The desert duel that wasn’t - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday, 10 September 2007

The desert duel that wasn’t

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 11th Sept 2007

The Mahajan Field Firing Ranges (MFFR), near Suratgarh, in Rajasthan, a hive of army activity between September and March, transforms into desolation during the summer months. During that interregnum, the emptiness, the blazing 50-degree-plus heat, the absence of water, and the unrelenting sandstorms make MFFR an ideal testing ground for equipment that the army proposes to buy.

Here, over the last 33 years, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) has carried out scores of often-unsuccessful trials on India’s Arjun tank. It is here, during this bygone summer, that the MFFR was to host the mother of all duels: full-scale comparative trials, in which the Arjun tank was to be compared with the army’s workhorses, the Russian T-72 and the new-generation T-90 tanks. If the Arjun performed satisfactorily (nothing better was even imagined) the army would buy 124 tanks, a miniscule purchase considering that its fleet has 3500 tanks. This token order, worth Rs 2250 crores, is believed to constitute a face-saving closure to the three-decades old DRDO project that had spent Rs 300 crores on developing the Arjun.

But this long-playing tale has taken a rousing twist comparable with the most unlikely of underdog success stories. Recent technological breakthroughs in the Arjun project appear to have transformed what was an underperforming liability into something close to a world class 60-tonne Main Battle Tank (MBT) that could literally kick sand in the face of the Russian favourites. Army sources reveal that there was apprehension that the DRDO-built Arjun could outperform the Russian-origin tanks in all three determinants of tank ability: mobility, firepower, and protection. Now, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), at the request of the army, has cancelled the comparative trials.

Confirming that comparative trials would no longer be held, the MoD reasoned that it wasn’t possible to compare “a Maruti with a BMW”. The MoD’s logic that the 60-tonne Arjun couldn’t be compared with the 46-tonne T-90 is hardly credible; neither tank has gained or lost much weight since the comparative trials were ordered. The real reason for cancelling the trials is that if, in head-to-head trials, the Arjun proved to be the better tank, there was no way the project could be buried with an order of only 124 tanks. Instead, the army’s entire tank procurement programme would need to be reworked; the Arjun would take a sizeable bite out of the T-90’s share of the pie.

That would be a huge boost to India’s indigenous tank programme, but a blow to the army’s preference for the Russian T-90. Even as the Arjun’s designers fume at the Central Vehicles R&D Establishment (CVRDE) near Chennai, army chief General JJ Singh will visit Russia next week. High on his agenda is a billion-dollar deal for the purchase of 347 more T-90 tanks. Next month, Defence Minister AK Antony will be in Russia too; the T-90 deal could be signed during his visit.

It is ironical that the MoD, which financed and supported the Arjun programme through three decades of failure, has turned away just when the tank seems to have overcome its major problems. After a miserable failure in 2005, when the tank’s electronics proved utterly inadequate, the turning point came last year. In summer 2006, firing trials established, in the words of the army’s own trial team, that the "accuracy and consistency of the Arjun tank was (sic) proved beyond doubt". Later, the MoD stated to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence that, "Arjun's firing accuracy is far superior to the other two tanks." This summer, the army raised another objection: the Arjun should be able to drive for 20 minutes in six feet of water. The CVRDE has managed that as well.

At the Arjun test track at Avadi, I drove the tank for an hour over a series of obstacles that would stretch any tank in the world. The Arjun’s chronic problems with the suspension and with overheating were nowhere in evidence. While this hardly constituted a serious trial, the Arjun surely deserves to be put through comparative trials, if only to empirically determine which of India’s options is the best. This is especially important in the light of many reports that the T-90 is facing serious problems with its electronics in the desert heat. The army is planning to air-condition all its T-90s, a situation that is unlikely to work.

For now, despite the Arjun turnaround, its future seems uncertain. From October 07, the army will put the tank through trials; without the baseline parameters that would have been provided by the T-72 and the T-90 in comparative trials, its designers fear that the tank could be accepted or rejected based on arbitrary criteria.

If there is a silver lining in the dark clouds over the Arjun, it is in the fact that army officers and jawans who are involved in the tank’s development and trials are developing confidence in the Arjun. Once the tank enters service, this constituency could grow in size and influence. As Secretary of Defence Production, KP Singh observed, “When the army uses this tank, who is to say what they think about it. God knows, they may just fall in love with it and decide that the entire production line should be Arjuns only. Who knows?”


  1. Very interesting and informative. I have one question Mr. Shukla- Can Arjuns not be exported to countries in Africa? After all, what better way to try a tank, then to put them through tests in acutal war zones? If China can blatantly ignore the so called 'World community', and supply planes and finance for even an Airline (Air Kashmir of POK) right in our neighbourhood, can we not do something similar?

  2. "the three-decades old DRDO project that had spent Rs 300 crores on developing the Arjun."

    Drdo develops a tank which decimates/kicks but* of t-90 at what cost? cost of 25 t-90s. What should I say about DRDO? Can you please fill in the words for me??
    a blow to the army’s preference for the Russian T-90.

    High on his agenda is a billion-dollar deal for the purchase of 347 more T-90 tanks."
    subtle hints of corruption but at the same time maintaining deniability?

    "After a miserable failure in 2005, when the tank’s(arjun) electronics proved utterly inadequate, the turning point came last year.'
    "This is especially important in the light of many reports that the T-90 is facing serious problems with its electronics in the desert heat."

    This is after t-90 is inducted and bought and yet the army doesnt give the same chances to indegenous one, when this one is at design level. Speaks volumes about army.

    Arjun was made according to army's GSQR, i.e. army decided what capabilities arjun should have. Today it have achieved them and then is much much better than what is available(t-90), still the army doesnt want it? So it is a case of either best of brouchure bashng by the army or plain old corruption. Either way it is the army which still is in a primitive way. It has not yet graduated from a weapons importer to weapons developer.

    Mr. Shukla,
    I would like to know what information you have learned during the last 2-3 months which made you turnaround on your stand on arjun.

    If I may say so, you are now saying what JCage(nitin) on BR and Chacko Joseph have been saying since the last many years. (I read your arguments on BR and JCage, zraver and col. Yu seems to have been proved right.)

  3. "its designers fear that the tank could be accepted or rejected based on arbitrary criteria."

    Mr. Shukla,
    These words have been used in BR in ofcourse not-so-gracious words, like
    "the army rejects arjun because they cant fly or swim across the ocean".

    P.S:I rarely post on BR, but a big time lurker.

  4. 'Mr. Shukla,
    I would like to know what information you have learned during the last 2-3 months which made you turnaround on your stand on arjun."

    Oops! I see that this statement is a demand instead of a request for information(rfi) from you. Please glide over the unwittingly arrogant tone in the post. Sorry for that tone.

  5. Hi Ravi,

    Will post my reply to that... I don't think you're being arrogant, it's a genuine question. And I have a genuine answer.

    stand by for a day or so!

  6. Forget the army, it's good to see atleast the media turn in favor of the Arjun. A good omen. What the Arjun desperately needs is good PR, and Mr. Shukla and his brethren can do wonders there. I wonder why the CPI(M) intellectuals can't be 'encouraged' to adopt this issue in a big way. Time for them to be useful for a change!

  7. Mr. Shukla, although this report brought about a much needed breather to all of us, who believe that Arjun is indeed a world-class tank, your conclusuoon in the end still stops short of laying blame on the Army. This is especially when even one grunt by the army while evaluating the Arjun was suficient for the media to "blaze guns" on the Arjun tank and DRDO.

    If the Army says so, it must be right-----this is the media's assumption. When it is abundantly clear that corruption and vested interests are at play here, why does the media shy away from saying so ?

    The image of the infalliable British-rooted and Border movie impression of the army must not come in the way of objective analysis of how this wing of the armed forces is constantly ignoring a much superior product for an inferior one. It is only a coincidence that the superior product is made in-house.

    Hence, this is not a "swadeshi vs imported" debate. The army has clearly run out of excuses for ignoring the Arjun. Earlier it was "Arjun has troubles" when it was exposed by a CNN-IBn story that even the T-90 suffered from the same teething problems. Then when the army saw that the Arun is a formidable competitior to the T-90, it said, "one can't compare a Maruti with a BMW" and "it would be too costly" . As Ravi has rightly pointed out, the cost for the entire 3 deacde Arjun project of Rs. 300 crore is the cost of a mere 25 T-90s!!

    The Army's favourite trump-card is "We will induct what's best for our jawan, whatever the source". Now, it is cornered and pinned down. The Arjun is the best, and what better source than home ? So the army's exhaustion of its 3 excuses : delay, cost and 'not the best' have been gunned down by the Arjun.

    Sir, we have to clean the morass of cobwebs of propaganda that, "the DRDO produces duds like Arjun". The media very skillfully ingrained, imbibed, infused , injected and incorporated the myth into the public that the DRDO's Arjun is a 'massive' failure.

    Mr. Shukla, I daresay that you are also responsible for that. This sustained and well-orchestrated media campaign has ensured that the next bofors, scam the next barak scam and next scorpene is NOT questioned by the pulic, and instead the public puts blame squarely on the footstep of DRDO. A propaganda machine caould not have been more efficient than this.

    However, Mr. Shukla I truly commend and appreciate this first majorly detailed positive report about the Arjun from a major TV News channel. I hope that the rest of the elements in the media spectrum like IE and Rajat Pandit of ToI also follow this precedent set by you.

    Thank you.


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