 combat vehicles, 300 tanks and 200 guns. An Indian air force spokesman said 130 planes and 30 helicopters would back the exercise.'
The biggest surprise concerning the Indian T-90S came in late December 1998, when the Indian media announced that the deal would total 200 T-90S. In January, 1999, the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) had approved the purchase of 310 tanks in a deal totalling $US 1.176 billion (Rs. 5,000 crore). This was enough to equip five regiments, with sum of the $US 3.78 million, tanks left over for 'war reserve' and spares. There was also Indian media speculation that the Army might ultimately acquire 440 T-90S.
About 100 T-90S will be initially purchased outright, with the rest produced under licence at Avadi. The first regiments equipped by mid-1999 will be deployed near the Pakistani border in the Rajasthan desert region and neighbouring Punjab state.
Political repercussions in India continued into January 1999, with former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda accused the BJP-led government pursuing the T-90S deal in a covert manner. Declining to reveal the identity of the middlemen arms merchants whom he alleged were forcing the government to buy the T-90S, Gowda claimed that an inquiry would reveal the truth.
He also wanted the T-72S re-evaluated, claiming it was superior to the T-90; the T-90S was very expensive, had not been tested under Indian weather conditions and was not likely to be inducted even in the Russian army (though this was primarily because Moscow has not been able to afford to purchase a new tank family).
While the T-90S was still under trial, a military officer (at Army headquarters, on the deputy chief of Army staff level) closely associated with the T-90's evaluation stated that any suggestion of the T-72S superiority stemmed from 'motivated interest'. The deal was considered so lucrative that arms agents representing PROM-EXPORTS T-72S were willing to go to any length to change the Army's preference for Rosvoorouzhenie's T-90S.
Promexport even launched a major public relations offensive, inviting journalists for exclusive interviews at five-star hotels, showing confidential documents (including part of a Defence Ministry file) that favoured their T-72S and indicated that the T-72S would cost $US 705,000 (Rs 3 crore) less than the T-90S. Prom-Export also claimed that the T-90s hadn't been extensively tested in the Indian climate extremes. Rosvoorouzhenie simply touted that it's tanks were better.
With the most-recent rumours of the ARJUN being that only 90 would be built, the Indian Army's acquisition of the T-90S and it's initial deployment in the Rajasthan desert indicate that these will be dedicated 'Pakistani T-80UD/T-84 Killers'.
Unique Features of the T-90S
In addition to conventional armour, the T-90S is fitted with explosive reactive armour (ERA) and an NBC protection suite. It can also be fitted with mine-clearing equipment.
The T-90's 1A4GT main gun stabilizer and power system has a commander's manual override - unusual for Soviet/Russian designed tanks. However, this system is not used to fire the AT-11 missiles.
The AT-11 system is meant to engage tanks fitted with ERA and low-flying aerial targets (such as helicopters) at ranges up to 5 km.