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.