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Half track : Can it challenge rival armies?
Since 21st century battlefield conditions are quite different from yesteryears, night fighting is taking charge of the forward military thrust in which an armored corps equipped with long range sensors can play havoc and penetrate enemy defences like a swinging bull.     

The Indian Army officials still remind the analysts about the remarks made by the then Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor last year that 80 percent of the Indian Army armored corps is night blind and “one of the major areas of concern is to remove the night blindness of the tanks so that we are able to effectively fight in the night as we are able to do in the day.”

According to experts, if India has to fight in the night with Pakistani or the Chinese Army today, India forces will not be able to withstand the armored assault. Pakistan armored fleet has reportedly 80 percent night vision whereas the Chinese have hundred percent night vision capability.

No doubt, the Indian Army has initiated a modernization program of the armored fleet a few years ago it still cannot challenge the rival armies in the tank warfare. General Kapoor had assured then, “projects are already in the pipeline to ensure that we have the night vision capability that our adversaries have. It may take three to four years.”

The Indian Army with effective tank strength of almost three thousand is on a modernization drive with addition of new fleet of T-90S tanks and the newly approved indigenous Arjun Main Battle Tanks.

The three decade old T-72 tanks are also being upgraded with better firepower and night vision capabilities. But critics are not happy with this modernization drive which is being described as lopsided.

The armored strength of the Indian Army is three divisions and five independent armored brigades which includes almost 59 tank regiments.

Strategic mobility

The reorganization of the Indian Army’s mechanized forces is under process to achieve strategic mobility and excessive firepower for rapid thrusts into the enemy area, but sources said that the money being spent on T-72 modernization would have better been spent on acquiring more modern indigenous Arjun tanks.

After long wrangling over the quality and combat utility of Arjun tanks, the Army Headquarters has only recently decided to induct almost 250 Arjun MBTs and has given the go ahead to develop and induct Mark-2 variant of Arjun MBT.

Besides the Arjun, the Russian T-90S tanks are also to be inducted in large numbers. The Indian Army has asserted its reliance on T-90s which will continue to be the mainstay of the force till next decade.

The current induction plans of the Russian tank by the Army Headquarters projects a fleet of almost 1650 T-90S tanks. Around 620 Bhishma (T-90S) have already joined service as Indian ordnance factory has already started producing them.

Besides, the license built T-72 tanks will be upgraded to increase its service life and firepower. These tanks are to be armed with 4100 French origin Milan 2T anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs).

However, the Army Headquarters has also approved early last year a plan of DRDO to develop a Futuristic MBT which has been promised to be a much more agile mobile and destructive MBT as compared to the current generation of tanks.

The DRDO has now enough design and technical capacities to design and develop a futuristic MBT on the strength of the experience gained in the development of Arjun and its next generation Arjun Mark-2 tank. The Combat Vehicle Research And Development Organization (CVRDE) is working on both the Arjun Mark-2 and the Futuristic MBT.

In fact, after facing condemnation by the Army top brass, the Arjun has proved its worth when it was directly put in comparative trials with the Russian T-90S MBT during the summer of 2010 in Rajasthan.

The MoD indeed prevailed upon the Army Headquarters to assess the combat abilities of the Arjun vis a vis the T-90S tanks. With this new found confidence on its abilities to design and develop MBT, the CVRDE has now promised that the FMBT will be very much a new tank with better than contemporary design features along with futuristic armor and weapon control systems.

Long term plans

According to MoD officials, the Arjun Mark-2 will have Panoramic Commander’s sight and will also have better battle field awareness capabilities. The tank will also have more powerful indigenous designed 1500 BHP engine.

It will also have ERA armor protection. The Arjun Mark-2 will be offered to Army for final trials by 2013.

However, the Army decision to go ahead with the upgradation plans of the very old T-72 tank fleet has drawn flak. The MoD has approved almost Rs 5,000 crores for the T-72 tanks modernization.

Critics said that the Army has chosen foreign upgrade over indigenous Arjun tank. Even if the T-72 tanks are refurbished it will not be in Arjun class. The Army Headquarters itself has indicated that the T-72 tanks have become obsolete.

Last year, when the comparative trials of the MBTs were held the T-72 tanks were withdrawn. In fact, the T-72 tanks were inducted in the Indian Army in the late seventies and the service life of the T-72 tanks was stipulated to be 32 years.

The Indian Army has an inventory of 2418 T-72 tanks and the tanks which were  inducted  in early phases should be withdrawn from active service and should be replaced by Arjun or T-90S tanks.  

According to Army’s long term plan, the T-72 tanks will continue to equip almost half of the 59 tank regiments till 2022. The Army should have adhered to the normal overhaul schedule to keep T-72 tanks in fighting condition and focused more on the addition of latest generation MBTs.

The midlife update program of T-72 tanks will cost almost Rs 5 crore per tank which will enhance its service life by 15-20 years. These tanks are reported to be night blind so in the upgradation plan the tanks will get the night vision devices.

Its other crucial systems like the fire control system and the main engine are also to be replaced. The upgraded T-72 tanks will have new 1000 horsepower engine which would be similar to the T-90S tanks. It will cost around Rs 3 crore.

The Thermal Imaging Fire Control System (TIFCS) will be added which enables the gunners to observe and fight during night. Each piece will cost Rs 1.4 crore. The Thermal imaging sight will cost 0.4 crore.

An auxiliary power unit costing Rs 0.16 crore has also been identified to generate power for the tank’s electrical system. Officials claimed that Rs 5 crore upgradation package would have given value for money as new tanks will cost no less than Rs 16-18 crore.

However experts are skeptical of this plan and ask if Arjun tanks have finally been approved for induction, T-72 upgradation plans should have been shelved and make way for latest tanks like Arjun or the T-90S tanks with night fighting capabilities.

Modernizing ICV

Modernization of the armored corps cannot be separated from modernization of the mechanized infantry and going by just the platforms changes are being envisaged on drawing boards and conceptual frameworks in India.

Going by indications of the line of thinking the hint that the next generation of Infantry Combat Vehicles will be ‘half-tracks’ one wonders what can be so “futuristic” about a weapons platform that harks back to the 40s to fight wars in the third decade of the 21st millennium.

In the past it was told that the DRDO was examining concepts that would robotize the tank and the infantry combat vehicle (ICV) to remove the human element and let sensors take over the battlefield.

The foundation of such a possibility lies in the assurance that the DRDO or any Indian private sector firm had mastered the technology of the several different types of sensors that would be required to make such robotized weapons feasible and truly indigenous.

Hitherto it has been seen that without Israeli technology the Indian armored corps would never be able to see what lies ahead in the dark distance.

The Israelis supplied Long Range Reconnaissance and Observation System (LORROS) for use with the artillery regiments So will the “futuristic” tank and infantry combat vehicle be made hostage to a foreign system right from the drawing board?

Nearly all major Indian indigenous military projects have suffered the consequences of this approach be it the tank, the light combat aircraft or artillery.

‘Futurism’ embedded in a weapons platform must build on the experiences of the last generation. For one, Indian weapons need to be able to operate in all the different kinds of terrain that exist in India’s sub-continental expanse from the plains, to the desert, to the forests, to the amenable portions of the Himalayas, and, more importantly deep across the Tibetan plateau to be a deterrent to Chinese adventurism.

India’s most recent lesson in tank warfare in Thar desert was the Army nearly lost a tank and its crew in a watery grave because the tank was unable to climb up the other side of a ditch-cum-bund fortification that is normal in the Indo-Pak scheme of things.

The other lessons we have learned and need to include a requirement that the tank needs to be sleek in a weight class that can be air transportable to any theatre or sector of warfare that requires its presence on short notice be it in the desert, the plain, the forest or the wide-open spaces of the flatlands across the Himalayas.

It should be with a total weight of not more than 47 tonnes so as to be able to be airlifted in an Ilyushin-76 transport aircraft. What India has done in the creation of the Arjun tank which is 58.5 tonnes is to make the tank and then look for an aircraft to carry it.

Or, worse, it has been made sure that it could never be used anywhere except the plains and the desert segments and India would have to keep buying tanks from abroad for decades to come.

That is exactly what has happened. The DRDO shouted ‘sabotage’ during the winter trials and it may well be that the whole project has been sabotaged from start to untimely finish (only 248 Arjuns will be inducted into service).

The Army’s rejection of the follow-on design and development effort known as Tank-Ex betrays a complete disconnect between the design bureau and the users.

Yet, the Army has sent RFI to global vendors for light tanks which it plans to deploy in north-eastern India - an armored brigade in Sikkim and another in eastern Ladakh.

Now the very meaning of ‘light’ tanks has become amorphous. Does it mean light in armor or light in the sense that it can sprint fast and adopt maneuvers that will make it difficult for the enemy to fire at it.

Nonetheless the very mention of where these tanks are likely to be deployed indicates that a miscalculation is in the making.

Beyond the foothills on the northern side of the Himalayas and on both sides of the Brahmaputra River the Chinese can very easily field their heavy tanks which could make mincemeat of Indian tanks with stripped down armor.

The Kanchan armor and its recent modified version have shown that they can withstand a shot from a T-70 at point blank range in that case in whatever way that the DRDO has achieved a reduction of weight in the Tank Ex (47 tonnes) the real balance tilter should be the onboard sensors – night vision/thermal imaging and first round hit technology.

That DRDO was able to convince the Army to increase the number of Arjun tanks it would induct points to the possibility that it could still convince the users that buying indigenous would be better in the long run.          

Incidentally, heavy as it is the Arjun tank is considerably lighter on its feet than the lighter T-70s and creates a lesser ground pressure in the deserts where it matters most.

This is apparently a product of both careful distribution of weight as well as the hydro-pneumatic suspension. But the latter has shown signs of overheating which is one of the many problems the CVRDE has had to tackle in the Arjun tank.

Futuristic tank

A futuristic tank as well as the accompanying infantry combat vehicle in mechanized warfare would be truly futuristic if some way is found to detect and clear mines of both the regular kind as well as the improvised explosive devices that are growing in tonnage and inflict horrendous damage on combat vehicles.

The dismal performance of the mine-protected vehicles that have been inducted into the Indian Army and paramilitary forces needs to be revisited given the possibility that infantry combat vehicles will be required to tackle the increasingly more potent threat posed by the Maoists in the Indian heartland.

An ICV that travels behind the screen of MBTs needs to be protected enough to be able to handle the ubiquitous rocket-propelled grenade that has become standard equipment with terrorist organizations which, in turn, are fast becoming the forward echelons of both the Pakistani and Chinese armies.

The DRDO has created a second-generation ICV named Abhay which is intended to replace the BMP-I and provide protected passage to mechanized infantry through cross-country operations and skirmishes in an urban setting.

The proposed ‘half-track’ concept intended to be incorporated in the future ICV makes sense in that it will make for greater maneuverability of the platform but greater protection to the exposed front tyres will need to be incorporated so that a large measure of mobility remains with the vehicle to enable it to make a getaway from either a minefield or an ambush.

Greater comfort in terms of a seat that absorbs the violent jolts during cross-country travel could make for a greater amount of firepower that can be deployed in support of the mission if the infantrymen inside the moving vehicle can use aimed rifle fire from a moving ICV instead of waiting to dismount.

In the final analysis it must be said that trying to put most of what the country’s terrain demands into one vehicle is a tall order. The touchstone should be that most if not all that is required to stop an enemy along all Indian claim-lines is incorporated in one vehicle it would have served its purpose.