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India Reverses Gear, Puts Arjun Tank Back in Production

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Arjun tank(click to view full) India’s indigenous Arjun tank project began in 1974, and originally aimed to replace the Russian T-54 and T-72 tanks which made up the bulk of that country’s armored firepower. As has often been the case in India, its DRDO government weapons development agency sought an entirely made in India solution, […]
Arjun tank

Arjun tank
(click to view full)

India’s indigenous Arjun tank project began in 1974, and originally aimed to replace the Russian T-54 and T-72 tanks which made up the bulk of that country’s armored firepower. As has often been the case in India, its DRDO government weapons development agency sought an entirely made in India solution, even though this would require major advances on a number of fronts for Indian industry. As has often been the case in India, the result was a long and checkered history filled with development delays, performance issues, mid-project specifications changes by India’s military, and the eventual purchase of both foreign substitutions within the project (now 58% of the tank’s cost) and foreign competitors from outside it (the T-90S).

The 62.5 tonne Arjun tank wasn’t fielded with the Indian Army until May 2009. In contrast, Pakistan’s much more time-limited, scope-limited, and budget conscious approach in developing and successfully fielding its T-80UD “Al-Khalid” tank is often cited by Arjun’s detractors.

The Russian T-90S will form the mainstay of India’s future force, despite that tank’s performance issues in hot weather. That won’t change, but after beating the T-90 in a number of trials, the Arjun now has a clear future in India…

Arjun Cap, and T-90S Trade

T-90 Catching Air

T-90, backside ollie
(click to view full)

The Arjun is an indigenous project, but not wholly so. Imported items such as the engine/ power pack, gunner’s main sight, and other components account for 58% of each tank’s cost. This is not uncommon around the world. Israel’s Merkava tank family also relies on a foreign-built engine, for instance, as does France’s Leclerc.

It is uncommon among Indian policy-makers, but the reality is that a series of project failures gave them little choice. The Arjun has been plagued with a mix of problems over its 36-year development history, including its fire control system, suspension issues, and poor mobility due to excessive weight. It has also grown from a 40-tonne tank with a 105mm gun, to a 62-67 tonne tank with a 120mm gun. Predictably, project costs spiraled up from Rs 15.5 crore in 1974 to Rs 306 crore (INR 3.06 trillion). The army was not pleased. In an unusual stance, they accepted the tank only after a third-party audit by an international tank manufacturer, and orders were strictly limited.

The Indian army didn’t even stand up its 1st Arjun armored regiment until May 2009, 35 years after the program began. To underscore the point, even that milestone followed a development that seemed to end the platform’s future. In July 2008, India had announced that production of the Arjun would be capped at the already-committed total of 124 vehicles. Instead, development would begin on a new next-generation tank, designed to survive and serve until 2040 or so.

That appeared to close the book on a failed project, but opinion in India was sharply split. Many observers cited this as the final failure. Other were noting the problems with the T-90s, and the Army’s refusal to conduct side-by-side tests, alongside recent test successes that began earning the Arun some military fans. In May 2010 desert trials alongside the T-90S, the Arjun did surprisingly well.



In response, the government and the Army changed course somewhat. Arjun production would almost double to 242. That’s an improvement, but DRDO insists that a 500 vehicle order is needed to give them the volume needed to iron out all production difficulties, and provide a platform for future development.

The Army’s plan still calls for 1,657 T-90S “Bhishma” tanks at about 12 crore (INR 120 million, about $2.78 million) each if prices remain stable. About 1,000 of those are slated to be built in India by Avadi Heavy Industries, the same firm that builds the Arjuns. They will be joined by just 248 Arjuns at about 16.8 crore (INR 168 million, about $3.92 million) each, as well as 692 older T-72 tanks upgraded to the T-72M1 “Ajeya” standard. This overall plan changes the force structure proposed in 2006, from 3,780 tanks (1,302 T-90s and 2,480 T-72s) to 2,597 higher-end tanks.

Contracts & Key Events

2012 – 2014

Arjun Mk-II at DefExpo 2014

Arjun Mk II
(click to view full)

Aug 29/14: Go-aheads. The new BJP government’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) makes a number of key moves in its 1st major DAC session, beginning with cancellation of the 197-helicopter LUH competition.

At the same time, however, DAC’s clearances included an “acceptance of necessity” for the Arjun Mk-II, effectively clearing the INR 66 billion purchase (about $1.1 billion) limited production program of 118 Mk-II tanks for the army, which amounts to about $9.3 million per tank. The previous UPA government had also cleared the buy, but 2 years of testing were long enough to force expiry of this clearance. This renewal allows the army to order the tanks from the Avadi factory when trials are complete.

A 2nd DAC approval gave the INR 8.2 billion (about $137 million) go-ahead for 40 Arjun Catapult Mk-II 130mm self-propelled howitzers, which mount the Russian D46 130mm gun on an Arjun Mk-I chassis. They’ll replace an equal number of DRDO Catapult Mk-I systems, which mounted the same gun on a license-built Russian T-72 chassis. Sources: Business Standard, “Govt clears defence deals worth Rs 17,000 cr” | Defense News, “India Cancels $1 Billion Light Helicopter Tender” | Financial Express, “Make in India kicks off with defence deals” | Indian Express, “Centre scraps light utility helicopter tender, opens it to Indian players” | NDTV, “Modi Government Drops Rs 6000-Crore Foreign Chopper Plan, Wants ‘Made in India'”.

Arjun Mk-II & Catapult Mk-II DAC clearances

Feb 7/14: Testing. India’s Combat Vehicle Research Development Establishment (CVRDE) in Avadi have taken the 67.5t Arjun Mk-II through about 5,000 km of trials, and are ready for the concluding phases of user trials in May 2014. CVRDE has completed 3 of 5 phases, with obstacle crossing and medium water fording next as Phase 4. CVRDE Director Dr P Sivakumar:

“There are 89 improvements being undertaken on the Mk II tank, out of which 74 are related to tank-fittable ones and the remaining 15 are other improvements such as ammunition development.”

Sources: Indian Express, “Arjun Main Battle Tank Gears up for Final Leg of Trials”.

Feb 6/14: DRDO’s CVRDE branch showcases its “Arjun Catapult” self-propelled howitzer system, which mounts a Russian D46 130mm howitzer on an Arjun Mk-I chassis. It reportedly began field-testing in 2012, and is set for another round of major testing in March-April 2014. Note that the gun compartment itself is only protected to the NATO STANAG level II standard, which is say 7.62 x 39 Armor-Piercing Incendiary rounds. Sources: Defense Update, “”.

Feb 2/14: Sub-contractors. Israel Defense notes the work of Israeli sub-contractors on the Arjun Mk-II. Elbit Systems will continue to supply the 4-point advanced laser warning and countermeasures system (ALWACS), which it also provided for the Arjun Mk-IA. The new commander’s open-architecture panoramic sight (COAPS) is also an Elbit product. Merkava tank designer IMI reportedly helped to improve the overall design of the Arjun Mk-II by helping India redesign the turret and hull for more accurate and reliable firepower, and consulting to optimize the production line processes at HVF Avadi. Sources: Israel Defense, “Israeli Hand in India’s New Tank”.

Jan 26/14: Paraded. India displays the new Arjun Mk-II at the National Day Parade in New Delhi. The tank includes Explosive Reactive Armor on the front glacis plate as well as the turret, mine plough attachments, a Remote-controlled Weapon System up top with a 12.7mm machine gun, 4 ALWACS (advanced laser warning and countermeasure system) developed with Israel’s Elbit and mounted around the turret, and 8 x 81mm grenade launchers on each side of the turret. The gun itself has a muzzle reference system, and can fire the IAI LAHAT laser-guided missile, along with regular, armor-piercing, and thermobaric ammunition. A new day/ night/ laser panoramic sighting and targeting system acts as a complementary upgrade.

“The DRDO, which anticipates orders for about 250 Arjun Mk IIs at a cost of INR370 million (USD6 million) per tank, also said the Arjun Mk II has an automatic target tracker and a land navigation system. Another new feature identified on the Arjun Mk II seen in Delhi are blow-out panels in the turret roof towards the rear.”

Sources: IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, “India shows off upgraded Arjun Mk II MBT at National Day parade”.

Mk-II: Public unveiling

Aug 10/12: What’s in Mk2? An article for FORCE Magazine clarifies some of the Arkun Mk-II’s differences from the first version, with cooperation from India’s Combat Vehicles Research & Development Establishment (CVRDE).

Improvements include the ability to fire the Israeli LAHAT missile from its 120mm rifled gun barrel, Explosive Reactive Armor for added defense, a mine plough attachment, and a shock-absorbing suspended driver’s seat. Mechanical changes include a suspension upgraded to 70 tonne capacity, increased horn length (19 mm) on the German-built tracks to counter track-shedding, and slightly bigger wheels. Despite an overall weight increase from 62 tonnes to 67 tonnes, the original engine is being kept, but the gear reduction ratio has increased from 4.4 to 5.3. That will lower top speed, but reportedly keeps acceleration as good or better. Fuel efficiency is reportedly the same as the Mk.1.

The Indian Army also wants a wider range of ammunition types, which have been an issue with the Arjun. Unfortunately, DRDO’s history here isn’t reassuring. The article also mentions that the Mk.2 contract will involve just 116 tanks, bringing the entire ordered Arjun fleet to 240. The first Arjun Mk-2 tank is scheduled to enter operational service in 2016. With HVF Avadi looking at a production rate of 30 tanks a year, all 116 tanks will be delivered by 2020. Livefist.

April 10/12: Blacklisting. Israel Military Industries, who design and manufacture Merkava tanks for Israel, finds itself barred from doing business in India. That’s a problem for the Arjun:

“The firm had been helping improve the overall design of the tank, specifically its turret and hull for more accurate and reliable firepower. Crucially, the firm was also helping the programme team optimise fuel consumption and mobility by bringing down overall weight. Finally, it was to provide assistance in optimising production line processes at the OFB’s Heavy Vehicles Factory (It was an OFB related issue that led to the firm being blacklisted along with five others).”

India’s regulations around blacklisting, which require only accusations, have created a huge problem for its military modernization projects. Sources: Livefist, “With IMI Blacklisted, Hurdles For MBT Arjun Mk.2?”

IMI blacklisted

2009 – 2010

Cap removed, Arjun Mk.2 production approved; Work on Future MBT begins.

CVRDE Arjun Mk II testbed

Arjun test tank
(click to view full)

Aug 10/10: Beyond Arjun. DRDO describes its Future Main Battle Tank program to India’s Business Standard, who says:

“While costs are still being evaluated, the projections are mind-boggling. The development cost alone could be Rs 5,000 crore. Then, the replacement cost of the Indian Army’s 4,000 tanks – at a conservative Rs 25 crore per FMBT – adds to Rs 1,00,000 [sic] crore.”

That’s about $1.085 billion for development, with a potential total of $21.7 billion for the program, assuming no major cost inflation or overruns. DRDO’s chief and Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister, V K Saraswat says that unlike the FICV armored infantry carrier, DRDO will develop the FMBT just as it did Arjun. He projects about 7-8 years from the time the project is formally sanctioned, though DRDO has been very wrong before.

The Preliminary Specifications Qualitative Requirement (PSQR) calls for a light 50-tonne tank, Explosive Reactive Armor plates, full networking and situational awareness even with hatches closed, and the ability to protect crews from radiation on a nuclear-contaminated battlefield. Note that France’s AMX-56 LeClerc tank, which already meets many of these requirements, is around 55 tonnes. DRDO is likely to find that their weight specifications add serious risk and cost.

Aug 9/10: Mk2. In a written Parliamentary reply to Shri BP Tarai and Shri Prabodh Panda, Defence Minister Shri AK Antony confirms that the Indian Army is placing an order for “124 Arjun Tanks Mark – II in addition to the equal number of Mark – I ordered earlier.” The difference between the 2 versions is not yet clear, and neither is the price. Indian MoD.

May 17/10: Arjun Mk2 OKed. India decides that it will remove the production cap, and double production of the Arjun Mk I tank. So far, 75 of the 124 ordered Arjuns have been delivered, and the remaining 49 were to be delivered by mid-2010. Now, the production line will be extended:

“The Army has decided to place fresh order for an additional home-built 124 Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun… [after] the success of the indigenous MBT Arjun in the recent gruelling desert trials. The project for the design and development of the MBT Arjun was approved by the Government in 1974… After many years of trial and tribulation it has now proved its worth by its superb performance under various circumstances, such as driving cross-country over rugged sand dunes, detecting, observing and quickly engaging targets, accurately hitting targets – both stationary and moving, with pin pointed accuracy.”

Even so, the mainstay of India’s future tank fleet with remain the Russian T-90S. The government’s DRDO agency still wants a minimum of 500 Arjuns ordered, to stabilize production lines until it can develop a Mark-II version. Indian government PIB release | India’s Business Standard | Deccan Chronicle | domain-b | Hindustan Times | Times of India.

Arjun Mk.2 approved, production cap removed

May 13/10: Arjun-II. The Indian government gives its approval to restructure the DRDO. Among the continued programs, however, is development of an MBT Arjun Mk-II tank. Indian government release | Defense News.

March 25/10: Arjun aces trials. The Hindu Business Standard: “Arjun tank outruns, outguns Russian T-90.” Excerpts:

“The importance of this comparative trial can be gauged from a list of those who attended… “The senior officers who attended the trials were taken aback by the Arjun’s strong performance”, an army officer who was present through the trials frankly stated… The army’s Directorate General of Mechanised Forces (DGMF), which has bitterly opposed buying more Arjuns, will now find it difficult to sustain that opposition… The current order of 124 Arjuns is equipping the army’s 140 Armoured Brigade in Jaisalmer. With that order almost completed, the Arjun production line at the Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF) in Avadi, near Chennai, needs more orders urgently. The Rs 50 crore facility can churn out 50 Arjuns annually… The Arjun’s sterling performance in the desert raises another far-reaching question: should the Arjun — with its proven mobility, firepower and armour protection — be restricted to a defensive role or should it equip the army’s strike corps… Each strike corps has 8-9 tank regiments. If the army recommends the Arjun for a strike role, that would mean an additional order of about 500 Arjuns.”

Note also the comparative chart, showing the Arjun compared to many international tanks.

Jan 16/10: Competitive trials. IANS reports that the Arjun main battle tank will get its long-requested trials beside the Russian built T-90S tanks, in desert trials at the at Mahajan Range in Rajasthan on March 1st.

“Our aim is not to determine a winner in these trials, but to test the core strength of the tanks,” a senior official of the Indian Army said, wishing anonymity.”

Despite that assurance, it’s generally acknowledged that poor performance in these tests would have consequences for the Arjun platform.

2008 – 2009

Arjun production capped at 124; Lighter Tank EX canceled; Arjun inducted.

T-90 tank firing

(click to view full)

June 4/09: Exports? An article in The Hindu Business Line by a former member of the state-run Factory Ordnance Board, states that the Arjun may be attracting some export interest:

“Miffed at the continued reluctance of the Army and armed with the credentials certified by independent audit, the DRDO is challenging the former to conduct comparative trials of T-90 and Arjun. The Army stalled such an exercise by first wanting at least 45 tanks in the regiment and then postponing the trials to October. The Army is also inserting tactical elements in the test directives… However, happily for HVF and the DRDO, it appears that a serious RFP (Request For Proposal) has been received from a Latin American country.”

May 25/09: Induction. The Indian Army inducts its first Arjun Main Battle Tank armored regiment, adding 16 delivered tanks to bring the 43rd Armored Regiment up to its strength of 45. Lieutenant General D Bhardwaj, Director General Mechanized Forces (DGMF), accepts the new tanks during the induction ceremony. StratPost.

Arjun Mk.1 inducted

July 22/08: Industrial. ANI reports from India’s Technology Seminar on ‘Future Infantry Combat Vehicle and Future Main Battle Tank,’ and the winds all appear to be blowing toward greater private sector involvement.

Current Defence Minister A K Antony noted that the new defense purchase policy envisages a greater role for the private sector in supplying much needed equipment to the country’s armed forces, and added that the focus of the new rules and procedures in the defense procurement procedures 2008 (DPP 2008) is on ensuring speedier procurements. Also:

“…Chief of the Army Staff, General Deepak Kapoor, pointed out that while technology was critical for any nation’s defence system, “what was also needed was the need to check any time and procedural delays.” He said that while it was important to stress on indigenisation and collaborative approach, “we should not compromise on our operational capabilities.”

…Lt. Gen. Dalip Bhardwaj, Director-General Mechanised Forces, said that the time was right for greater private sector involvement in supplying defence equipment. “However, the industry must keep in mind the defence sector’s end needs and not just the technology.” According to him what the industry needs to do is to develop products that have a longer shelf life.”

July 21/08: Beyond Arjun. India and Russia may be gearing up to develop the T-90’s successor as a joint project. Rediff quotes Nikolai Malykh, director general of Russia’s biggest tank producer Uralvagonzavod:

“We put forward this idea (of developing the tank) at the turn of the 21st century. The Indian side has now come up with a similar proposal… We will take the first step when our experts go to India to attend a conference on the future tank and prospects for the tank-building industry.”

Moscow Defence Brief magazine claims that the new tank may have a new main gun of up to 152 mm caliber, higher speed, a smoother ride, improved networking, and an armor-protected crew compartment sealed from an unmanned turret equipped with an automatic loader. A new hunter-killer fire control system would include target acquisition in optical, thermal, infrared and radar spectrum that will be accessible both to the gunner and tank commander.

This is interesting on 2 levels. One item worth noting is their use of the BrahMos program as a model. If adopted, the successor program to the Arun tank is likely to have far less DRDO involvement and control. The second item is the feature set itself, which reflects Russian thinking. It’s worth reminding oneself, however, no deal has been signed as of yet. Initial wish lists for features are just that, until a working model is fielded. Rediff report.

July 7/08: Capped. India decides to cap production of the Arjun tank at 124. They also halt development of a lighter “Tank EX” that uses Arjun technology. Jane’s | Times of India | Indian Business Standard (pro) | Hindustan Times | domain-B | Thaindian News | Thaindian News (re: sabotage) | Business Standard (April, pro) | Rediff (April, pro).

Production capped

Additional Readings

* Army Recognition – Arjun Nk-I Main Battle Tank.

* Vimeo – Inside Out – Arjun Main Battle Tank – Discovery Channel’s Documentary On DRDO .

* Wikipedia – Tank EX. A lighter 47t tank that tried to combine a modified T-72 hull with a modified Arjun turret, in order to address weight concerns. The Indian Army rejected it in 2008.

* Defense Update (Feb 6/14) – DRDO Develops Self propelled Gun Based on the Arjun Tank. The “Catapult” mounts the Russian D46 130mm howitzer on an Arjun Mk-I hull.

* Israel Defense (Feb 2/14) – Israeli Hand in India’s New Tank.

* Livefist (Aug 10/12) – India’s Arjun Mk.2 Tank Revealed. Reproduces an article from FORCE magazine. The comments section takes some strong pokes at the article’s logic, and the Indian Army’s stated rationales.

* India’s Business Standard (Aug 10/10) – DRDO to develop army’s next-generation tank. Having finally ironed the bugs out of Arjun, DRDO wants to develop a whole new tank for Future MBT, rather than making incremental improvements on its product, and some of its wants run counter to global trends. Anyone else see another expensive disaster of under-delivery in the making?

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