Army Today

Project Rhino - T-72 Upgrade

By Nitin Venkatesh, 29 March 2004

The Indian Army has commenced an ambitious project to upgrade its T-72M1 Main Battle Tanks to modern day standards. Over the past two decades, the T-72M1 has provided yeoman service to the Army. It is well liked by the Army for its ruggedness, low silhouette and weight (41.5 tons) as well as firepower (125mm 2A46 smoothbore main gun, 12.7mm anti-air machine gun and 7.62mm co-axial). The T-72M1 is the backbone of the Indian armoured fleet, over 1700 tanks are believed to be in service. License production was undertaken at the Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi, Tamil Nadu. To keep the tank fleet viable, an upgrade plan was drawn up by the Army. But during the early 1990s, the Indian economy went through a tumultuous phase and the resulting fiscal problems forced these plans into abeyance.

Now the economy is on an upswing and the Army has hence been allocated funds to pursue this critical modernization. The tank upgrade will proceed in stages. The Indian T-72 fleet is huge and more modern tanks are also being inducted, so some T-72s are being outfitted with all the bells and whistles - the 'gold standard' so as to speak, whereas the rest will be modernised in a more modest manner. Commencement has begun by bringing 250 tanks to the DRDO's (Defence Research & Development Organisation) 'Combat Improved' Ajeya standard. (The T-72M1 has been named the Ajeya in Indian service). The 'gold standard' upgrade package includes:

• A new fire control system: the Drawa-T from PCO-Cenzin of Poland. The Drawa-T is present on the Polish PT-91 tanks, their much improved variant of the T-72, and a muzzle reference system.

• A thermal imager integrated with the Drawa-T fire control system, supplied by Israel's El-Op.

• New radios: DRDO's and BEL's (Bharat Electronics Ltd) state-of-the-art frequency hopping combat net radio, to be manufactured by BEL.

• A fibre optic gyro-based navigation system: BEL's advanced land navigation system.

• Laser Warning System: Designed by DRDO, BEL and Indian Industry, to be manufactured by BEL.

The tank's stabilisation will also be upgraded - the gun control system being the responsibility of Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. and/or the Electronics Corporation of India Ltd. The DRDO's Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) package will also be part and parcel of the upgrade. This comprehensive suite was developed for the Arjun program and is well tested. The ERA provides enhanced protection against both chemical (HEAT) as well as kinetic attack (FSAPDS). It reduces the effect of a Milan hit by 70%. The ERA coverage also extends to the turret top, for protection against top attack anti-tank guided missiles. The DRDO's ERA has saved the Indian exchequer a considerable amount in foreign exchange. DRDO notes that imported ERA packages would cost approximately Rs.4,80,000 per tank. At present exchange rates (as of March 2004) that comes to about USD $11K per tank, a substantial amount given the number of tanks India wishes to upgrade.

A new Integrated Fire Detection & Suppression system has also found its place in the upgrade. Improvements to the tank's Nuclear Biological & Chemical protection are also included. Both these technologies were developed by DRDO via the Arjun program. India's Defense Ministry has noted that the 'Combat Improved' Ajeyas have begun rolling out of the Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi, Tamil Nadu with transfer of technology and other improvements having taken place smoothly. To bear this increased weight, the T-72 will also receive a new power pack. Apparently, an attempt to shoehorn the T-90S' 1000 hp engine into the T-72 was unsuccessful. Several European firms have their engines on offer. Wartsila and Slovakia's Kerametal have both offered 1000 hp engine solutions to India.

However, India's most recent tank project - the Tank-Ex has been equipped with a 1000 hp engine - the T-72's 780 hp one up rated to 1000 hp. HVF Avadi and DRDO have been working on this project for some time and its selection for the Tank-Ex indicates that its development is complete. This relatively low cost option would be the best choice for the Indian tank upgrade and is probably the engine of choice. The Arjun program has served its purpose - many of its spin-offs have been applied to the T-72 upgrade. These include the armour, laser warning system, the Integrated Fire Detection & Suppression System. DRDO and BEL's work on other aspects has also borne fruit - the Combat Net Radio is the Army's choice. Apart from these, DRDO and OFB's (Ordnance Factory Board) 125mm Fin Stabilised Armour Penetrating Discarding Sabot (FSAPDS) round is also a direct spin-off of the Arjun MBT program. After some initial hiccups, the production has stabilised once more - since 2001, some 130,000 rounds have been produced by OFB.

Moving Forward

The upgrade of the remaining tanks is to proceed in batches - albeit to different levels. Many tanks will receive an update to their Fire Control Systems and at the very minimum, the radios will be replaced. Interestingly, Poland's Defence Minister has recently noted that India and Poland are close to confirming a defence agreement worth $330 million. This apparently, is in addition to the initial Indo-Polish agreement, wherein Poland supplied armoured recovery vehicles, parachutes for special forces and of course, the Drawa-T FCS for the first batch of 250 T-72M1 tanks.

The Choices at Hand

The experience gained via the Arjun program has given Indian designers the confidence to upgrade the T-72M1 on their own. India has hence chosen acquired specific systems on a 'import when required' basis. For instance, India does not have a viable thermal imager of its own design and hence chose to involve El-Op in the T-72 upgrade program. In the coming days, more Arjun components and sub-systems may also find their way onto the T-72M1. Various international manufacturers have responded to the Indian Army's request for proposals. They are;

The Russians: Russia has its own T-72M1 improvement program on offer - it covers all the aspects of the Indian program, albeit with Russian made components. The ERA is a new design and is claimed to offer enhanced protection against both FSAPDS and anti-tank guided missiles. The T-72M1 will be modernized on lines of the T-90S which India already operates. For example, the new Fire Control System would permit engagements with the Refleks gun launched missile. The commander would be able to take over the engagement as well. A thermal imager would also be provided for night fighting. Two axis stabilisation, as in the T-90S, would enable fire-on-the-move capability. The Russians also have a range of ammunition on offer for the 125mm 2A46 gun. The engine would also be upgraded to 1000 hp. India could also seek to incorporate more esoteric devices - such as an anti-mine device working on the principle of electromagnetic suppression. Russian Laser Warning Systems are also available, if India were to opt for them. The Shtora EOCMDAS (Electro Optic Counter Measures Defensive Aids Suite) has been repeatedly advertised as well, but its selection is doubtful at present - given that even the Indian T-90S do not have them.

The Poles: Poland is seeking to expand its involvement in the T-72M1 upgrade program as well. Having supplied the Drawa-T FCS, it has offered to upgrade the tanks to its own PT-91 standard, with a Polish reactive armour package and laser warning receivers. PZL Wola also manufactures its own 1000 hp engine. The FCS on offer would be the Drawa-T to offer maximal commonality with India's prior purchases. Incidentally, Poland is also supplying the PT91M to Malaysia - these tanks have the even more modern French Savan 15 FCS, derived from the one on the French Leclerc MBT. Poland has also modified its 125mm FSAPDS-T rounds with a new high penetration tip, with a claimed penetration of 560mm at 2 km.

The Israelis: Israel has now emerged as one of India's biggest defence suppliers. It has supplied the thermal imagers for India's tank upgrade as well as 125mm FSAPDS ammunition for the T-72 fleet in the past. Anti-tank munitions are part and parcel of the Israeli defence establishment's product line. Israel has extensive experience in the tank upgrade arena - it has converted captured Russian-manufactured tanks into armoured personnel carriers and has constantly updated its older tanks (M-47, M-60, Centurion) to impressive standards. Israel has its own series of armour - reactive and passive, fire control systems, stabilisation systems, countermeasures - all of which are on offer for upgrade purposes. Israel manufactures its own Main Battle Tanks - the Merkava series - with the Knight Mk3 Fire Control System (on board the Merkava 3) having been repeatedly advertised for sale to India. A consortium of Israeli firms - including Israel Military Industries, Tadiran and Elbit - has put its best foot forward to compete for Project Rhino. Given attractive offers of offsets and technology transfer, they might have a winning chance. Tadiran has already supplied quite a few state of the art communication suites to the Indian Army.

The Ukrainians: Morozov of Ukraine, have also come forth with various proposals to upgrade the Indian T-72M1 fleet. Given their deep involvement with the Pakistani tank programs - Al Khalid (Norinco MBT 2000), Al Zarrar ( Type 59 upgrade) and the T-80 UD/T-84 sale - their chances of winning the Indian contract seem slim at best. That prospect has not quite dampened their spirits. Ukraine has also offered its latest laser beam riding 'combat' 125mm gun launched anti-tank missile to India. A derivative of the Russian Refleks, its heavier than the Russian round and is of similar configuration.

The Dark Horse: Then there is DRDO's Tank-Ex. More of a de novo development, rather than an upgrade - this project sees the Arjun's firepower and protection coupled with the T-72M1's low profile and agility. The Arjun's turret is integrated with the T-72M1's hull. The armour is the Kanchan and a 1000 hp power plant (an up rated 780 hp engine) is standard. An APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) is also provided. The Tank-Ex will also benefit from the Arjun-LAHAT integration. Two prototypes have been built and are to be demonstrated to the Indian Army this year. Once the trials are successful, some 300 tanks could be ordered. It has been suggested that T-72M1 hulls will be imported from Russia instead of utilising the existing T-72M1s in the Indian inventory.  In that case, the Tank-Ex would be more of a new acquisition rather than part of Project Rhino.

Not Too Fast

Observers may note that the Indian Army's approach seems to be quite cautious, time intensive and somewhat limited in scope. Given sufficient funding, it seems puzzling as to why the Army is not upgrading all its T-72's at a rapid clip. There have already been considerable delays in Project Rhino to boot. The Indian economic crisis in the early 1990's saw modernisation funds dry up. In this clime, the only funds available to the Army were those for the Arjun- the DRDO had no separate budget of its own for the same. This sparked another round of time consuming debate, benefiting none, further delaying decision making and adversely impacting the Army-DRDO relationship to top it all off. Technical defects also added to the problems. HVF Avadi had primary responsibility for developing the upgraded power plant and took their own sweet time to develop the same. Even after technical defects were by and large overcome and the DRDO and the Army quickly evaluated the Drawa-T FCS and other components, the upgrade hung fire. A go slow approach was the order of the day and sundry excuses were trotted out. Earlier controversies - such as the one over the Bofors howitzer purchase were also cited as contributing factors. This as a 'quick decision' would have lead to accusations of corruption.

Such frivolity apart, the T-72 upgrade continued to be put on the backburner. The past delay has been inexcusable. Pakistan took the opportunity to beef up its armour force with T-80UDs/T-84s and continued to induct license manufactured Type 85-IIIs, eroding Indian armour superiority. China began a sustained modernisation campaign as well. On the other hand, India kept dragging its feet on re-equipping the Army. It took the Kargil War in 1999 to spark off a long overdue defence modernisation. Now, the situation has seen considerable change for the better (for instance - a fast track procurement mechanism to reduce, if not eliminate bureaucratic delay) and the Army can afford to hanker for the best deal. This is also because present inductions are adding sufficient 'punch' to Indian armoured formations. 310 T-90S tanks from Russia were ordered by the Indian Army and the induction is to be completed by 2005 (186 of the tanks are to be assembled at HVF Avadi). Thereafter, HVF Avadi will commence production of the T-90S at a rate of some 100 tanks per year. India's Defence Minister has noted that the T-90S will be the Indian Army's standard MBT and some 1000 tanks would be manufactured in India, beginning in 2006-07, apart from the present 310 tanks. Ultimately, the T-90S will make up 30% of India's tank fleet.

The Indian Army has also ordered 124 Arjun MBTs - India's own indigenous Main Battle Tank. This heavily armoured tank is to receive a further boost to its firepower - Israel's LAHAT. The T-90S fits in well with the logistical 'footprint' of the T-72M1 and is hence to be the standard MBT. At the same time, the Arjun design has come good and has won its supporters as well. But the present Army Chief General Nirmal Chander Vij, put it best when he said, "The T-90 and Arjun tanks will be our main battle tanks. Both are exceedingly good and we will like to depend on both of them." Given these inductions - both confirmed and planned - the Indian Army can afford to 'stagger' its T-72M1 upgrade. Both the T-90S and Arjun are deemed superior to the tanks Pakistan and China operate. Apart from these, low rate production of the T-72M1, has continued along the years. As a result, the Indian Army has now phased out the venerable Vijayanta MBT. The T-55 MBTs are still around but will be supplanted by the upgraded T-72M1s. The T-72M1 production will continue for another three years, as per General N C Vij.

The shortfall in overall numbers (thanks to the replacement of the Vijayantas and T-55s) are being made up by the production of the T-72M1 and the induction of the T-90S and Arjun tanks. Furthermore, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Indian Army (Corps of EME, assorted base workshops) and its allied organisations (HVF Avadi, DRDO, private suppliers, et al.) made a huge effort to indigenise the T-72M1 spares production. They have had considerable success in the same and the Army feels confident about sustaining a huge T-72M1 fleet. The manufacturers have tied up with local industry to manufacture even those components which have proven hard to indigenise in the past - such as rubber items. With Project Rhino, the T-72M1 will be all set to serve the Indian Army well into this decade and the next.


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