False argument No 1: The Arjun tank, after decades of failure, can’t suddenly have turned the corner!
It hasn’t “suddenly turned the corner”. It turned the corner very gradually, from around mid-2004. A major landmark came in early 2005, when the problem of the hydro pneumatic suspension unit (HSU) was licked. And in June 2005, the Arjun was to prove its capability in comparative trials in the Mahajan Field Firing Ranges (MFFR); the army agreed to comparative trials involving 5 Arjuns, 5 T-72s and 5 T-90s.
That turned out to be a total fiasco! The Arjun’s electronics packed up in the heat and the trials were over even before they began. The generals who came, including the Western Army Commander, laughed all the way back to their helicopters. The chief, who was to fly in for the trials was rung up and told not to take the trouble.
THAT WAS THE TURNING POINT.
The CVRDE put in a huge effort to heat-harden its electronics, which is something that bears fruit today. While the T-90 is now looking for air-conditioners, the post-2005 electronics in the Arjun can function flawlessly through 60 degrees.
In summer 2006, stringent firing trials by 43 Armoured Regiment established --- in the words of the army’s own trial team --- that the "accuracy and consistency of the Arjun tank was proved beyond doubt".
Later that year, the MoD stated to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence that, "Arjun's firing accuracy is far superior to the other two tanks."
In summer 2007, when the army was being pressured to conduct comparative trials, the DGMF raised another objection: the Arjun should be able to drive for 20 minutes in six feet of water. By the end of 2007, the CVRDE managed that as well.
In the Accelerated Usage cum Reliability Trials (AUCRT), which was held in five phases over the first half of this year, the Arjun had problems in the transmission system (not the MTU engine as widely reported, but the Renk transmission) during the first three phases. Engineers from Renk GMbH, Germany came and fixed that and in the last two phases, which were the really tough, heavy desert, hot weather phases, the Arjun performed flawlessly.
The process of turning the corner has been a slow one, but it symbolises exactly why one should go for an Indian tank: each drawback was analysed by our engineers, fixed according to the users’ instructions, and then delivered back to the users without charging them a penny. Contrast that with the problems with the T-90’s electronics. Nobody is fixing that problem; instead, the Russians are trying to sell us air-conditioners. Added expense, and an inefficient solution compared to heat-hardening the electronics, the way the CVRDE did.
False argument No 2: The manufacturers of T-90 have 5 decades of experience under their belt. The T-90 is drawn from the bloodline of T-72 and T-55, both of which are battle proven.
Even the Russians are not buying into the myth of the T-90. That tank entered service with the Russian Army around 1996 and, till today, there are barely 250 T-90s defending Mother Russia! India has more T-90s in service than the Russian Army… and once we implement the full contract, we will have 6 times more T-90s than the Russian Army.
I wonder why the Russian Army isn’t accepting such a blue-blooded tank with such a fine pedigree??? The Russian Army prefers to use: 2144 numbers of T-72s, 3044 numbers of T-80s, 689 numbers of T-62s (plus 3000 more in storage), and even 1000 rickety old T-55s.
Sorry, but there are no more orders from Russia for T-90s.
False argument No 3: The soldiers who operate the Arjun doubt its capabilities as a frontline tank.
The Arjun tank has been operated by 43 Armoured Regiment since over a decade; 43 is delighted with the tank. I have a very close friend who commanded that regiment and he always argued that a regiment of Arjun tanks was worth two regiments of T-72s. And this was even before the Arjun turned the corner!
After the firing trials in June 2006, 43 Armoured Regiment pronounced itself delighted with the Arjun’s firing performance. As I said above, 43 Armoured Regiment endorsed in its trial report, “The accuracy and consistency of the Arjun has been proved beyond doubt.” The brigade commander, Brigadier Chandra Mukesh, himself from 43 Armoured Regiment, endorsed that report whole-heartedly.
But the DGMF was quick to strike back. Barely three months after that report, the commanding officer of 43 Armoured Regiment, Colonel D Thakur, was confronted by then DGMF, Lt Gen DS Shekhawat. Several eyewitnesses have described to me how Colonel Thakur was upbraided by Lt Gen Shekhawat for “not conducting the trials properly”. Fortunately for Colonel Thakur, his brigade commander, Brigadier Chandra Mukesh, intervened and argued strongly that the trials had been conducted in accordance with procedure.
Talk to the crewmen, the drivers, gunners, operators… and you’ll get an even clearer endorsement. They all love the modular construction of the Arjun, which makes maintenance so easy. Changing a T-72 engine takes a full day; changing an Arjun engine takes a couple of hours.
Minister of State for Defence Production, Rao Inderjeet Singh recounts, “I’ve spoken, off the record, to officers who have gone through the trials. Even the crews (from 43 Armoured Regiment)… who have been testing the tank… I forced them to choose between the Russian tanks and the Arjun. I said, you’ve driven this tank and you’ve driven that tank (the T-90). Now mark them out of ten, which tank is better? And I’ve found that the Arjun tank was given more numbers than the T-90 tank.”
False argument No 4: The army has several objections to accepting the Arjun. Somebody writes, “After all, this is NOT pakistan where the generals are not accountable to anyone.”
The most astonishing part of the Arjun story is that the army (read DGMF) really doesn’t have a clear list of objections to the Arjun. Their objections vary from day to day, and with who they are talking to. Some of their objections --- such as that of the Arjun’s 60-ton weight --- run counter to the army’s own GSQR.
What is clear is that the MoD is happy with the Arjun. According to the Parliamentary Standing Committee for Defence’s last annual report for 2007-08, the MoD testified before the Committee that the Arjun tank was:
• “A product unique in its class”, and “an improved system over the T-72.”
• “Rs 6-8 crores cheaper than its contemporary system in the West”.
• “Far superior (in firing accuracy) to the other two tanks (T-72 and T-90)”.
• “Driven for over 60,000 kms and fired more than 8,000 rounds. There was no problem.”
So you judge: if that's what the MoD is saying... aren't the generals conveying an entirely false impression?
False argument No 5: The Arjun failed the AUCRT this summer
As I mentioned above, the Arjun performed creditably during the AUCRT, once Renk solved the transmission system problem.
But what is far more important is the fact that AUCRT is not a “performance trials”. It is not possible for a tank to “pass” or “fail” the AUCRT. The purpose of the AUCRT is to run a small number of tanks for thousands of kilometres and make them fire hundreds of rounds, basically putting them through their entire service lifespan in a few months. The aim of doing this is to evaluate what spares get consumed during the life-span of the tank; what maintenance and overhaul tasks should be scheduled at what stage of a tank’s life; an AUCRT evaluates a tank’s logistical needs, not its operational performance.
But when the transmission gave some problems in the first three phases of AUCRT, the DGMF was quick to seize the chance to bad-mouth the tank, and to convey the false impression that the Arjun had “failed its trials”.
THE ONLY TRIALS THAT WILL EFFECTIVELY EVALUATE THE ARJUN’S OPERATIONAL CAPABILITY --- AND THAT TOO IN COMPARISON TO ITS RUSSIAN RIVALS --- ARE COMPARATIVE TRIALS, ORGANISED BY A THIRD PARTY WITHOUT VESTED INTERESTS IN THE OUTCOME. THAT MUST BE DEMANDED BY THE MoD.