It's the most crucial phase for Project Arjun. The new and improved Arjun Mk.II has begun user trials in the deserts of Rajasthan, an exercise that hopefully confirm its usefulness to the Indian Army. With over 90 improvements to the base Mk.I version, the Chennai-based Combat Vehicles R&D Establishment (CVRDE) has been steeped in fine-tuning the platform for the last 24 months, hoping to meet the stringent demands of the Army, a customer who was hard to please with the Mk.I as well. The results of the Mk.II user trials will be crucial to the future of a project that traces its origins to the aftermath of the 1971 war. The Army has placed an indent for 116 Mk.IIs, in addition to the 124 Mk.I tanks already in service with two tank regiments in the Rajasthan sector.
In June last year, the Arjun Mk.II Project Director G.K. Kumaravel was tragically killed near Jodhpur when he was being driven to Pokhran to witness a round of development trials. Still mourning the loss, Team Arjun now has fresh resolve to see the Mk.II put into service with no further delays or slip-ups. The Defence Research and Development Organisation's (DRDO) new Chief Avinash Chander has also placed emphasis on seeing the Arjun pushed into service as quickly as possible.
The Arjun Mk.II is a hugely improved weapons platform compared to the base Arjun Mk.I. This month, the Army will see final trials on many of those new capabilities, including the missile firing capability from the primary 120mm gun tube, the ability to fire additional types of ammunition (including penetration rounds, penetration and blast combined rounds) and explosive reactive armour covering the front portion of the tank akin to the T-90 and T-72 in service. Other improvements include a crucial night-fighting capability (absent on the Army's other tanks as well), thermal imaging, an air-defence secondary weapon, laser ranging, target tracking, larger wheels for greater stability and a more comfortable ride for the driver and tank commander.
While the scene seems set for some successes, the Arjun Mk.II, in reality, is stacked up against huge odds. On the one hand, the Indian Army has officially clarified that the T-90 will be its main battle tank, and that the Arjun will not. On the other, the Army has made no commitment to inducting the Arjun Mk.II in large numbers even if trials are successful, which means there is no guarantee that that the Army will operate a fleet of 240 (124 + 116) Arjuns of both variants. The DRDO in 2008 had appealed to the government in 2008, and is doing so again now, that the Arjun programme as a whole is a dead loss if the platform isn't ordered in a certain minimum quantity. As time has passed, this number has increased. In 2008, the DRDO had calculated that the Army needed to order at least 500 Arjun tanks (in any combination of variants) to amortise costs infused into the programme over decades. Now, the DRDO is of the view that the Army will need to purchase at least 500 of just the Arjun Mk.II to make good on investments in the project. In effect, the DRDO is saying that unless the Army immediately adds 384 units of the Mk.II to its existing indent, the project is unviable, uneconomical and a loss to the public exchequer—a serious issue for a project that has taken so long to deliver results.
"The DRDO has been extremely professional about the Arjun Mk.II, and gone with the user at every stage, accepting the requirement and fulfilling them in a steady manner. It would be extremely disappointing if after so much hard work from all sides, the project is a loss for the country. The Army should feel proud to induct the country's very own tank," says a senior DRDO official, earlier with CVRDE. What the DRDO also has to account for is the fact that the Arjun Mk.II is still far from a fully indigenous machine—more than half the tank in value terms is still imported, including the German powerpack, Delft-SAGEM gun control system and Belgian gunner's main sight. The DRDO has argued in the past that while the percentage of import content is 60 per cent in the first lot of 124 tanks, it would reduce to under 45 per cent with the manufacture of first 200 tanks and under 30 per cent with the manufacture of about 500 tanks. For now, those remain hypothetical figures.
A former DG Mechanised Forces, who oversaw trials on the Arjun Mk.I, says, "The Arjun in any variant is a heavy machine. It is not suited for the terrains it is intended for. It is not a system conducive to strike corps operations. It is an impressive development in terms of the technologies we have been able to build in-house within our laboratories, but the DRDO must not accept that it cannot continue to harp on the Arjun. There are other more pressing solutions to think of, like the Tank-X and the FMBT."
While the Tank-X (an Arjun turret on a T-72 chassis) hasn't been accepted as a viable proposition by the Army yet, the FMBT is still only in the conceptual stage. The Army believes that the DRDO must invest all lessons from the Arjun MBT programme into the FMBT, and ensure that the similar pitfalls are never encountered. For instance, the Army needs light, nimble tanks that can be deployed in deserts, and are air-transportable (the Arjun wasn't even rain-transportable before BEML made special wagons that could carry it—the Mk.II is about 10 tonnes heavier than the Mk.I).
As with any long and arduous indigenous development effort, cross-roads like the ones drawn in the sand at Pokhran throw up critical questions for both the DRDO as well as the Army. For the DRDO, the questions that arise are: (a) Can it reconcile itself with the very real possibility that the Army will induct no more than 240 Arjun tanks? (b) Will the DRDO raise the levels to force the government to intervene on its behalf and force the Army to induct more tanks, thus risking the goodwill of one of its largest customers? (c) Is the DRDO willing to conduct a realistic assessment of its achievements, devoid of rhetoric that the Army accuses it of, and make a clinical plan forward? For the Army, the questions are equally serious: (a) Is the Army really better off without more Arjun tanks? (b) If the Arjun has proven to be a more potent platform than the T-90, why does the Russian tank remain the Indian Army's MBT? (c) Will the Army commit itself to being a more reliable and reasonable partner in the FMBT programme, so the ghosts of Arjun are never raised again?