Tank modernization

The modernization of India’s tank fleet must begin with the upgradation of the long-delayed Arjun tank before the cumulative capability enhancement garnered in the design, development and productionisation from the drawing board to commissioning of the former can be applied to the next generation Indian armor. Just as in the Arjun, the decisive factor in its fighting parameters will depend on an engine with sufficient horsepower to carry its final all-up weight. This time, given the experience of the past, the Defence Research and Development Organisation will not be forgiven if the all-up weight exceeds even by a fraction of a kilogram the thrust generated by the engine.   

The experimentation on the thrust-to-weight ratio of the Arjun tank, though exasperating, was accepted by the nation at large as being necessary to the learning curve in a crucial component of national security. But, hopefully, lessons have been learned and defence scientists have become competent enough to be able to deal with the imperatives of modern tank warfare and produce a product appropriate to the times. It has long been understood in the many military industrial complexes strewn around the world that tanks contemporary to their respective times have had to be tailored for mobility, high kinetic energy delivery warheads for lethality and protection from the many different kinds and ever improving anti-tank weapons inclusive of fire-and-forget missiles  now available to anyone able to pay the  high price for each such weapon be they instruments of state or non-state actors fuelling insurgencies around the world.  It is to be able to deal with all these characteristics that the basic common denominator is the capability of the power-pack.

Mobility means maneuver which is the heart of the doctrine of tank warfare. To be able to move fast enough carrying all the weight of its own body, that of the engine and that of the onboard weapons and munitions puts a huge strain on the minds of those who have taken upon themselves to produce a weapon that will fulfill the requirements of the modern battlefield. Additional protection means more weight unless countervailing factors like lightweight materials able to resist or deflect enemy artillery shells be they high explosive anti-tank (HEAT), high explosive squash-head (HESH), heavy penetrators directed to target with fin stabilized discarding sabot, and top attack fire and forget missiles that hit in the hitherto vulnerable turret and top segment of the chassis of a tank are incorporated. Cumulatively, this militates against mobility and hence the need for balance between protection and lethality. Add-ons like the explosive reactive armor (ERA) means additional weight and so the trade-off between weight and mobility.

Active protection

To be able to deal with this situation it is being suggested that the engines of all three-the Russian T-90 and T-72 and the Indian Arjun-be replaced by a power plant capable of producing between 1500 to 1800 horsepower.

The installation of active protection systems like the ones developed and proved by Israel-the Trophy and the Iron Fist-and the Drozd by the Russians use radars and high speed computers to gauge the speed and direction of the incoming missile/projectile and in the case of the Trophy launch pellets in is path to destroy it and in the case of the Iron Fist to react with an anti-missile missile.

India has been working closely with Israel to set up its own anti-missile defence system. India can benefit immensely from the Israeli development and work towards a joint development project which is also on that has application on platforms of many kinds deployed on land and sea. Apart from the proven accuracy of the interception the two Israeli products are of lighter weight than the ERA add-ons.

To beat both kinetic energy as well as chemical energy projectiles tanks and infantry combat vehicles have had to use ERA which can add several tons in weight to the vehicle. That is why both these ingredients of mechanized infantry have tended to become progressively heavier and thus unable to utilize amphibian tactics. In the case of ICVs experimentation with sturdy wire mesh cages welded to the superstructure of the vehicle to smash the piezoelectric crystal that explodes the rocket-propelled grenade on impact about a foot or so before it can reach the main armor rendering the shot largely ineffective because the warhead would be splintered and would splash but not penetrate. In a battlefield overgrown with stunted shrubs such a vehicle could well and truly be caged and useless.

Enhancing capability

To retain mobility it is also required that the tank be made immune to landmines by their neutralization well before the vehicle passes over them. The DRDO has developed a directed energy device that can render a mine inert. The device is currently fitted on a scout car roof which gives it an elevation of about seven feet and would require the car to drive ahead of the advancing tank column clearing the minefield. Being lightly armed this would render the vehicle vulnerable and it would better if the directed energy weapon is mounted on the tank itself very much like the Israeli Trophy and Iron Fist.

Third generation night vision devices, battlefield management system and panoramic periscopes would raise the first hit kill capability of Indian tanks and they will have to be fitted on all the T-72, the T-90s and the Arjuns. Communications must be network centric oriented for both voice and data transmission. For target acquisition and surveillance and tracking enemy armored columns dedicated unmanned aerial vehicles would enhance substantially the capability of the tank commander to understand and control the battlefield.  In the dense dust cloud raised in a tank battle it is not unusual that it is very nearly impossible to decide whether the tank in the periscope is the enemy or a friendly platform. That is why is has become imperative that all tanks be fitted with automatic “friend or foe” transponders as standard equipment so that in the fog of war fratricide (shooting one’s own) does not occur.  

With the Indian Army equipped with only two regiments of Arjun tanks, all eyes are on the Mark II version and the next generation main battle tank. It needs to be understood that India has to be able to blunt any tank activity on its western flank with Pakistan in the desert and the plains. It is generally accepted that the overweight Arjun will be effective even in the sand dunes of Rajasthan desert because of the design of its tracks and suspension which is supposed to give the platform a certain “lightness on its feet” capability. This prevents it from sinking into the sand. However, no additional ERA protection should be imposed on an already overweight tank and the Trophy and Iron Fist type of active protection will be the answer.

To be able to deal with China in the high Himalayas India will require a lighter tank that will be air mobile and capable of being deployed by parachute extraction from a heavy transport aircraft (like the Globemaster C-17 that the IAF has acquired from the US) while flying a foot or so above the ground without landing.