The need for reintroducing light battle tank (LBT)-equipped mountain forces into the army’s order-of-battle was first recommended in a classified report I prepared for the (10th) Finance Commission and submitted to the PV Narasimha Rao government end-1995. That report, mindful of accommodating an LBT fleet within the then budgetary allocation for armoured-mech units, also proposed restructuring the armoured and mechanised formations in the three strike corps featuring heavier Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) along the lines I have been advocating ever since — of a single composite corps (i.e., corps plus several independent armoured brigades) for the western front with the bulk units of the remaining two strike corps converted for mountain use with LBTs.
But a Pakistan-fixated army did not then bite. And DRDO failed to commit fully to the LBT project of building on the Sarath (BMP-1) chassis, leave alone, developing a lighter, down-sized variant, of the Arjun MBT because right through the 1980s and 1990s the army officially deemed an LBT unnecessary! Apparently, the Rommels and the Guderians of the Indian armoured corps could not even imagine the possibility of the Tibetan Plateau extending into northern Sikkim and eastern Ladakh being tank-friendly terrain exploitable by LBTs despite, mind you, wallowing in the lore of Col. Rajinder Singh ‘Sparrow’-led 7th Cavalry with its (ex-US) Stuart light tanks clearing the Zoji La Pass (at nearly 12,000 feet altitude) of Pakistani troops in November 1948 during the first Kashmir war. This action recovered the road connecting Srinagar with Kargil and Leh.
Meanwhile, starting in the 1970s the army plonked successively for the T-72, the T-72S and, in the new Century, the T-90, from Russia. It may have gained Moscow’s goodwill no doubt but also stifled the production of locally designed and developed MBTs and LBTs. This love affair with Russian tanks persisted even when the Arjun tank pitted against the T-90 MBT in extensive field trials in the 2000s handily beat the Russian item in all aspects, including in the two most critical metrics of armoured warfare — mobility and accurate firepower. This was insufficient reason, however, for the import-besotted armoured warfare directorate in army HQ, which like most other combat arms in the Indian military prefer foreign hardware, to switch its custom to Indian-made military goods. It has consequented in the continuing drain of vital financial resources that succesive governments — influenced by the counsel of “professional”, “technically competent”, advisers in the defence procurement loop — namely, the army’s armour directorate, apparently failed to stop. It undermined the economic viability of the Arjun MBT, whose stated deficiencies — slightly excess weight and width, could have been easily resolved over the years if only the armoured corps had taken ownership of, and helmed, the programme.
It has eventuated in a fairly ridiculous state of affairs. There are some 52 frontline armoured regiments. Of these, 33 regiments feature T-72s, 17 regiments the T-90s, and only two regiments (43rd and 75th) boast of the Arjun MBT. In terms of acquisition costs, imagine the hard currency outflows! These less nimble tanks — T-72s and T-90s — deployed on the Himalayan heights, moreover, find it difficult to fire up their engines in the cold mornings and require special fuel and elaborate warm-up rituals just so the power surges at the first “kick”. Even so, on any given morning more than half the tanks refuse to start! These MBTs are now deployed on the Depsang Plain in eastern Ladakh and in northern Sikkim against the Chinese People’s Liberation Army stocked with the 25-tonne ZTQ-15 ‘Black Panther’, a third generation — please note — light tank, powered by an engine designed for high-altitude use. Guess which force is going to run circles around the other when Xi Jinping, wishing to do an Ukraine in Ladakh, ramps up hostilities in summer that’s round the corner?
Waking up, as if suddenly from a stupor, the army finally and formally evinced an interest in a light battle tank. And then, predictably, its armoured wing took an axe to its own feet. Colonel Ajai Shukla, ex-CO, Hodson’s Horse, and currently Military Editor, Business Standard, reported last year that “A major hurdle to the [LBT’s] design is that the army has not yet shared with the DRDO its notion of what design features and performance it would like. This is usually shared in a document called the ‘preliminary staff qualitative requirements’, or PSQR. Without this, the DRDO’s designers are groping in the dark.” And then to compound matters, the army, Shukla wrote, “is soft-pedalling the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) proposal to manufacture in L&T’s facilities a line of at least 500 light tanks, which will be powered by the same 28-tonne chassis, hull and engine that powers the K-9 Vajra.” The last of the K-9s — a 155mm, 52mm calibre long range gun mounted on tracks — a mobile artillery adjunct to the T-72s and T-90s, was delivered recently to the army by Larsen & Toubro under a contract that, unlike the Defence Public Sector Units-handled defence deals, came in under cost and right on time!
DRDO is making the best of an uncertain situation created by the army by mooting this proposal, which not only uses the L&T’s skilled manpower and production line, now lying fallow at its K-9 production plant in Hazira, to meet an urgent army need but, aware of the systemic problems of designing a new LBT to the army’s GSQRs and then producing it at the DPSU — the Heavy Vehicles factory in Avadi, is suggesting a shortcut. It proposes to get the South Korean firm, Hanwha Defence, to once again partner L&T to speedily produce its K-21 LBT with a rifled 105mm gun. The trouble is the armour directorate and the army are caught between realizing their desire and choosing the optimal course.
Ideally, the army would like to issue a global tender for an LBT in order ultimately to down select a lighter version of the T-14 48 tonne Armata tank with rapid fire capability because of an unmanned turret geared for automatic loading and firing, that the Russians are pitching as the perfect light tank for the Indian army. Global tendering means a long and laborious process that can go on, literally, forever until the army gets its way. As against this option, is the less cumbersome path offered by L&T-Hanwha. The K-21 at 25 tonnes is well within the army’s 30 tonne weight limit. More importantly, besides its ability to take out targets by direct fire, its turret is designed so the gun can elevate 42 degrees and fire as a howitzer, lob shells that is, at targets 10 kms away, over mountains. Even more significant, it will be built at the Hazira plant — in Gujarat, and how will this not please Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
But it all depends, as Jane’s reported on 9 February, on the category the Defence Ministry chooses to place the LBT production deal in. That will decide if and to what extent a foreign vendor can be involved. Of course, MOD, in turn, will be hugely influenced, by the army in case it backs DRDO’s Gujarat-friendly proposal. The good thing is it will incentivise other companies in the private sector defence industry to get more fully into designing and developing armoured vehicles generally, if included in the deal with L&T is permission for it to export a down-rated version of the K-21. An economical LBT, which has the Indian army as its chief customer, will instantly create a very large export market for it in the neighbourhood and, widely, in the ‘le tiers monde’.
Further, with an initial order of 500 LBTs, incorporating some very fine electronics, fire control system, etc. DRDO developed for the Arjun MBT, and the Indian light tank’s potentially big global market staring it in the face, Hanwha will be only too happy to hand over every thing, including its tank design cell, to India. With so many things going right for a change in this specific area, if the Indian Defence Ministry and army still foul up — God knows, they tend to do so oftener than not, then they should know that India is being set up for a shellacking by China.