Farewell to Arjun?

At the ceremony where the Rohini radar was handed over to the Indian Air Force last week, DRDO chief Manthiram Natarajan (and father of the Arjun tank) was asked by journalists about the Arjun MBT programme and the Indian Army's in-principle decision to cap orders at 124 tanks. "I have heard no such thing. I have only heard about it through the media" was his response. Well. the bringers of bad news as usual.

Delivered a deathblow by the Army last month, the dubiously prestigious Arjun main battle tank (MBT) programme is now thrashing for life. Envisaged in May 1974 as a project that would supply at least 2,000 heavy duty tanks to the Indian Army’s armoured corps, the Army cleared all doubts last week that it would stop its order at a paltry 124 tanks from the Heavy Vehicles Factory that currently makes Arjuns at Avadi outside Chennai. A formal communication to this effect will be made by the Army shortly.

Creators of the Arjun the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), now desperate from decades of fighting a chronic antagonism to the programme – not quite without reason – has appealed to the government to “intervene at this stage and ensure that our indigenous efforts in this direction are appropriately rewarded".

At the behest of DRDO chief Manthiram Natarajan – who, not coincidentally, happens to be the “Father of MBT Arjun” for his long innings with the programme – a document (posted here on LiveFist) about the programme has been circulated among Defence Minister AK Antony’s office, top Defence Ministry bureaucrats and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence.

In its appeal, the DRDO states, “The process of TOT (transfer of technology for the MBT will mature and stabilize only after 200 to 300 tanks have been actually produced by the production agency. Hence, we need to have patronage from the government and Army in terms of more orders for our indigenous MBT-Arjun. If the army does not place further orders for Arjun we cannot even amortize the infrastructural investments made by the government for its productionisation, thereby resulting in wasteful expenditure. The Army should place orders for additional 300 tanks before we can break even.”

A former Director General Mechanised Forces of the Army’s tank arm (he asked not to be named) reacted violently when I shared the contents of DRDO’s documentary appeal with him. “They have nowhere else to turn, now that their primary customer has thrown the tank back at themm," he said. "The Arjun cannot mature any further. The Army needs a futuristic tank that can serve its needs well beyond the next three decades. MBT Arjun does not come even close to fulfilling that.”

Anticipating this stand, the DRDO has included the following in its documentary appeal: “DRDO is working on the development of the futuristic Mark II MBT with suitable technological upgrades, which can be introduced later after completion of production of at least 500 tanks of the present version. DRDO has tacit knowledge in this area of Combat Vehicle Engineering and possesses full competence in developing futuristic combat vehicles. Any battle tank has a service life of 30 years and goes through technology up gradation progressively. Since MBT-Arjun is an indigenous tank it is all the more easier to bring upgrades and in our opinion the MBT-Arjun will be a viable platform for the futuristic use as well.”

Off the record, the Army scoffs at such a claim. The retired DGMF said, “We’ve waited more than three decades for Arjun and only met with disappointment. What makes them think that we are prepared to run the same risk again? They should understand they their delays have actually impacted combat preparedness of our frontline forces. Are they prepared to live with that?”

While the Arjun programme has indubitably had a severely bumpy development path, the blame game that festers to this day in military circles appears to be foggier than either the DRDO or the Army would have anyone believe. And now with the Army indicating that it plans to return to the drawing board for a futuristic tank that it would like to build in partnership with Russia as a progression of the Russian T-90 Bhishma tank (that the Army has unequivocally identified as its main battle tank instead of Arjun), the DRDO now propounds a theory that tank development is incremental and evolutionary -- and that building from scratch would be to deny three decades of valuable expertise in building modern battle tanks.

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