Should India Abandon its Arjun Tank? Chinese and Pakistani Armour Leave Little Room for Error

In the second half of 2020, at a time of high tensions with neighbouring China and Pakistan, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode a domestically built Arjun battle tank during Diwali celebrations at the Longewala Post near the country’s western border. This follows a growing emphasis in the country on developing the domestic defence sector to substitute foreign produced weaponry, with the Indian tank originally expected to replace Soviet T-72 tanks in frontline service. The Arjun has had a highly troubled history, beginning development almost 50 years ago in the early 1970s and seeing delays of around 30 years making it one of the longest tank development programs in world history. The Indian Army has itself been highly reluctant to purchase the Arjun, inducting just 124 tanks into service by mid-2018 which have continued to face severe technical issues leaving 75 percent of the units totally non operational. India's decision to invest heavily in the Russian T-90 program from the early 2000s, for which it was by far the largest client, were a direct result of the Army's dissatisfaction with the Arjun which has changed little in the past 20 years. India most recently ordered several hundred T-90MS  tanks from Russia in 2018, the most capable fully operational Russian tank design, which benefits from many technologies from the next generation T-14 tank and provide both lower costs and maintenance needs and overwhelming performance advantages over the Arjun. These benefits are compounded by the T-90 being combat tested, having far higher availability rates and reliability, and even being license assembled in India.

Referred to by the National Interest as a ‘total piece of junk,’ the Arjun began low level production in 2009 over 35 years after beginning development and suffering from declining operational mobility due to a weight increase of over 50 percent. This came as more heavy subsystems were piled onto the vehicle without sufficient consideration for efficiency and weight reduction. Such issues were exacerbated by the fact that many of the technologies developed in the early and middle periods of the program became effectively obsolete by the mid-2010s, which was a consequence of the inefficient way the program was handled. Despite its many weaknesses, one strong point of the Arjun design includes its deployment of a 120mm cannon, which while smaller than the standard calibre for Russian and frontline Pakistani-operated tanks is still much more capable than the 105mm cannon it was initially designed to deploy which was obsolete by the 21st century.

It remans uncertain whether India’s defence sector will be able to salvage anything operationally useful from the design, one of multiple ailing projects alongside the Tejas fighter, which was also several decades late, and the INS Vikrant aircraft carrier which went 600 percent over budget. As Pakistan has moved to field more capable new generations of armour, most notably acquiring the Chinese VT-4 which will provide superiority over even some of the older T-90 variants, India's ability to afford investment in a failed program has diminished. Moreover, tensions with China in India's mountainous northern regions, where China has deployed Type 15 lightweight tanks, are perhaps the least appropriate terrain for the Arjun which is considerably heavier than the T-90 and would be almost impossible to operate. Whether India will attempt any replacement tank designs in future, or whether it will continue to look to Russian armour including possibly the T-14 or a lighter mountain tank, remains to be seen. 

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