Stop fooling around: Get going with the K21-105 light tank

[The South Korean K21-105 light tank]

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.

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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11 Responses to Stop fooling around: Get going with the K21-105 light tank

  1. Amit says:

    Professor,
    Does the Defence Minister have to show some leadership here and put his foot down a la Mr. Parrikar on the LCA MK1? Also, will the threat of CAATSA make the MEA also play a role? Will the import ban list prevent any LBT imports? To a person who is a looking at this from the outside, it all looks profoundly stupid! How can the Army get away with this?

    • No other defence minister to-date displayed the problem-solving mentality that Parrikar did. Then again, none of his predecessors or successors were/are engineers by profession.

      • Amit says:

        I wonder why we don’t demand more of our Defence Ministers. India should seriously think about appointing people with military backgrounds in this post. The last 8/10 Defence Secretaries in the US have had either a military or intelligence background. One was an academic/bureaucrat and one was a politician. India on the other hand chooses politicians for this technically demanding role. Such people carry no weight within the MoD inside the country, nor in their dealings outside the country.

  2. Ayush says:

    Light tanks are target practice for a modern ATGM operator hiding in Himalayan mountain tunnel complex. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/indian-army-take-a-leaf-out-of-chinese-warfare-deploys-tunnel-defences-in-ladakh/story-4RVVPMjeofhzB9kUQCKTeL_amp.html.
    Optionally, they can be shot up by subsonic/supersonic cruise missiles.In any case,their effectiveness in the Himalayas is largely symbolic as both sides would have by now certainly laced all critical passes with atomic demolition munitions(ADM).

  3. Amit says:

    Professor,

    With Russia sending troops to Donbas, China is likely to act up in Taiwan since it is a good way to get the US distracted with two global crises at the same time. Do you think that if China does that, it’s opportune for India to step up military pressure along the LAC and catch China in a two front situation? It will also ease pressure on India with Russia since it puts China in a bind and is beneficial to the US. What would you think about the merit of this argument?

    • Absolutely. Recall, Maozedongistan used the Cuban missile crisis in Oct 1962 to launch the PLA offensive in the Himalayas.

      • Ayush says:

        Invading Ukraine will be putin’s last mistake.Mark this comment.Russia has very serious demographic issues.The death of even 5000-10000 young men will be politically untenable.Besides,the west will come down hard economically.No matter how hard he may try to project himself as an equal to US, he knows very well his economy is a laughing stock.His economy is smaller than that of Texas.He seeks power and influence he simply doesn’t deserve.
        Also,china being caught in two front situation is nothing new.Trump and Modi caught them in a bear trap in 2020.

  4. andy says:

    The light tank requirement for the army in Ladakh is imperative and the South Korean K21 105 will likely be inducted,but the numbers the army seems to be looking for are 350 and not 500.

    There’s other contenders for the light tank the Russian 2S25 Sprut-SD and Israeli Sabrah light tanks are two of them. The Sprut is based on the BMP infantry combat vehicle hull weighing under 20 tons with the 125 mm gun that has commonality with the T72 and T90 ammunition,which works in its favour,as does the familiarity of the army with the BMP ICV. The Sabrah on the other hand is based on the ASCOD (Austrian Spanish Cooperation Development) armoured vehicle weighing around 30 tons with the 105mm gun.

    Another interesting offering is by the L&T DRDO combine that proposes to develop a light tank based on the proven K9 howitzers hull,mounted with a 105mm Belgian turret, this would tip the scales at around 35 tons,but with a proven and powerful 1000hp engine that’s designed to lug around the 50 tons of the howitzer mounted iteration this could be a fast moving tank on the icy heights of Ladakh/Tibet.

    The army seems to like the South Korean K9 tracked howitzer performance in Ladakh that was airlifted to Leh ,then made it to the forward areas across high mountain passes on its own steam . In fact this has led to the consideration of another 200 of this versatile gun system that was primarily to be used in the desert and plains against Pakistan,but their performance in high altitudes has been salutary to say the least. Not surprising considering the fact that South Korean terrain consists of high mountains and hence their weapon systems would be designed for optimal performance in their own countries terrain.

    So this could be an interesting induction into the mountain warfare capabilities of the Indian army, provided they choose fast since time is of the essence.

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