February 2, 2015: The Arjun Mk.II main battle tank has cleared all user trials with the Indian Army successfully and now awaits a maintenance evaluation by the Army and, crucially, a detailed evaluation by the Director General of Quality Assurance (DGQA). The Army has on order 118 tanks that will begin delivery once these two final evaluation processes are complete, likely by mid-2015. The Phase IV user trials demonstrated trench crossing and step climbing capabilities of the Mk.II tank starting in September 2014. Last year, dynamic trials of 120 mm penetration-cum-blast (PCB) ammunition for MBT Arjun Mk II were conducted successfully at PXE, Chandipur.
The Arjun Mk.II will conceivably begin entering service in 2016. With the already inducted fleet of 124 Arjun Mk.I tanks in two regiments in Rajasthan, the Army will be set to operate a total of four Arjun regiments. But the good news for the Arjun programme potentially ends right here. As SP's reported earlier, there are unlikely to be further orders for the Arjun tank of any type. The total number (242 tanks) on order is far from good news: The DRDO has said that any order below 500 tanks (in a mix of Mk.I and Mk.II) makes Project Arjun a dead loss. This is precisely what it is likely to be, which is why products based on the Arjun chassis (bridge-layer tank, self-propelled artillery) or Arjun turret (Tank-X) are being pushed too. But for the Arjun tank itself, the fresh order could be a death knell. The Army is keen that the DRDO focuses on a futuristic main battle tank. Of couse, this Army-DRDO conversation continues at a time when the very efficacy of armoured land force is being questioned at the macro war-fighting level in the region.
The Army has shown markedly more confidence in the Arjun Mk.II than it did in the original tank. At Defexpo last year, the Arjun Mk.II was on public display for the first time, following its participation in the Republic Day Parade. It underwent two more critical trial phases supervised by the Indian Army, pertaining to mobility in water (medium fording), mobility across obstacles, missile firing and fresh regular ammunition firing routines. These rounds were undertaken with during the summer months, with a handful of test points completed by November last year, with final reports being compiled and completed in January 2015. Full user trials began in May 2012. The Indian Army had indented for 124 of the Mk.2 for two tank regiments, but has now committed to inducting 118 tanks. The DRDO had been pushing for an order of at least 300 Arjun Mk.IIs to shore up the programme and speed up production at the Heavy Vehicles Factory adjoining the CVRDE in Avadi. It's almost certain that won't happen. The Army simply has no more armoured appetite for more tanks.
Sadly, the economics of the programme lie in tatters. In 2008, the DRDO wrote to the MoD saying, "The DRDO is working on the development of the futuristic Mark II MBT with suitable technological upgrades, which can be introduced later after completion of production of at least 500 tanks of the present version. DRDO has tacit knowledge in this area of Combat Vehicle Engineering and possesses full competence in developing futuristic combat vehicles. Any battle tank has a service life of 30 years and goes through technology up gradation progressively. Since MBT-Arjun is an indigenous tank it is all the more easier to bring upgrades and in our opinion the MBT-Arjun will be a viable platform for the futuristic use as well."
For the Army, its internal planning compulsions have weighed heavy. It has refused to comply with an additional order, given that its resources had been committed to purchasing more T-90S Bhishma tanks from Russia for license production at Avadi. What the DRDO has managed in the meanwhile is to meet the Army's requirements with the Arjun Mk.II. The tank now incorporates enhanced firepower with Automated Target Tracking and greater variety of ammunition including gun-fired anti-tank missile, thermobaric ammunition; enhanced protection that include Explosive Reactive Armor, laser warning and countermeasure System, a mine plough, a remotely operable anti-aircraft weapon, a roof mounted driving seat; advanced land navigation system and enhanced night vision capabilities. As things turn out, the main missile to be fired from the 120mm main gun may not be Israeli after all. Sources suggest a new weapon being developed at the ARDE may be the fit.
But for Project Arjun, the implications of the end of trials are greater. In 2008, the DRDO had also noted, "The major imported systems in the tank are the powerpack and gun control system from Germany and Delft-SAGEM gunner's main sight from OIP Belgium. The percentage of import content is 60% in the first lot of 124 tanks to be productionised, which will be reduced to under 45% with the manufacture of first 200 tanks and under 30% with the manufacture of about 500 tanks." This indicates that the Arjun tank, ironically, remains largely a foreign product, both in terms of value as well as critical systems. This, despite the DRDO promising to totally turn the tables with greater order numbers.
Original problems with the Arjun Mk.I rose with the Mk.II too, though the capabilities of the new tank have silenced critics and test personnel. Weight was an issue with the Arjun Mk.II, significantly heavier than the Arjun Mk.I, though the DRDO has dispelled comparisons with the T-90S. "T-90S and MBT Arjun tanks are of different class. Both the tanks have their own special features. In MBT Arjun, we have more power to weight ratio, hydro-pneumatic suspension for better ride comfort and a stable platform to fire on the move, better quality class of Gun Control System and Fire Control System etc. Missile firing capability of Arjun was demonstrated. T-90S tank has missile firing capability and lower silhouette. Tanks of both the class are required by the Indian Army," the DRDO had said in 2008 during the big T-90S push.
On the DRDO's part, fighting for the programme will remain a priority, given the enormous skill investment it has taken to put the tank together and meet all of the Army's many demands. "Teething problems during the process of productionisation are inevitable. The process of TOT for the MBT will mature and stabilize only after 200 to 300 tanks have been actually produced by the production agency. Hence, we need to have patronage from the government and Army in terms of more orders for our indigenous MBT-Arjun. If the army does not place further orders for Arjun we cannot even amortize the infrastructural investments made by the government for its productionisation, thereby resulting in wasteful expenditure. The Army should place orders for additional 300 tanks before we can break even," said the DRDO six years ago in its most direct appeal to the government to intervene and force the Army to support the Arjun in a bigger manner. The DRDO believes Prime Minister Modi's 'Make in India' philosophy may help the Arjun programme get more aggressive orders from the customer, though the fact that the T-90S is license built in country goes against any perceived advantage in terms of economics. The DRDO still plans to revive its plans to push the Arjun project with the new government in order to amortize investment and perhaps allow for future versions of the tank.