Arjun To Star At Exercise Ashwamedh!

A piece by Sandeep Dikshit in The Hindu today:

The Army is fielding the indigenous Arjun tanks for the first time in simulated war games in the deserts of Rajasthan beginning on Sunday. A ``sub-unit'' of about a dozen Arjun tanks has been fielded along with Russian-origin tanks for the exercise codenamed `Ashwamedha' to test new equipment and concepts in searing heat, said anonymous Army sources.

The Army has kept the news under wraps due to the controversy surrounding the tanks' development and its designer, Defence Research & Development Organisation's (DRDO), and sensitivity to the criticism about their inability to function optimally in high temperatures.

This would be the first recent major non-missile project by the DRDO to undertake the heat tests in a major war exercise in which the ``reactions would not be doctored or controlled,'' according to Brigadier Amarjeet, commanding a tank brigade in the exercise.

The war games in the deserts will begin on Sunday and last till May 3 but preparations for this period of ``intense activity'' have been on for two months. This is the first time the exercises are being held in the operations area of the newly created South Western Command.

The Arjun tank became a major issue of discord between the Army and the DRDO after the former periodically complained about the shortcomings in various components, especially the fire control system in temperatures above 40 degrees centigrade.

Though development of the tank began in 1974, the Army was recently forced to make massive purchases of Russian tanks after it failed to perform to Army's expectations even after 30 years.

However, in mid-2004, the Army was told to set aside its reservations about its weight, profile and malfunctioning systems and place an order for 124 tanks. The same year, five tanks rolled out of the production lines and the remaining might take about five years to manufacture. These tanks would equip two regiments.

In defence, the DRDO points out that the Army wants a tank comparable to Russian, American and German standards but India entered the R&D phase several decades later. In case the tanks pass the test of desert heat and terrain, the DRDO and the Heavy Vehicles Factory would begin planning for other variants such as bridge layers and recovery vehicles.

Besides the Arjun, the assets that will be used for the first time in a major war game are unmanned aerial vehicles, BMP-II (armour plated vehicles for carrying soldiers) and T-90 tanks. In temperatures that would hover around 45 degrees centigrade, Special Forces would try out various methods to move behind enemy lines for surveillance and destruction of logistical dumps.

The exercise would involve fighter planes and helicopters besides tanks, mechanised infantry, medium and field artillery, air defence and elements of signals and engineering units. However, there would be no downsizing of infantry troops despite the involvement of so much of hardware. ``On the ground when closing in on the enemy, the requirement of troops is the same,'' said Major-General Raj Sujlana.

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