Light tank, finally! But the System permits babus to again play the fool

DRDO offers two options to develop an Indian light tank – Defence News of  India - Defence News of India
[DRDO-L&T light tank in firing trials]

The Indian army has one offensive mountain corps (OMC) and another — I Corps — one of the three Strike Corps previously assigned to the plains/desert sectors, recently converted to mountain warfare in the face of Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh. As I have been arguing in my books and writings for the last 25-odd years, two OMCs are still nowhere adequate for sustained warfighting across the length of the disputed border — the Line of Actual Control (LAC) — in Chinese-occupied Tibet. The army requires a minimum of three OMCs equipped, not with heavy tanks (T-72s and T-90s) outfitting the remaining armoured Strike Corps (II and XXI) now that I Corps is out of the plains warfare picture, but with a genuine, high-altitude optimised, armoured vehicle for offensive operations on the Tibetan Plateau.

The heavy tanks are deployed in the XIV Corps sector on the Ladakh front and in the northern Sikkim plains, but with what level of effectiveness is unclear. The trouble is the T-72s and the T-90s do not perform at all well in the thin air and cold of the Himalayas. So, as I mentioned in my last book (‘Staggering Forward) on any morning, 40 percent of the tanks controlled by XXXIII Corps in the northeast, fail to start and need all kinds of extra ministering to warm up their engines before they can get going. One can readily see why they are a liability in the Himalayas and why a new breed of light tanks is desperately needed for the OMCs.

The army was not entirely unmindful of this requirement, having approved in 1986 the DRDO development of a light tank with a turret and 105 mm smooth bore gun on the Sarath armoured personnel carrier (ex-Russian BMP) chassis. But because they were mostly fixated on Pakistan, the army brass never got down to actually indenting for a light tank believing that such an acquisition would be at the expense of the Russian MBTs required for the western front. Even so, if it did not actually demand a light tank, the army did not kill the programme either. DRDO kept tinkering and periodically produced newer versions of the design.

The latest such iteration is a genuine light tank (LT) to compete with the Chinese ZTQ-15 LT with a 105mm rifled gun with the PLA in Tibet. The Light Tank programme is one in which DRDO is partnering the private sector defence major, Larsen & Toubro. In the aftermath of the fiasco in eastern Ladakh the army finally woke up to the China threat that I have been warning about for ever, and looked around for a light tank to latch on to. The first instinct of the armour brass was to go in for the 18 tonner Russian Sprut — a product that was originally designed as an air-portable armoured vehicle to be dropped alongside Russian airborne forces. Except, given its manifest weaknesses as a fighting platform — too light and inoffensive, the Russian army rejected it. Only 25 units were built and stored. With Ladakh on fire, Rosoboronexport State Corporation — the Russian arms exporting agency, saw an opportunity to sell this lemon as a light tank to its longtime customer — the Indian army. Perhaps, persuaded by the reasons for its Russian counterpart turning down the Sprut, the Indian army too — fortunately for the country, did the same.

The DRDO-L&T light tank is a quite different and more serious animal. The army’s initial order is for two regiments worth some 40 light tanks, with another tranche of three regiments or 60 LTs in train. L&T has used the Vajra chassis and fit a turret and a 105 mm gun secured from CMI (Cockerill Maintenance & Ingénierie) of Belgium on it. Incidentally, Vajra is the mobile artillery gun system L&T produced with tech-transfer from South Korea, which originally got the engine and transmission technology from Germany, and delivered the same to the army within cost (Rs 2,400 crores) and ahead of schedule, possibly the first Indian military procurement project to do so!! The delivery of 100 Vajra systems was completed by February-March this year, when the last of the units had to be delivered to the army only by June!

As regards, the light tank, DRDO & L&T were able to accelerate its development because of the latter’s experience in designing the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) and developing the requisite technology for it, and incorporating many of the features and technologies of the FICV into the LT. Thus, other than the engine, transmission and the gearbox everything else is indigenous, including the tracks and the hydropneumatic suspension. The turret and the gun can be produced in-house by L&T if there is a large enough army order for light tanks to enable the Company to scale up the production and make the whole thing financially profitable and, therefore, viable. In any case, the success of the Vajra artillery system and prospectively of the light tank, is what happens when you trust a proven private sector firm to produce military hardware, rather than leaving it to the laggardly defence public sector units. It usually works out rather well for the country. Indeed, the DRDO has been influenced by L&T’s efficiency in doing things, conducting the weapon development and production business.

In any case, the first of the LTs would have been with the army by now but for a new officer taking over earlier this year as Director-General, (Armour) at the army headquarters. Lieutenant General KS Brar, the new man in, proceeded to change the milspecs of the light tank, when his predecessor had accepted the prototype LT that was three tons above the designated 30 ton weight with the understanding that DRDO and L&T would quickly bring down the follow-on batch of tanks to meet the lighter weight threshold. General Brar, however, demanded that the LT weigh no more than 25 tons, which required redesigning and reengineering a whole new product. But, and this is admirable, he showed foresight in also insisting that this lighter tank integrate into it the mobile Tactical Communications System (TCS) and the Battlefield Management System (BMS) assigned to L&T and Tata respectively to develop. At 25 tons, moreover, the LT would be transportable by Il-76s and C-17s of the Indian Air Force.

The problem is the TCS and BMS projects have stalled for over a decade now because the Ministry of Defence has played the usual Scrooge when it comes to private sector companies — and been reluctant to defray in full the development costs of these two systems, without which financial support L&T and Tata, who designed and developed the TCS and BMS systems to prototype stage, find themselves unable to proceed beyond it.

What’s that old saw? For want of a nail, a horse could not have a horse shoe, without a horse the General could not lead his forces, without the General the battle and the war was lost! With generalist babus helming the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Defence Production (DDP), whose formal remit is to keep the wasteful and unproductive melange of DPSUs, Ordnance factories, and DRDO labs in the clover, the defence private sector gets shafted, and without the private sector in the game national resources are not maximally used and India’s armed services keep importing hardware to meet their urgent needs, and India’s security is rendered hostage to the policy whims and national interests of supplier countries. And India’s cause is lost.

By the way, the Ministry of Defence is quite happy to annually squander huge monies on DPSUs, Ordnance factories and DRDO — Rs 22,000 crores in 2021 for R&D alone, but is reluctant to fund L&T’s and Tata’s development costs for the TCS and BMS amounting to Rs 200-300 crores!! Who loses? Specifically, Indian armoured and mechanised forces. Because were Indian tanks — heavy and light, armoured personnel carriers and Infantry Combat Vehicles of the mechanized forces, to be equipped with the TCS and BMS, they would be able with the TCS on board, for instance, to have a video link to surveillance drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and realtime information on enemy’s force disposition “on the other side of the hill” and, with the BMS fusing data and communications links to all fighting platforms in theatre, the army and, with the appropriate communications interface, air force would be able to deploy their fighting assets more effectively to obtain decisive results.

This would be good for national security, right? Yea, but not so convenient for the risk-averse babus in MOD and DDP who worry that handing over development costs to private sector companies for projects that may not produce the goods, may lead in the future to investigations being launched by the government of the day into how public monies were thus siphoned off to some private sector company or the other, and to haul up the babus who made the decision years ago to so divert funds. So, why would these babus imperil their retirement years by doing the right thing? Safer for them to slough off tens of thousands of crores of rupees to the public sector — the DPSUs, Ordnance factories, and DRDO and see this level of country’s wealth go down the drain, year after year, with no questions ever asked, or accountability ever fixed for the sheer wastage of scarce financial resources and for nonperformance of the public sector units.

This is why India’s defence and security are being sucked steadily into the black hole of public sector from which the Indian government apparently cannot escape, even when it is led by Narendra Modi, who swore to rely more and more on the private sector — remember his 2014 campaign slogan/declaration “Government has no business to be in business!”? — and whose atm nirbharta policy, therefore, seems to be a cruel joke he is continuing to play on the nation. Because without a new system of administration, new “rules of business” for all ministries and departments of government, and rules of accountability for all public sector enterprises, Modi can talk up an atmnirbharta storm all he wants but it will leave nothing in its wake.

I concluded in my 2018 book — Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, that Modi lacks the vision, the strength of his own conviction and especially the political will to fully and completely makeover the system, apparatus, and processes of the Indian government, and is too much the statist to, if not rid the country of the public sector incubus, than to more productively use its extensive and modern facilities for better outcomes. No one believed in the rightwng credentials of Modi more, and no one has been more disappointed than I to find — six years into his rule that Modi has turned out to be just another run of the mill “neta” worried about the next election, not a leader and visionary concerned with having a facilitative government and driving India to pull itself up by its own bootstraps in all sectors, starting with defence and national security — the first charge on any government.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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34 Responses to Light tank, finally! But the System permits babus to again play the fool

  1. V K Sharma says:

    Just to add TCS and BMS were developed by PSU too. PSU and private players were on the same plane as far as reimbursement of the cost of development. Also rapid advancement in technology and user’s desire to have latest technology deployment within the limited budget resulted in wait for light of the day.

  2. By email from Joydeep Sircar,, Tue, 25 May at 12:48 pm

    Excellent article. You should have written about the babu technique of Patriotic Sabotage, deliberately asking for improved specs to bugger a decent product. The armoured general you admiringly spoke of has pulled this trick, and you have missed it. He could have asked for the LT as it stands now with provision for retrofitting BMS et al, as that would not delay the service induction of the LT. I often wonder whether the lndian military has ever heard of Churchill’s dictum of SECOND BEST NOW? The uniformed idiots l have had the misfortune to encounter were singularly ignorant and would not have heard of it.
    J Sircar

  3. Amit says:

    Very informative article. Looks like the Indian armed forces have misread the threat from China. Normally, they prepare security strategies independent of civilian and political interference, but even after Doklam, when preparations for a two front war were seriously made, it doesn’t seem like they have adequately prepared for the threat from China. Too much faith in diplomacy!

    As for your comments about the bureaucracy and the lack of political will to fix it, it is just disheartening. In such a scenario, it almost feels like the threat from China is a good thing, as nothing else will motivate a change!

    • Sankar says:

      Hmmn, “political will”, isn’t that too much to expect? –
      Here is the stark reality of India’s political master’s outreach in a different but equally serious context not to be missed:
      ” … This, however, isn’t the first time that Rathore has hit out at his government. Last year, he was served a show cause notice by the BJP after an audio clip went viral, in which he is heard ridiculing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to clang pots and pans during the first Covid-19 wave.”
      In my understanding, there is no point in just collaring the “Babus” – they function as His Masters Voice!

  4. Arindam Bora says:

    Mr. Karnad Sir, it is common knowledge that Russian provided technical assistance to India’s nuclear submarine program especially in reactor design. In fact the reactor on the INS Arihant is said to be based on the design of the Soviet/Russian VM-5 reactor (the reactor designed in-house by BARC failed to meet the specifications of the Navy). Sir, can you tell us about the technnical assistance or maybe even some ToT between the two countries in the area of SLBM and the Agni-series missiles. Here is an 1998 NY Times piece on Russian assistance to Indian SLBM program “”
    In an interview (video available on Youtube) with the Swarajya magazine you had said that the Russians have also helped India in the Agni missile program. Can you tell us more about it (maybe write a piece on it here)?
    Also sir, has BARC carried out some modifications in VM-5 reactor for the larger S4 and S4* boats? The S5 class of course will be powered by a 190 MW reactor. Any news on that front, sir?

  5. whatsinitanyway says:

    Apparently, babus took ‘that’ song quiet literally :).

  6. R Sharma says:

    Putting a cockerel turret on K9 Vajra is like using chassis of mini-truck to make a sports car. So much for technical understanding of making a Light Tank.
    Then why K9, one can use a T-72 or a T-90 chassis or hull also. Much cheaper and faster. K9 is bigger than T-72 by the way!

    Advisable not to make light of issues on National security.

  7. By email From Armaan Brar , Sun, 30 May at 6:46 pm

    Dear Mr Karnad,

    Thank you for sharing your perspective on the Indian Army’s dire need to ramp up deployment of Light Tanks and broadly equipping more OMCs.

    I wanted to bring to your attention that the new DG (Armour) who has been referred to in the article cannot be Lt Gen Kuldip Singh Brar as he retired from active service in 1992; famously known for operation Blue Star.

    As someone who has a keen interest in the Armed Forces and is an avid reader of your blog, I couldn’t ignore this faux pas which you may have caught in time.

    Hope you are well.


  8. My bad. Thank you for pointing out my error. Of course, everyone’s aware of Lt Gen. Kuldip Singh Brar of ‘Blue Star’ fame.The present head of the armoured directorate at Army HQrs is Lt Gen KS Brar. The text is corrected.

  9. Krishna Soni says:
    Centre To Hire Leading HR Firm To Overhaul Competency Of Bureaucracy, Build A “Fit-For-Future” Civil Service
    Respected Sir @ Professor Karnad ,the step of central government to hire a leading human resources (HR) consultancy firm to help it overhaul the bureaucracy by studying the organisational structures and the work allocation documents of seven key ministries and departments.\
    Is it a good step to slowly reform the bureaucracy.

  10. devraj says:

    sir usa preisident biden asked for 90 days investigating report on corona virus on chinese role .is it signaling after 90 days any war on china possible .if not then why usa and england are floating their super powefull ship in china sea

  11. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    @Krishna Soni- Either you were born yesterday or you are a die hard BJP fan.

    This so called HR consultancy would be of some top BJP minister’s son. It would take a couple of years to prepare a report.

    By that time General Elections of 2024 would be on the horizon. PMO will dump the report without even reading it.

  12. Sankar says:

    In the context of arsenal in the mountainous Himalayas where an Indian “light tank” could be a great military asset for the Indian armed forces as pointed out in this article, Professor Karnad, could you please comment on the very recent development in Tibet regarding the PLA’s new buildup as reported in this latest news:
    “China stacking Indo-border with advanced weapons”-

    To quote from it:
    “… the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced the deployment of new self-propelled rapid-fire mortars to conduct “mobile, hit-and-run firing positions. …
    The arrival of the self-propelled mortars are the fourth new type of weapons systems the PLA is bringing to the region, an effort including the addition of a new 122-millimeter caliber self-propelled howitzer, armored assault vehicles and long-range multiple rocket launcher systems. …”

    Furthermore: “India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar blamed China for last year’s deadly skirmishes along their Himalayan border and warned of greater economic consequences unless peace was restored,”
    I guess Jaishankar is totally lost in India’s foreign policy making and trying to swim in a turbulent sea and high time he is replaced for not fulfilling his “performance criterion” as an officer of the State. What will be your assessment?
    Thank you.

    • The Chinese 82 mm self-propelled SP) mortars capable of rapid fire now with forward PLA units in Tibet, was first test-fired in 2016. It was seemingly designed on the lines of the Dragonfire system developed by TDA Armaments of France, and now with the US Marines. What is not clear is whether this 82 mm system can be remotely activated and fired as the US Marines 81mm mortar system can be, which may give the Chinese some advantage. The Indian army, meanwhile, is right now testing the SP 155mm Vajra K-9T in the northeast for over-mountaintop barrage, which is doing well, from what I understand.

      • whatsinitanyway says:

        Why not Pinaka or guided Pinaka(under trials) they also have the similar hit and run or shoot and scoot ability?

  13. Amit says:

    Professor, there is a lot of literature and media on Indian capabilities in the armed forces as well as space assets, but very little in cyber. China has created a narrative that it is the leader in cyber and networking centric warfare with all the optical fiber laying, periodic cyber attacks, and even electronic warfare on enemy aircraft (e.g., Su-30 in Arunachal). How capable it is is not certain, but they certainly have created a strong narrative. Even the US has demonstrated its cyber capabilities through attacks in Iran (e.g., Stuxnet) and Russia has recently shown its capabilities through cyber attacks in the US (or allegedly shown).

    What do you think are India’s capabilities in cyber warfare, electronic warfare / network centric warfare. It seems like China is not only developing its own capabilities in this area, it is also enhancing Pakistan’s capabilities. There is not much publicity given to Indian capabilities in this domain.

    • Insofar as I know, while our defensive cyber capability is barely OK, offensive cyber is nearly absent.

      • Sankar says:

        I find the terminology “cyber” is being used in a nebulous way, or better said in a misleading way, by the defence community – it can mean different things to different people. However, the terminology “electronic warfare” (EW) is precise in the military context.

        EW has been there since WWII and has two main branches: communication EW and radar EW. In modern days it has been extended to cover “SatNav” or satellite navigation technology for the air battlespace. India has surely made good progress in mastering satellite technology true, but I do not know how far IAF has incorporated it into their real capability.

        As far as EW Comms is concerned, whose main purpose is to disrupt the communication system of field commanders of the army during the war, I am pretty certain that the Army has acquired this necessary know-how from different sources to date over time.

        For air operations, EW has two main directions: Electronic Attack (EA) and Electronic Support Measures (ESM). EA is active-mode e.g. jamming an incoming enemy missile whereas ESM is passive-mode e.g. it creates false targets to the incoming enemy missile. The hardware for such EW capability is built in the arsenal India buys from overseas (Jaguars, Sukhois …). Hence, the Indian military should be on par with, if not superior to, the Chinese PLA on the battlefield. The only issue of concern for the armed forces could be how expert is the individual personnel (pilots etc) in handling such arsenal. To my info, some of the US pilots are Masters-qualified electronic engineers since it needs advanced knowledge of the radar systems to operate these machines. I do not know IAF’s policy in training their manpower in this context.

        Naval EW is a different technology area. Regarding SatNav, China could be more advanced than India since it has launched military satellites, but it would be of no significance in the Himalayas since SatNav’s application is for long distance missions where missile technology enters additionally. Again, India is no inferior to China in this domain.

        The bottom line is without fighting a real war, no one can surely assess the Indian military’s capability in this modern technological warfare. But the same holds true for the Chinese PLA also.

      • True. But Chinese peacetime cyber ofensive ops ought to give us pause.

  14. Amit says:

    @Sankar, good point distinguishing cyber vs. EW…I too have read that Indian weapon systems have good EW capabilities, but not much about cyber (computer based network attacks). There is the added feature of network centric ware fare with integrated BMS, drones, AI Based systems etc. China seems to have demonstrated both EW (Su-30 downing) and Cyber capabilities (Mumbai grid attack) against India, while Indians are left guessing on what their real capabilities are in either (though there is a lot of bombast about EW capabilities). India must execute peacetime cyber and EW attacks to keep our enemies off balance. It would be more effective than the bombast that is a regular feature of the Indian media (and politicians).

  15. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatKarnad What about the Russian Sprut tank for whose trials the Russians have invited the Indians Should India buy the Russian Sprut tank to engage in combat with the Chinese Communist Party’s so-called People’s Liberation Army tanks?

    • As I said in my post, Sprut has been rejected by the Russian army for good reasons. Indian army will be the sole owner of this lemon. Then again, our military has a basketful of lemons.

  16. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatKarnad So, what should India do if the Russian Sprut light tank isn’t good enough? Buy light tank from America or Germany?

  17. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatKarnad Are the Tatas and the Hindujas who supply trucks to the Indian Armed Forces capable of making tanks?

    • V.Ganesh says:

      You haven’t answered this question of mine. So, am I to assume that the Tatas and Hindujas don’t have in it them to make tanks or for that matter military hardware on their own without JVs with foreign arms manufacturers? Also, in the private sector, why just stick to Larsen & Toubro even if it’s efficient? Let it be a free for all. That way, competition and efficiency will increase.

  18. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatKarnad Why don’t you get your Twitter profile verified [where all your blog posts get posted] at least as an independent/freelance journalist? You’ve worked as a journalist in the past and your articles continue to be published in major publications. A verified Twitter profile will give you a wider reach on Twitter. For independent/freelance journalists, Twitter requires only 3 by-lines in qualifying publications [though Twitter hasn’t put a list of qualifying publications].

    • That part of my career ended over 30 years ago!

      • V.Ganesh says:

        Ok. Still no harm in getting a verified Twitter profile. Verified Twitter profiles get, like they say in social media “amplification”. Who knows after getting a verified Twitter profile, Narendra Modi who has been ignoring your advice will stop doing that after reading your blog posts cross posted on your verified Twitter profile.

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