Army Today

Arjun Experiment

During World War II, India was a base for repair, overhaul and other major military works for the entire south east Asian operations as well as the China and Indian Ocean operations. Considerable amount of industrialisation had perforce taken place. It was but natural that from there we should have taken off and built up our indigenous defence industry. This somehow did not happen. The approach was to acquire equipment from abroad if it was cheaper. This was the background of the Indian defence industry and it has continued despite the fact that we have built up a colossal organisation of defence research. Despite our attempts to be self reliant on various issues there are a number of problems. The MBT Arjun project offers several lessons.

First and foremost, the problem comes between the user and the DRDO. The problem basically is the GSQR (General Staff Qualitative Requirement). The GSQR never gets finalised. Changing GSQRs slow down the whole process and the datelines are not kept and expenditure keeps going up. That has been one of the major reasons for the delay in the Arjun tank. At the same time, if you look at the user's perspective, if we don't keep up with the latest in technology, then we will get an equipment which is likely to be outdated by the time production starts. This is a problem area which needs to be resolved. The other area is coordination which is becoming a major problem between the user, the DRDO and the manufacturing agency, which is going to produce the equipment. In the case of MBT Arjun, it is the Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF) at Avadi which is responsible for the delay. HVF takes it as a second baby and not as its main job. The HVF is working on the T-90s, T-72 overhaul and also on the Arjun. It is doubtful whether it will be able to make 120 Arjuns within the given time period. Although the first 15 tanks were supposedly 'Made in HVF Avadi', they were really put together by workers and engineers who had come from the CVRDE (Combat Vehicles Research & Development Establishment).

The procedures for indigenisation are very tedious. The problems are of two kinds. The first is the non-availability of expertise and technical knowledge within the country. For example, the tracks for the Arjuns were being imported and I wanted this to be made within the country. I was told that it could be made in Ludhiana. We paid an advance and gave the agency our requirements for the track. After two years, that agency said that it could not make the tracks as per our requirements. We had been to every factory, including BHEL in Ranchi which had no other work at that time, but no one could do the job. The other type of problem is that private firms that really can do import substitution are not rewarded. This was clear in the case of rubberising the road wheels. To rubberise the Arjun, the tanks used to be ferried across to Germany by air, rubberised there and then brought back. This was colossally expensive. We requested MRF (Madras Rubber Factory) who agreed to do this. They put up a special factory for that purpose and did it. The numbers required at that time were very meagre. Sometimes it used to be 100 and sometimes it would be only 50. Also, MRF was not sure about when the next order would come. So, they stopped this factory.

I spoke to an official at MRF who said that he was prepared to work even at a loss, which it was while working on the Arjuns. But the contract for T-72, T-55 and Vijayanta had been awarded to some other company. When I checked with the Defence Ministry, I found out that the contract for rubberisation for the rest of equipment was indeed given to another organisation. I was told it was given to the firm which gave the lower tender. MRF stated that they cannot keep the assembly lines waiting and pending forever. There are other examples as well. The Kirloskars were doing the hydroneumatic systems for us. The last order was for 14 tanks. After that there was no order for seven years. For the company, the investment in specialised production lines is a dead waste and they need to be subsidised. One has to ensure that the assembly lines, the technology and the skilled labour are kept alive for defence requirements. I am told now that they are restarting this process at the Kirloskar plant, which did a fabulously good job.

Then there is the problem of diversified equipment in the Army. For instance, it is claimed that 67% of the parts of the T-72 and T-90 are common. I asked the HVF as to why they are importing everything, if 67% of the parts are common between the two tanks. I was told that it was not possible due to the transfer of technology agreement. The question then arises, that if the transfer of technology has already taken place with regard to the T-72, then why were we not able to build the T-90 with the least amount of imported technology? One expects that if you got something once into the country, then we should not be going back again and again for the same thing. There are many private companies that could be involved in the MBT Arjun production, including the Tatas, the Mahindras, Ashok Leyland, etc. who are quite capable of taking on some of these jobs. The best part is that we have within the country PSUs, such as BHEL (Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited) which is also capable of building tanks. Indeed two tanks were built by BHEL Bhopal.

As far as the Arjun is concerned, five have been produced and handed over to the users for trials. Arjun has been worked and thought out for a long period. It is one of the finest pieces of equipment. The Arjun's mobility with its 1400 horsepower engine is very good. The engine however is an old piece of equipment. This powerpack is no longer used in Europe. We got the 1400 horsepower, since the 1500 horsepower engine was only for NATO allies. However it is a big powerpack and the one they produced later is smaller, for which the tank would have to be redesigned and the cost would be astronomical. They said they had stopped manufacturing these engines and if we wanted them they would restart the whole thing for us. This has been done. It has been restarted. The problem lies with placing orders both with the manufacturing agency and the Ministry of Defence (MoD). When we know that we need 124 Arjun MBTs, as well as Bhim SPGs which will carry the same engine, but we do not place orders well in time. I have been told that the orders never went beyond 30 to 40 at one time.

The question is how long will we continue to import tanks? Today we have the T-90s and we are going to start producing it. But somewhere we have to stop. After the T-90 are we going to import either the T-100, the T-200 or the T-300? When Israel first produced the Merkava MBT, Ariel Sharon (presently Prime Minister of Israel) was the DG Combat Vehicles. He walked up to the team and asked them what was the problem. After the team explained the problems, he said that this particular tank would be called Mark I and that they would produce it despite all the problems. The Mark I would be given to the troops and work would start on the Mark II, which would be better than this one. That is how the Israelis did it. Somewhere we have to start producing. Somewhere we need to have the capacity within ourselves to be able to do that and then improve that equipment. Presently this is just not happening.

The engine itself has really no problem, but the problem is with regard to the size of the order. The Arjun's 120mm gun with the FSAPDS (Fin Stabilised Armour Piercing Discarding Sabot) and Hash ammunition, is excellent. The integrated fire control system had a lot of problems. We had got it from the Dutch, but it had an American component in it. Suddenly we were throttled as the Americans said that the Dutch could not supply this to us. After some time, we were able to get France to redesign the entire fire control system. Now we have an excellent fire control system. Arjun is a fine weapons system, though it looks big and very heavy, its tactical silhouette is very low. The T-72 and the Arjun in a hull down position are not very different. In a hull down position, the tank gives you the same silhouette as any other small tank. Also, its speed provides security in the battlefield. Its firepower is tremendous. Particularly on the move, its firepower is very accurate and good. Some people say that the Arjun is not strategically feasible due to its size and weight. However the Arjun has been running all over the railway systems of India and has been running all over the western deserts as well, on or without tank transporters.

We have a good tank but we still have massive problems. What the solution is one really cannot say. Dr Santhanam would remember a paper had been prepared, many years ago, which laid down how we should go about manufacturing major defence equipment. Arjun was one of the things in that paper. The paper started with an Advisory Committee at the highest level and then having four elements to it: the user, the DRDO, the manufacturer and the financing agency. All these were to be placed under one person to work as a single body to ensure the job is done. Presently there is no coordination of any nature on whatever is happening between them. It only happens when the Chief holds a meeting and asks about the progress on the Arjun. The users need to think ahead and have to somehow or the other facilitate the production of equipment, even if it is not the very best. At the same time, the user also asks the question that if China, having used Russian equipment, has produced the T-59 which is a copy of the T-54, produced the T-62 which is a copy of PT-76 and produced all these MiGs under different names, what is our problem? The Chinese defence industry has gone so far ahead of us. But we continue to rely on transfer of technology.

Another point that comes in is export and joint ventures of various nature. Export of defence equipment has been taboo. Perhaps if we had encouraged it at some point of time, other industries may have come up, which could have independently developed certain systems and exported them. At one point of time, the South Africans were very keen to tie up with us on the Arjun and wanted to work together. They wanted only about 200 tanks, which they said we could produce for them. That sort of a thing, could also be done. However, it did not happen. Assembly line is another issue. Once it is started, it has to be kept going otherwise you will lose whatever money put into it.