DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation), India’s premier defence technology provider has been at the helm of India’s mission to attain self reliance in catering to the needs of armed forces. Under its Chennai based CVRDE (Centre for Vehicle Research and Development Establishment) laboratory, DRDO launched an ambitious program to indigenously develop a world-class Main Battle Tank for Indian Army in 1974.

After relentless research and development for over two decades, CVRDE rolled out a 60-tonne MBT cherished ‘Arjun’. Designed to operate in the harshest operational environments and to obliterate enemy assets, Arjun was termed a true force multiplier by its developer.

After exhaustive evaluation trails, relentless concurrent development and at the instance of government, Arjun’s end user – army’s mechanised forces – in 2000 decided to order124 Arjun Mk-1s. Army, however in 2004, decided to opt for higher numbers of Russian origin T-90 MBTs even as CVRDE echoed calls for follow-up orders. Arjun, which was to be the mainstay of army’s strike force was steadily eroding into eternity.

By 2005, CVRDE and DRDO were confident that Arjun had successfully met army’s requirement and called for comparative trails with army’s favoured T-90 and T-72 tanks to prove Arjun’s might. This demand was met only in 2010, when a squadron each of Arjun and T-90 tanks were pitted against each other. True to the developer’s words, Arjun emerged victorious and army’s DGMF was squared in to opt for higher numbers.

With Arjun’s performance having decimated all reservations, the army decided to order an additional 124 Arjun tanks, but with rider conditions. The army raised a requirement with CVRDE for a more advanced and potent variant of Arjun. At least 15 major and 78 minor improvements were deemed necessary by DGMF to make Arjun, a true frontline MBT.

Key demands from the army were to enable Arjun with missile firing capability, providing ERA protection panels and night vision capability for Commander’s Sight, Mine ploughs and also to enhance mobility.

CVRDE readily took-on the challenge as it was confident that years of experience gained in developing Arjun would drastically cut down the development time. In fact, during the spiral development phase, CVRDE had mastered several of these technologies.

Even as more systems made Arjun potent, the tank would simply put on more weight and this remained a key concern for CVRDE. To enhance mobility, CVRDE redesigned the engine and specialised transmission units were imported from German based Renk AG. Combined, these factors promised satisfactory power-to-weight ratio to enable the tank to seamlessly operate in the deserts. This was validated as Arjun ran for nearly 1,300 KMS with a load of 66 tonnes. Further, the indigenously developed Hydro-Pneumatic Suspension system was reconfigured to handle weights up to 70 tonnes.

In lieu with army’s demand, explosive reactive armor (ERA) system was mounted on the front part of the chassis and on turret. A more improved version of the indigenously developed composite based KANCHAN armour was provided to give all-round protection. An ammunition containerisation unit was added to save crew against ammo bursts.

Arjun’s capabilities were redefined when a highly advanced thermal imaging night sight was introduced. This critical capability was missing on most of the tanks in service with the army, virtually blinding them in the night. For enhanced target acquisition, designation and obliteration, the commander would use a stabilised thermal imaging enabled panoramic sight. This enabled the tank to operate in hunter-killer roles even in the night.

By 2011, CVRDE had successfully validated over 50 systems including advanced land navigation systems, independent night sight for commander and driver, ammunition containerisation module and also an 8 kW Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) to power electronic systems. The introduction of 1.5 tonne mine ploughs, to destroy any buried land mines, had ballooned Arjun’s weight to just over 65 tonnes. But, CVRDE remained confident about the tank making it to service with the army.

Persistent problems, however, plagued DRDO’s efforts in integrating a missile firing unit to Arjun’s main gun. Apart from this, DRDO’s mission to develop an Advanced Laser Warning and Countermeasure System (ALWCS) also met with limited success. BEL (Bharat Electronics Limited) which was developing remotely controlled air defence systems sought more time even as the tank rolled towards the make or break user trials.

With most of the development programs maturing, several prototypes entered into development trials in January, 2013 at Pokran and Mahajan ranges. With due user inputs, CVRDE upgraded several of the systems and in December, 2013 rolled out several prototypes with almost 75 of the systems integrated aboard them. Even though army noted several issues with the tanks, Arjun Mk-II had successfully outrun the T-90 MS MBTs.

A five phase extensive user evaluation trials began in 2014. Even as the tanks progressed through this definitive test, Defence Acquisition Council cleared the purchase of 118 Mk-II tanks at an estimated INR 6600 crores. By late-2015, Arjun satisfactorily completed the two phases of trails which included driving the tank through a water canal measuring 5-7 feet (medium fording).

What now is awaited prior to seeing Arjun Mk-II being inducted is a formal signing for 118 tanks between Army, DRDO and OFB. But this is expected to happen only after missing missile firing capabilities and ALWCS are incorporated on the tanks. DRDO will also have to drastically cut down the weight of the tank by at least 1-1.5 tonnes to impress the mechanised forces.

An Arjun Main Battle Tank gracefully maneuvering across a bridge at DefExpo – 2016 in Goa.

The Mk-II tanks are currently undergoing maintenance and survivability tests with the Army.  Following which further tests are expected to be conducted by Director General of Quality Assurance (DGQA). The missing technologies are expected to fall in place by mid-2017, effectively making way for the production of Mk-II tanks to formally being at HVF, Avadi.

It is evident that Arjun has come-off ages. Once criticized for its weight and reliability issues, Arjun today stands as formidable MBT matching “world-class” tanks. The program at this juncture desperately needs backing by the army to sustain itself and the thriving ecosystem. Long and gruelling evaluative and comparative trials have by far proved Arjun’s might and capabilities, the question that lingers now is “will Arjun, a flagship model of the much talked ‘Make in India’, fade to eternity as its end user opts for more and more imported platforms?”

© Karthik Kakoor