With the Ministry of Defence (MoD), under the Modi government, ordering the Indian Army (IA) to purchase and integrate 118 Arjun Mark-1A Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), the reader should understand that there is a renewed interest and importance as to why these very heavy battle tanks are necessary, but the debate today explains only one part with regards to the gaps in the IA’s armored corps capabilities. The contract is worth INR 7,523 crores. The current debates on the Arjun MK-1A Main Battle Tank (MBTs) have grown in intensity. The main arguments range from whether the MoD should be involved in strong-arming the Indian Army (IA) to buy the MBTs to why it is redundant to buy a set of overweight tanks. The MoD itself justified the decision along the lines that it would create 8000 new jobs, advance the goal of greater indigenization in the form of “72 new features [and] more indigenous content compared to Mk-1” under the Modi government’s flagship “Atma Nirbhar” initiative. While all these benefits emerging from the development of Arjun MK-1A are laudable, there are more fundamental problems with the way India has approached the development of armor.
The key question is not whether India needs heavy battle tanks or light battle tanks. Armour comes in two variants—light and heavy. India’s two-front military operational challenge uniquely demands two types of armor—both heavy and light. Indeed, the problems of armor for the IA are largely symptomatic of what has afflicted Indian defense planning—scrambling to fix a problem until it is actually in the face. This is only but one of the two principal challenges. A second, but corollary challenge, is the near absence of tailoring capabilities or acquisitions to meet operational and geographic requirements that the IA faces against China and Pakistan. In the case of the first challenge, the IA suddenly appears to have discovered the importance of Light Battle Tanks (LBTs) due to the ongoing Sino-Indian boundary crisis, which erupted in May 2020, when their procurement should have been a priority for the IA before 2020. The Arjun’s benefits are limited to operational contingencies against only Pakistan and its deployment and use is restricted to the desert or semi-desert terrain facing Pakistan. While there is indubitable merit in the development of this tank, it has nevertheless consumed considerable time and effort threatening serious investment in lighter armored platforms for operations in the high-altitude terrain against China. Pakistan has occupied far too much of Indian strategic and military planners’ mind space.
India’s leadership has taken the path of least resistance with regards to China. As long as the boundary dispute between the two countries remained dormant—as it was until the Doklam crisis in July-August 2017 and, thereafter, the far grimmer crisis which erupted in May 2021 which currently persists—India’s leaders have demonstrated that they have no incentive in investing in capabilities to tackle China. Nor have they shown any real level of anticipation and planning to prepare for a serious military contingency against China as we witness today. Nowhere has this been more visible than in the way the IA’s armored corps is structured—skewed towards heavy Main Battle Tanks (MBTs). The IA has now been compelled to hurriedly induct the K-9 Vajra self-propelled howitzers guns, which are mounted on a tracked platform giving it mobility conducive for mountain operations; the IA nevertheless still faces a key deficit in the form of a credible Light Battle Tank (LBT).
Indeed, notwithstanding the successful high altitude trials of the K-9 Vajra, the initial batch or order by the IA in 2017 for 100 Vajras at a cost of INR 4,500 crores was meant for the deserts against Pakistan, not for the mountain terrain that straddles India and China. This aptly encapsulates where the IA and the Indian governments’ priorities were until the outbreak of the current Sino-Indian boundary crisis.
As for LBTs, the IA and the MoD have yet to get their first consignment of the Sprut SDM1 LBTs, pending trials in Russia. Further, the MoD floated a Request for Information (RFI) in April 2021 for 350 light tanks in the weight category of 25 tonnes. There are no tanks on the international market that meet the RFI’s 25-tonne weight limit except for the Russian Sprut SDM1. However, the bureaucratic process and contract signing involved in the procurement of the Sprut LBTs and their eventual delivery by Russia will take several months at minimum and at maximum possibly a few years. As of now, India has resorted to its default option of low-cost innovation with a lighter native version of the Vajra, which is being jointly developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Larsen & Toubro (L&T), by replacing the 155mm gun of the K-9 Vajra with a 105mm or 120mm gun making the Vajra much lighter for deployment in the mountain terrain facing China.
Indeed, the deployment of the K-9 Vajra, which was never originally designed and developed for mountain operations represents yet another instance among a litany of the poor planning involved in dealing with military challenges posed by the Chinese. The silver lining is that the IA, the MoD, and the Indian government writ large are more focused and appear ready to make the investments necessary to face down the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). India’s defense planners should be under no illusions about the brutal reality that the Chinese will remain hot on India’s heels ensuring the Line of Actual Control (LaC) stays militarily active for possibly many years to come.