By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Nov 12
The indigenous project to build a Future Main Battle Tank (FMBT) is being quietly buried by the army. Instead, the army’s tank directorate has proposed keeping faith with the home grown Arjun tank, while incrementally improving it into the future backbone of the army’s strike forces.
Senior army sources tell Business Standard that the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces (DGMF), which oversees the army’s tank force, has formally proposed that the Arjun be gradually improved through successive models --- Mark II, Mark III, Mark IV and so on --- rather than attempting a major technological leap into the unknown, which is what the FMBT would be.
On Dec 06, 2010, Defence Minister AK Antony had informed parliament that the “FMBT is likely to be developed by the year 2020.” He said the army had already conceptualised its requirements and the DRDO was carrying out a feasibility study.
Now, by consensus between the DRDO and the DGMF, the future of indigenous tank building is to flow from the Arjun. Two Arjun regiments, consisting of 128 tanks, are already in frontline service. And a Mark II version of the Arjun is undergoing trials in Rajasthan. The army has committed to buying 118 Arjun Mark II tanks after trials are successfully concluded.
These orders for just 246 Arjuns are insignificant, complains a senior DRDO official, given that the army fields about 4000 tanks. To evolve the Arjun through successive models, the army would have to operate the tank in larger numbers and cooperate closely with the DRDO. This, says the DRDO official, would require a mindshift amongst senior army generals who tend to favour imports.
Three important realizations drive the DGMF’s new proposal. Firstly, there is growing acceptance of the Arjun, after its strong performance in field trials. Secondly, the need for an industrial “eco-structure” for providing spares and maintenance backup for the Arjuns that are already operating. This would come up only if a viable number of tanks are in service. Finally, the DGMF believes that there are no recent breakthrough technologies in armoured vehicle design, which eliminates the logic for building an entirely new tank.
This DGMF decision not to develop an FMBT stems from the difficulty it faced in drawing up specifications for the new tank. A key hurdle was in reconciling the need for a four-man tank crew (like the Arjun, and unlike Russian tanks that have a three-man crew) with the simultaneous wish for a lighter tank that weighed not more than 50-tonnes. The 60-tonne-plus Arjun has been criticised as too heavy.
Says a key general: “All contemporary three-man-crew tanks weigh 50-tonnes, like those being built by South Korea, Turkey and Japan. Adding a fourth crew member also adds roughly 10-tonnes of weight, due to increase in the tank size and weight of armour. But we were asking for a 50-tonne FMBT that would have a four-man crew. It just didn’t add up.”
Meanwhile, Israel Military Industries (IMI), which provides consultancy to the DRDO on tank design, has advised that the Arjun could be gradually pared down to below 60 tonnes, from the 65 tonnes of the current Arjun Mark II.
In a 2008 seminar, organized by the DGMF, Israeli Major General Yossi Ben-Hanan --- an acclaimed tank designer who fathered Israel’s successful Merkava tank --- told an attentive audience that tank design is evolutionary, each design building upon the previous one. The Israelis began designing their Merkava Mark-1 MBT in 1970; today they have the world class Merkava Mark-4.
The DGMF’s proposal to scrap the FMBT indicates that it has bought into the concept of evolutionary development. The Arjun Mark II, which is currently undergoing field trials in Rajasthan, has 79 improvements over the Mark I that is in service. These include: the ability to fire an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM); a panoramic electro-optical sight for the commander; an improved suspension; and an auxiliary generator for powering the Arjun’s electricals when the main engine is not running.
The army has not responded to an emailed request for comments for this article.