The Indian army after the conclusion of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war was left scouting for reliable Main Battle Tanks (MBT) following the dismal performance of its Vickers Mk-1 and T-55 MBTs. With foreign vendors refusing to develop tailor-made tanks to meet Indian conditions, the country was left with no option but to indigenously develop a MBT.

With the Army’s Directorate General of Mechanised Forces (DGMF) defining the requirements, the government in 1974 green lighted DRDO to design and develop a future ready combat vehicle for the army.

The country back then had very minimal technological knowledge and in fact there were hardly any infrastructure to facilitate a project of this proportion. It was critical for DRDO to gain the know-how and know-why knowledge, before it could immerse itself in the developmental project.

DRDO’s lead combat vehicle solution provider CVRDE (Combat Vehicle Research and Development Establishment) was put at the helm of the development program. Development for the tank formally began after DRDO roped in Krauss Maffei, designer of German Leopard 2 tank, to provide design assistance. Parallel efforts were made to gain the prerequisite knowledge and to create a sustainable ecosystem.

DRDO concurrently launched several Research and Development programs to develop critical systems for the tank. A multi-laboratory collaboration was floated to drastically reduce foreign dependence. Vehicle R&D facilities were set-up at Pune and Ahmednagar to   assist CVRDE. ARDE and HERML were put in-charge of developing armaments, while other associated laboratories began development of sub-systems and components for MBTs.

By 1974, leading scientists at CVRDE designed a futuristic concept vehicle which was cherished ‘Arjun’, after the mythological Mahabharat character. The government sanctioned the program in May, 1974 and allotted INR 15 Crore for the program. Putting to use the experience it had gained in local license production of Vickers, CVRDE cut the first steel plates for the tank in 1975.

In an effort to beat the cost curve and to meet the urgent needs of the army, DRDO decided to import the engine and transmission units, tracks, fire control systems and the gun barrel itself. However, DRDO concurrently launched programs to locally develop these systems as the production rate of the tanks increased with order from the army.

Arjun Tanks rumbling down the Rajpath

Several technological hurdles and unavailability of critical systems in the global market delayed the program’s initial time frame. Moreover, with the end user of the tank – the Indian Army – redefining the requirements, the development schedule took a back foot.

After treading through turbulent waters and conquering technological hurdles, CVRDE rolled out the first Arjun prototype in April 1985, almost five years behind schedule. From concept to rollout of the first prototype, DRDO had taken just over 12 years. Arjun, which was developed following relentless work of DRDO, was a futuristic third-generation MBT that would operate effortlessly in the deserts, plains and mountainous region.

Army’s insistence for a 120-mm heavier and potent rifled main gun, which could fire lethal FSAPDS ammunition resulted in Arjun’s weight ballooning from planned 40-tonne to whopping 58-tonnes. The tank was powered by a MTU-manufactured diesel engine that promised satisfactory power-to-weight ratio.

To increase ride quality, it was equipped with a unique Hydro-pneumatic suspension, which provided it all terrain mobility; this was a key demand of the army. The unique suspension system also made Arjun – a stable platform to fire when on the move.

The tank is operated by a crew of four and to reduce workload. It is equipped with advanced fire and gun control system. For crew protection, it features indigenously developed Kanchan Armour. Integrated fire detection & suppression system and NBC protection suites drastically boost protection for operating crews.

First of the extensive automotive user trials by army commenced in 1988, after CVRDE delivered two prototypes. These tanks were subjected to extensive summer trials test and army noted several shortcomings in the platform. With concurrent development, CVRDE rolled out 12 MK-1 prototypes by February 1989.

In March 1990, Indian Army commenced full-fledged evaluation trials of Arjun tanks at firing ranges in Rajasthan and Punjab. The tanks were put to test in one of the harshest operational environments where temperatures soured over 50°C.

The army during these trials noted several deficiencies in the platform. A glaring mismatch between the engine and transmission unit owing to overweight of the tank had resulted in repeated failures. Critical systems of the tank including the engine and the main gun had severe reliability issues. Army warned that these would hamper the operational readiness of the forces.

Even though problems had emerged, the tanks had performed satisfactorily in the trails. It had traversed over 70,000 km under mobility trials and through the main guns close to 7,000 rounds of armament was fired.

With stage set for commencing PPS phase, army called for the short fallings to be addressed, before it would commit itself to the program. The government, however, in an effort to keep the project alive placed indent for production of PPS (Pre Production Series) tanks in July, 1989. The project was finally closed in March, 1995 with DRDO spending over Rs 305.60 crore. CVRDE had successfully built 12 prototypes and 15 PPS Arjun tanks.

Summer trials yet again began in April, 1997 with PPS-15 tank, on which all requested changes were incorporated by CVRDE. The trials lasted for over a year and army yet again raised concerns with reliability of the platform. With the army declining to commit for the tanks, CVRDE re-designed and worked extensively on the platform. Shortly after in 2000, Army approved Arjun for mass production and placed an order for 124 tanks with Ordnance Board, which was the designated manufacturer of MBTs.

A batch of Arjun tanks rolling out for induction to the Indian Army; Source – DRDO.

The Arjun MBT program reached its zenith in 2004, when the first batch of 16 Arjun Mk-I tanks were inducted into the 43rd Armoured regiment of army. By late-2015, army had inducted all 124 tanks on order and CVRDE itself was inching closer towards to prove a newer and more lethal variant of Arjun dubbed ‘Arjun Mk-II’ MBT.

The program has not only provided India with a combat platform, but a sustainable manufacturing ecosystem that promises to help it take future challenges head-on.

© Karthik Kakoor