The new RFI issued by the Indian Army calls for a light tank featuring a multiple, modular and upgradable weapon system with the capability to destroy and offer countermeasures
|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
The Indian Army (IA) has issued a RFI (Request For Information) in April 2021 inviting responses from overseas and domestic vendors by June 18 for its planned procurement of 350 locally manufactured ‘light tanks’ weighing less than 25 tonnes along with performance-based logistics, niche technologies, engineering support package, and other maintenance and training requirements. The RFI dated April 22 and published on April 24 states that the light tanks are to be procured in a “phased manner” under the ‘Make in India’ category of the Defence Ministry’s Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020 (DAP 2020). Earlier in October 1999, the Indian Army (IA) had issued a RFI for 200 wheeled light tanks (armoured cars) and about 100 tracked light tanks. This was after the 1999 Kargil Conflict. The new RFI has been issued because of the 2020 Chinese aggression and the continuing standoff, with China refusing to disengage from Depsang Plains, Gogra and Hot Springs.
Last year’s media reports had indicated that the Indian Army has picked up the Russian 2S25M Sprut-SDM1 Tank Destroyer (light tank) for the emergency purchases but whether any procurements was effected is not known. Currently, the IA operates Russian-made main battle tank T-90S called Bhishma and T-72M1 nicknamed Ajeya. Modern heavy tanks are not designed to be deployed in mountainous regions with narrow roads and crossing points not able to support a combat vehicle with a weight of 50 tonnes.
There are limited numbers of light tanks, both tracked and wheeled in the inventory of foreign armies
China has deployed the ZTQ 105 / Type 15 lightweight tank in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) opposite Ladakh and opposite Sikkim. The Type 15 has a maximum weight of 36 tonnes and offers the mobility and the firepower of a standard Main Battle Tank (MBT). Also called VT-5, the Type 15 is armed with one 105mm rifled gun with a thermal sleeve and fume extractor which has a maximum firing range of 3,000 metres. The gun is able to fire anti-tank missiles fitted with a tandem HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) warhead that can destroy armoured or tanks protected with reactive armour (ERA). The missile has a maximum firing range of 5,000 metres.
The new RFI issued by the Indian Army calls for a light tank featuring a multiple, modular and upgradable weapon system with the capability to destroy and offer countermeasures to varied threats, also featuring multiple weapons for anti-aircraft and ground role with different calibre assisted with remote control weapon station; the tank should employ modern advance multipurpose ‘smart munitions’ with a gun able to fire anti-tank guided missiles; auxiliary power unit; preheated, environment control unit; anti-drone capability; UAV jammers and; net-enabled functions.
There are limited numbers of light tanks, both tracked and wheeled in the inventory of foreign armies. The US Army has launched the MPF (Mobile Protected Firepower) programme to have a new light tank for the airborne troops. General Dynamics has developed a new light tank weighing less than 30 tonnes having armour similar to a standard MBT which can be armed with a 120 or a 105 mm cannon. In October 2015, BAE Systems unveiled a new light tank called Expeditionary Light Tank (ELT) that can be airdropped from a C-130 aircraft. The ELT is based on the M8 Armoured Gun System, modernised with mature technologies from the CV90 family of infantry fighting vehicles and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
The USP of DRDO’s proposed light tank for the Indian Army is that it will be fitted with High Altitude Operable Power pack (Engine + Transmission) of 1,000hp and will be capable of firing multiple ammunition
The Philippines recently awarded a contract for light tanks and wheeled armoured personnel carriers for its army to Israel’s Elbit Systems. The new light tank for the Philippines is the Sabrah which is based on the ASCOD-2 tracked chassis. Concurrently, Turkish company FNSS has designed the ‘Kaplan’ fitted with a two-man turret armed with a standard NATO 105mm rifled gun which can fire both AP (Armor Piercing) and HE (High Explosive) ammunitions.
The South Korean company Hanwha Defense is offering the Indian Army its light tank based on the K-21 IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle) fitted with a two-man turret CT-CV 105HP designed by the Belgian company John Cockerill. Hanwha Defense says the vehicle has a 105mm turret mounted on a K21 infantry fighting vehicle chassis. It has strong firepower and maneuverability that enables the vehicle to perform a wider variety of tactical operations than main battle tanks. The company also shared a promo video of its K21-105 tank, which they are classified as a medium tank without mentioning what its weight is.
Who will win the race to provide the 350 light tanks to the Indian Army is not known. But the mention of procuring in phased manner under ‘Make in India’ together with the elaborate procedure of examining the responses to the RFI, selecting who will develop the prototypes, trials, awarding of contract and political considerations, all with attendant red-tape leaves plenty leeway. From the looks of it, the DRDO may be chosen as one developer, if not capturing the whole contract. G. Satheesh Reddy, Secretary DDR&D and Chairman DRDO, told media on May 1, 2021 that the USP (unique selling proposition) of DRDO’s proposed light tank for the Indian Army is that it will be fitted with High Altitude Operable Power pack (Engine + Transmission) of 1,000hp and will be capable of firing multiple ammunition. This tank may be called as “highest altitude operable tank in the globe”. The design work has commenced and we will bring out the timelines.
For the Indian Army, it would not really matter whether the contract for the 350 light tanks goes to the DRDO or another firm as long as the laid down requirement are met and the product is state-of-the-art
Interestingly, the "Design and Development of Light Tank on BMP-I by the DRDO project was approved in 1983, which was to be completed in 1986. But it never reached completion although production and trials continued till 1996 at a total cost of 4.53 crore ( 2.91 through foreign exchange ), well beyond its estimated 2.54 crore. This was despite the fact that In May 1993, the light tank was considered unnecessary and in 1994, the Scientific Advisor to Defence Minister had advised that the project be closed.
From the Army as the user, it would not really matter whether the contract for the 350 light tanks goes to the DRDO or another firm as long as the laid down requirement are met and the product is state-of-the-art with high quality rubber parts, seals and accessories which have been the weak points of DRDO in the past. Indian Governments only wake up in times of crisis. If the Indian Army’s RFI for light tanks issued in October 1999 was followed through, the Army would have had light tanks today. This time it would be prudent to provide the Army with light tanks on a war footing because of the looming China threat.