Notwithstanding heavy losses suffered by Russian armour in the war in Ukraine, Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs) or tanks are here to stay as these provide the unique capability of firepower, mobility and shock action in a single machine.
Employment of any weapon of war depends on several factors – operational strategy, tactics and individual proficiency apart from the tank technology.
The Russian T 34 introduced in the Second World War outgunned and maneouvred the famous German Panzers while the current Russian tanks T 90 and equivalent are superior but could not produce the desired outcomes due to faulty employment amongst other factors.
Russia may thus be tempted to employ the T 14 Armata an advanced tank which is said to be informationised to act as an information node in addition to characteristics of superior firepower and mobility.
In the Indian context tanks have proved to be battle winners in the 1965 and 1971 wars when many pitched battles were fought with armour be it in Khemkaran or Shakargarh bulge and will continue to be highly relevant weapons of war and deterrence.
With typical conurbations in Punjab and Northern Rajasthan, employment of tanks is expected to be shifting further south where there continue to be ideal tank country.
While the threat of battlefield nuclear rockets employed by Pakistan continues to loom, Indian armour has the capability to fight through the same.
In the last two years, India has also felt the urgent necessity of light tanks, the lateness of which is surprising given that the T 90 and T 72 have been deployed in Ladakh as well as the Eastern Himalayas for many years. Against this backdrop Indian Army AFV capability and plans for modernization need discussion.
Indian Army has the third generation Russian origin medium 957 T 90 S tanks named as the Bhishma in service. There is a tranche of these tanks that have been indigenously licensed produced.
In addition, 464 T 90 S tanks are on order, contract for which was signed in November 2019 as per a report in the Defense News.
The contract also involved technology transfer to the Ordnance Factory Board, now a group of limited companies in this case the Armed Vehicles Nigam Ltd by the original equipment manufacturer Ural Vagon Zavod and arms export agency Rosoboronexport at the cost of $1.2 billion.
It is not clear if technology transfer has been completed or is ongoing particularly with pressure on the Russian industry to support the war in Ukraine.
There is a caveat that technology for engines and transmission systems was not expected to be transferred. The status of the contract needs confirmation given sanctions that have now been imposed on the Russian defence industry.
Apart from T 90 S, there are large number of T 72 tanks also in service with the 65 plus armoured regiments of the Indian Army in addition to at least two which are equipped with the indigenously produced Arjun.
Spares, ancillaries and subsystems for the T 90 S and T 72 are likely to have been indigenized, however in terms of engines and transmission system apart from reserves additional may have to be sourced from Russia.
More over modernization of these tanks to include enhancement of night fighting capability has been undertaken from time to time. Upgrades may provide a 3.5 generation capability to the T 90S.
Arjun Mark 1A
The indigenously produced Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun designed and developed by the DRDO has been sparsely inducted and is more of a technology demonstrator as the heavy weight precludes operational mobility.
The DRDO with CVRDE as the lead Laboratory has been able to improve various features of Arjun to Mark 1 A to include superior armour defeating capability of the indigenously developed Fin Stabilized Armour Piercing Discarding Sabot (FSAPDS) ammunition and 120 mm calibre rifled gun which it claims give MBT ARJUN an edge over contemporary world tanks.
A computer-controlled integrated fire control system incorporating day-cum-night stabilized sighting system guarantees a very high first round hit probability and reduced reaction time to bring effective fire on targets as per the DRDO.
Indian Army plans to induct 118 Arjun Mk-1A main battle tanks which is an upgraded version of the Arjun Mk-1 currently in army service. Hindustan Times reports that the new version has 71 upgrades over existing variant including 14 major improvements.
Despite these improvements Arjun Mark 1 A will be employed only in two armoured regiments by the Indian Army.
Modernisation: Wither FRCV?
Indian Army’s Director General of Mechanised Forces had initiated two projects for replacement of Russian tanks and ICVs – the Future Ready Combat Vehicle (FRCV) and the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV).
Despite much fanfare these projects are languishing with very limited progress though the requisite clearances are issued from time to time but remain poor in application.
Several Indian private sector companies have exhibited interest in these projects which have failed to take off due to the bureaucratic maze of India’s defence acquisition procedure.
Most recently, in April 2021, the Ministry of Defence, Government of India has issued another Request for Information or RFI for FRCV, seeking approximately 1770 in a phased manner, with expected induction by 2030.
The FRCV platform is planned to be procured under the ‘Strategic Partnership’ route within the provision of Chapter-VII of Defence Acquisition Procedure - 2020’.
In the RFI in 2017, Indian companies including Tata Motors, Reliance Defence and Engineering Limited, Mahindra Group, Bharat Forge, Punj Lloyd, Tata Power SED, Titagarh Wagons, and Tractors India had expressed interest in forming a joint venture with the OEMs as per the Financial Express.
The necessity for a light tank for the Indian Army was anticipated some years back, however the proposal after some preliminary moves for development through the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in the 1990’s did not take off possibly due to shifting priorities and budgets
The long standoff in Eastern Ladakh that has continued since May 2020 saw the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deploying light tanks.
In response the Indian Army had in place and moved T 72 and T 90 medium tanks. These were found unsuitable in the some areas which lacked the deployability and possibly operational requirements led for the proposal for procurement of light tanks was revived.
The Indian Army thus issued a Request for Information (RFI) the primary objective of which is to assist the service HQ in formulation of the Service QRs to enable practical evolution of either and Expression of Intent (EOI) and Request for Proposal. This also assists in estimation of the budgetary cost as is indicated in the Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020.
The RFI denotes that the Army intends to acquire approximately 350 Light Tanks in a phased manner planned to be procured under the “ ‘Make-in-India’ ethos and spirit of the DAP – 2020”.
The project known as the Indian Light Tank (ILT) is looking at a 25 tonne AFV with minimum 105 mm main gun, anti tank guided missile and a crew of three with mobility in the high altitude. The technical parameters of the Light Tank have been issued vide a RFI which can be accessed here.
Given prolongation of the war in Ukraine and expected drop in Russian military industrial complex to cater for exports while fulfilling requirements of tanks of the Russian armed forces as well as sanctions, India will have to scale up the indigenous FRCV programme suitably tweaked after a study of the lessons of the War in Ukraine to be applied in context.
More over planned upgrades and sustenance spares and ancillary support for the T 90 S and T 72 in service will have to be indigenized on priority. The quest of a light tank for high altitude operation will continue.