Ladakh intrusions highlight India’s need for a light tank - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 25 January 2022

Ladakh intrusions highlight India’s need for a light tank

China's ZTQ-15 (or Type 15) light tank, which it has deployed in Tibet and Xinjiang to good effect


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 26th Jan 22


A key acquisition decision that has emerged during the 20-month-long, armed stand-off in Eastern Ladakh between the Chinese and Indian militaries is for the Indian Army to arm itself in high altitude terrain with indigenously built light tanks.


As the tension mounted in May 2020, both the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) airlifted main battle tanks (MBTs) to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two militaries to bolster their combat muscles.


However, the advantage rested with the PLA, whose armoured units in Tibet are equipped with the new ZTQ-15 (or Type 15) light tank. While the Indian armoured units laboured to move their heavy and underpowered, 42-tonne, Russian-origin T-72 MBTs across mountain passes as high as 17,500 feet, China’s 33-tonne ZTQ-15 light tanks (36 tonnes with additional slap-on armour) were able to move through the 14,000 feet valleys with far greater ease.


With their 1,000 Horse Power (HP) Norinco engines, the ZTQ -15 tanks, also called the Black Panther, offered a power-to-weight ratio of more than 30 HP per tonne – enough to move tanks in that oxygen-depleted altitude.


In contrast, India’s 42-tonne T-72s, with their 780 HP power packs, offer an inadequate power-to-weight ratio of just 18.5 HP per tonne. The T-72s are also significantly larger than the ZTQ-15, hindering their mobility over small bridges and narrow roads.


Given these operational disadvantages, Indian tank warfare planners have long discussed the need for a smaller, lighter tank for high-altitude warfare. This discussion gathered traction in 2017, when a heavy Chinese build-up in Doklam, Sikkim needed to be countered. The PLA’s entry into Eastern Ladakh in 2020-21 galvanised the debate again.


Light tanks offer utility not just on the high altitude Sino-Indian border, but on the mountain border with Pakistan in J&K as well. They can also be used for counter insurgency tasks in jungle and urban terrain. Airlifting T-72s and T-90s is impossible from high altitude, 10,700 feet-high airfields such as Leh, but 25-30-tonne light tanks can be transported by the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) strategic airlifters – namely the Ilyushin-76 and C-17 Globemaster III. Light tanks also lend themselves more easily to amphibious warfare.


With the Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) motto guiding procurement and having built up experience on the Arjun tank project, the Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE) – A Chennai-based laboratory of the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) – was given the task.


It was calculated that Indian troops on the 3,488-km Sino-Indian border would need about 350-500 light tanks. There were already two T-72 armoured regiments (each with 45 tanks) defending the LAC. Over the years, the army had additionally raised two independent armoured brigades – one in Ladakh and the other in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Each of these brigades would field 175-200 light tanks.


Charged with building a 25-tonne, indigenous, light tank quickly, Indian planners presented two options. Both were based on customising the proven, 28-tonne, chassis, hull and engine of the K-9 Vajra – a heavy, tracked artillery gun that L&T has manufactured at Hazira, in Gujarat, for the artillery with technology transfer from South Korea’s Hanwha Defence.


Both options involved putting a smaller, lighter turret in place of the K-9 Vajra’s heavy, 155 mm artillery gun that shoots over-the-horizon to over 40 kilometres. One option involved fitting the light tank with a T-90 turret that mounts a heavy 125 mm tank gun. However, the 8-9 tonne T-90 tank turret, mounted on the 28-tonne chassis, would take the weight of the light tank to an unacceptable 36-37 tonnes.


The second option involves replacing the K-9 Vajra’s artillery turret with a smaller turret that is fitted with a direct firing, high pressure, 105 mm gun. This turret would be procured, ready-built, from Belgian firm John Cockerill.


These options, however, took back seat as the army fell back onto its time-tested solution of buying Russian tanks. An Indian Army team inspected the 2S25 Sprut Russian armoured vehicle, but it soon became clear that the Sprut was not even a tank; it was a less mobile, anti-tank weapon, termed a “tank destroyer”. Even the Russian Army had shrunk from inducting the Sprut into operational service – The Russian military bought only 24 Spruts. 


Now Hanwha Defence, quick to see an opportunity, is preparing to offer the Indian Army its K21-105 light tank. This is a formidable platform, with a 105 mm turret that can achieve over 42 degrees of elevation – useful for firing at targets on higher slopes – and at a 10 degree depression angle.


However, the army, DRDO and Larsen & Toubro decided to pursue the project cooperatively, under the DRDO model of “Development cum Production Partner” (DCPP). In April 2021, the army issued a Request for Information (RFI), mandating an overall tank weight of under 25 tonnes and a power-to-weight ratio of at least 25 HP/tonne.


According to the RFI, “The light tank must have the versatility to execute operations in varying terrain conditions across diverse threat and equipment profile of the adversaries.”


A DCPP agreement involves a firm that does the development work, while the DRDO provides advice, formulates specifications, contributes in design reviews and provides access to test facilities.


The DCPP model was formalised in the modified version of theDRDO’s “Policy and Procedures for Transfer of Technology,” dated October 2019. Most development programmes are now being issued under this, so that the developed product is ready for production immediately after trials are concluded. 


The cost of development, which the DRDO incurs in such projects, is not cheap. Nor is the cost negligible for the development partner, in this case L&T, which ends up paying for years of committing the talent and the team.

Specifications of proposed light tank

India has used light tanks in practically every operation since independence. Stuarts and Sherman tanks were used in the battle of Kohima in 1944. In 1948 these tanks were critical in pushing back Pakistani forces in Zojila. In 1962, French AMX-13 tanks were used in the battle of Gurung Hill and also deployed in Bomdila and Dirang. In 1971 AMX-13 and PT-76 tanks turned the tables on Pakistan in the battle of Garibpur in Bangladesh.


However, after the AMX 13 and PT 76 tanks were phased out, no replacements were inducted. The army’s focus remained on building armour superiority on the Pakistan border and matching Pakistan, tank for tank, which required medium and heavy tanks. Today, India has over 4,000 medium tanks, but not a single light tank. It remains to be seen whether the Ladakh face-off with China galvanizes a change.


  1. As a stop gap arrangement, why not go in for the Russian T-14 Armata in a govt-to-govt deal. It has a similar 31 HP/ton, and a 125 mm gun. Later, when the DRDO and other initiatives bear fruit, those can be inducted. The Chinese can pretty much open any front to their liking, and rapidly build up, as things stand.

  2. # like battleships, battle tanks too, are obsolete. if armour is employed in concentration it will be neutralised by drones, attack helicopters, if in packets it can be picked off by portable missile - as was the case in the yom kippur war way back in '73. does anyone recall seeing images of MBT when crimea was taken over; there won't be an armoured invasion, blitzkrieg when ukrayna goes the same way. battlefields have evolved, changed; soviets used T-55, T-62 when they moved south of the amu darya, not a single T-72 was employed, nor for that matter PT-76. MBT can occupy but are useless when it comes to holding, then it is boots on the ground, witness 21st century iraq, syria, afghanistan. MBT when damaged have to be recovered, not by other MBT but by recovery crews in lightly armoured transport. besides distracting, diverting effort for this useless, secondary task, any guerilla mindset, special forces IQ commander will use the damaged tanks as bait, much like a raj era shikari used a goat to get the leopard, tiger, even sitting over the previous night's kill. MBT are sitting ducks in urban warfare, fighting in built up areas, given the ease with which molotov cocktails can be used. as the hugely readable long essay from the stimson centre, the wellington experience, a study of attitudes and values within the indian army laid out - our general staff are schooled on bazaar notes, and DS solutions from adjacent coonoor photocopier kiosks and immersive fiction collated from yarns such as panzer leader, montgomery and patton hagiography, shabtai taveth's tanks of tammuz.

  3. Sir, read your article and the one on the poor performing T90s.
    I am a brat whose old man was in Infantry, and maternal uncles in Armd corps & Guards, been studying as an ameture, armd warfare from WW2, Yom Kippur to the famous engagement of US M1s with Al Madina & Hamburabi div in 1st gulf war. My two bits which Ideally the IA should go forward with

    1. Understand that Russia will never sell you battle grade equipment anymore.
    2. Invest in Arjuns esp the MK2 variants in large numbers, and give it a multi stage improvement program so that doesnt fall behind the curve.
    3. Engage partners like L&T, Bharat Forge etc to leverage metallurgy, engineering etc.
    4. Order large numbers. 2000++. Do understand that sustained armd enagements need rugged performing machines
    5. If the vijaynatas are mothballed, pls up engine them, enagage Ashok Leyland, upgun them , create a 2nd line defensive armd formation
    6. Now coming to my pet part. - recaliberate your mech forces -
    6.1 IFV / MICV based formations - enhanced BMP2s and wheeled IFVs eg BTR 90 with 30mm canon
    6.2 AFV systems - 70mm to 105mm MGS platforms and scout platforms with 40mm systems as flanking support for armd and inf formations. they should be ideally be wheeled and mountain capable.
    6.3 Create mech capable Para formations with either stryker or BMD4 Systems
    6.4 The wheeled Mech units as well as tracked should have intgerated CIWS, AT & SP mortars to create BCT systems ( Bn combat team)
    6.5 Retool squad level weaponry - 300 mtr and 600 mtr organic & regular systems with AT4, NLAW, sys
    6.6 Mountain mech systems to have
    6.6.1 - Wheeled MGS with 120/105 sys,
    6.6.2 - wheeled AFV support with 90mm/70mm sys
    6.6.3 - wheeled AFV with 20mm sys/ AT & AD ( CIWS) for anti mass drone capability
    6.6.4 - wheeled IFV /APC with 20mm systems
    6.6.5 - 4x4 20mm / sys with CIWS capabilities

  4. India should built its own light tank with both public/ pvt. sectors involved though i wouldn't mind an imported gun like Belgian gun which you mentioned.

  5. Tanks perhaps can't be operated with the rapidity with which their crews would like. I don't know how stable their fire control system is in modern times, when they move over terrain which is uneven.
    However, foot soldiers on the ground are even less mobile when they face tanks with anti tank weaponry and ordnance. It seems more numbers could decide which side holds the advantage before hostilities commence.
    On another topic, are T-90 tanks unsafe for their crews when compared to other tanks, as some people allege? How does the structure and the armour of the tank withstand anti-armour ammunition fired at it? The turret of the T-90 seems to be quite indestructible in combat, to the eye, as does it's sloped frontal armour, but is this the case? Apparently, if the frontal armour is breached by anti-armour ammunition, according to observers, then the whole tank explodes, because of the ammunition stored in the tank. Is it better to induct tanks like the Russian Armata, instead?


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