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Arjun, Main Battle Tanked

Cost over-run: almost 20 times. Delay: 16 yrs, and counting. Army says too heavy, too hot, Russian T-90s better; even Minister admits tracks will be replaced by imported ones; DRDO says we will build new one

Written by Amitavranjan | New Delhi |
November 27, 2006 12:34:23 pm

The Arjun tank has no future. It still cannot fire straight. The T-90, a far superior tank, can kill the Arjun. We would not cross any border with these tanks.

Strong words, from Brigadier D K Babbar, the Army’s pointsman for the Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun project at the Mechanised Forces directorate until he retired last year from the 94th Armoured Brigade. Babbar, who spoke to The Indian Express, has reason to be disillusioned. So has Army chief General J J Singh who was more diplomatic last month: “We will see where we can use it to get optimum use.”

It’s not going to be easy.

Over 30 years after Project Arjun was sanctioned by Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet to make a home-grown battle tank that would address the armoured deficit identified during the 1971 war, the Army is now faced with a troubling prospect: inducting a lumbering, misfiring, vintage design tank like the Arjun, and that, too, in large numbers.

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This, after DRDO over-shot Arjun’s project deadline by 16 years — from 1984 to 1995, finally closing the project only in 2000 — and the cost over-run is almost 20 times the original estimate. This is the highest percentage over-run for any DRDO project.

With five pre-production tanks forced upon the Army’s 43rd Armoured Regiment in 2004 and 23 tanks to be handed over shortly, MBT Arjun is about to be pushed into full-rate production outside Chennai, with the Army bound by its commitment to buy 124 for two regiments, all of which are to be delivered by 2008.

Still having 58 per cent of its content imported – including its engine, the integrated gunner’s main sight and tracks— the Arjun tank was put through confirmatory trials in the Mahajan ranges in July but the Army wasn’t holding its breath.

Consider these: At a mammoth 58.5 tons, Arjun is a full weight class over the Russian T-90 and nowhere near as agile.

In May, the Defence Ministry publicized the Army chief’s inauguration of a product called Bogie Flat Arjun Tank (BFAT) built by Bharat Earth Movers in Bangalore. What it didn’t say: these were specially built rail wagons wide enough and reinforced to carry the massive 3.85-m-wide Arjun. For, the tank will crack the existing freight wagons.

According to the Army’s latest trials, the decade-old problem of overheating persists. Two of the tank’s main subsystems, the fire control system (FCS) and integrated gunner’s main sight, which includes a thermal imager and laser range-finder, are rendered erratic and useless by the Arjun’s abnormally high peak internal temperature, which moves well beyond 55 degrees Celsius. This is in testimony to the Parliamentary committee.

Following failed trials in summer 1997, which were criticized in a 1998 CAG report for a series of malfunctions, transmission failures and overheating, and an exodus of scientists from DRDO the same year, the tank’s production cost shot up steeply. Its unit price in 1997 was Rs 10.8 crore. It’s official unit price now: Rs 16.8 crore.

Former chief Gen Shankar Roy Choudhary had promised his service quick inductions, only to be faced with yet another extension by DRDO. In the same period, the Sino-Pak Al-Khalid tank was productionised and had begun inductions. When contacted, Roy Choudhary said: “I was a strong proponent of the Arjun tank but its performance was disappointing.”

On October 12, Minister of State for Defence Production Rao Inderjit Singh told The Indian Express that it was decided — after the recent trials — that the production-series tanks will be stripped of their indigenous tracks and will have imported ones. So will the first few tanks that roll out of the Heavy Vehicles Factory outside Chennai. In other words, after three decades of research, Main Battle Tank Arjun cannot stand on its own “indigenous” feet.

The project, according to testimony provided in January by the Defence Ministry to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, has produced virtually nothing. DRDO admitted to the same committee in June that it would be able to develop an indigenous engine, gunner’s main sight and tracks only if the Army places an order beyond 124 tanks. However, the Army has no such plans, making it uneconomical and non-feasible to reduce import content.

“License production of the above items may be feasible with enhanced order quantity for Arjun tanks and may result in reduction in import contents,” admits DRDO. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Army will progressively begin inducting between 800-1000 T-90 Bhishma tanks, which will be built under license from Russia, from 2008, making the letter ‘M’ in Arjun’s prefix not just superfluous but bogus. Why?

“It is important for the Army to maintain combat superiority over its adversaries. There have been delays and slippages in the MBT Arjun project,” Army Headquarters said in written replies to The Indian Express. Five months ago, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence said, “The Committee also desires that accountability for delay in production of the Arjun Tank may be fixed.” But the Arjun, which has cost the exchequer Rs 305.6 crore so far (representing one of the largest ever cost-overruns in percentage terms), has the influential DRDO high command unfalteringly behind it. DRDO chief Manthiram Natarajan, chief architect of the Arjun programme and a 2002 Padma Shri, has been associated with the programme since its birth in 1974 and became Programme Director in 1987. When contacted, he said, “Defence scientists are conscious that there have been time over-runs on some of the projects. But even today, it is much more cost efficient than tanks of same calibre being produced elsewhere.”

But DRDO is undeterred. With the Army’s armour perspective plan drawing out 60 regiments by 2020, DRDO told the Parliamentary panel that it’s now developing what it calls Tank-X, a hybrid consisting of an Arjun gun turret mounted on a T-72 chassis. Two tanks have been prepared, and DRDO has said it will shortly offer them to the Army for an evaluation. No guesses for why the Army isn’t terribly excited.

(Tomorrow: The Grounded Light Combat Aircraft)

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