The strategic prudence lies in exploiting country’s own bandwidth to equip our armed forces with indigenous light tank which will transmit a far stronger message of indigenously equipped self-reliant nation
One of the mainstream media, during the mid of July reported that “The government, amid border tensions with China, has given the approval to the Army for emergency procurement of lightweight tanks that can be deployed in high-altitude conditions.” It also reported that the army has been given the go-ahead for urgent purchases amid signs that Beijing intends to keep the border hot. Apparently the Indian Army has opted for 2S25M Sprut-SDM1, an upgraded version of BDM2 with T-90 Turret System of Russian origin which essentially is a tank destroyer to be the new light tank in it’s inventory.
Light tanks have been exploited in practically every operation since independence in India. Stuarts and Sherman tanks were used in the battle of Kohima in 1944. In 1948 these came very handy in the battle of Zojila to push back the Pakistani forces. In 1962 AMX-13 were used in the battle of Gurung Hill and also deployed in Bombdila and Darrang. In Bangladesh war AMX-13 and PT-76 turned the tables in the battle of Garibpur.
Indian Army continued to maintain three regiments of light tanks through the 80’s and a regiment till late 90’s. The importance of light tanks has been flagged time and again including in the Krishna Rao Committee Report (1976) with General Sunderji as one of the members of that Committee. Despite many studies and papers including by the Perspective Planning Directorate on the need of having light tanks for our Northern borders and Rann of Kutch as well as part of the Armoured Division, the mandarins felt otherwise and continued to vacillate. And now that China has deployed T-15/36T category tanks, the sanction has come for emergency purchases.
The broad concept of employment of light tank revolves around its superior mobility (Strategic, Operational and Tactical), versatility, enhanced manoeuvrability (small turning radius, high power to weight ratio and low nominal ground pressure), and lethal firepower. While strategic mobility advantage of light tank certainly provides strategic flexibility, however it is the superior agility which enhances the ability in inter and intra valley movement in high altitude terrain.
Sprut-SDM1 is a vintage technology currently not in regular production. Since only 24 pieces have been inducted ever since its inception, speaks for itself of the confidence in the equipment of the manufacturing country.
Given the terrain and the operational history, light tanks have not been inducted after AMX and PT-76 were phased out, not because they were not required but only because we didn’t have them. With our focus mainly on the Western adversary and hence concern was to match him with tank to tank instead of building capability. As a result we continued to buy medium and heavy tanks. Deployability of light tanks, however, is across the border with China i.e. entire Northern Borders to include Ladakh, Sikkim Plateau and in RALP (Rest of Arunachal Pradesh). On the Western Front light tanks give a strategic advantage in the Rann of Kutch and also as part of the Recce Regiments for flank protections. One of the studies had recommended up to 12 Regiments of light tanks to be inducted over a period of 5-7 years.
There are limited numbers of light tanks, both tracked and wheeled, in the inventory of foreign armies available to be picked up off the shelf. Amongst the more advanced are the USA Project MPF Light Tank, Chinese ZTQ-105 / Type 15, which is deployed opposite Ladakh and the Russian Sprut-SDM1. The 2S25M Sprut-SDM1 manufactured by Volgograd Tractor Plant Joint Stock Company, is a modernized version of the previous Sprut-SDM1. It is unified with the chassis of the BMD 4M airborne combat vehicle of 80’s vintage and uses some fire control elements of the T-90MS. It is officially referred in Russia as a self-propelled anti-tank gun, or tank destroyer and not a light tank.
As mentioned earlier, according to the Media, Indian Army has picked up 2S25M Sprut-SDM1 Tank Destroyer (light tank) for the emergency purchases. Russia has been using this so called light tank only in support of airborne landing operations. Currently Russia is the only country in the world to operate this half tank with merely 24 tanks in service. No other country in the world has evinced any interest in the same so far, for various reasons including shortcomings of limited armour protection. Its front arc withstands only 12.7mm round hits. All-round protection is limited to 7.62mm fire. The protection was reduced to give it with amphibious capability.
Sprut-SDM1 is a vintage technology currently not in regular production. Since only 24 pieces have been inducted ever since its inception, speaks for itself of the confidence in the equipment of the manufacturing country. Therefore, an endeavour to offload an old product to friend in need will have complex issues of delivery schedule as the equipment is not in regular production. Further, the Indian Army is likely to be saddled with issues of quality control and not only life cycle support but future upgrades as well.
The amphibious capability provided by reducing the protection is undesirable in a light tank in the current scenarios. More so, as now we have adequate number of Infantry Combat Vehicles (BMP-2) with augmented firepower (Anti-tank missiles and cannon). Even with limited armour protection but with its firepower and the infantry stick (manpower) is of immense value, in rushing and occupying key terrain features and creates tank killing areas exploiting full range of the missile basis in those terrains. So the emergent need is reconcilable with superior operational strategy and tactics. For a Tank destroyer we already have Self Propelled (SP-K9 VAJRA) gun which can be inducted in the same areas.
The requirement of inducting armour on the Northern Frontiers is indisputable. Given the dynamics of threat and the diplomatic, political and military negotiations to minimise the same, may have given us the strategic space to re-arm ourselves
Further, alight tank of 35 tonne category vis-a-vis 18T tank gives a huge advantage in the high altitude terrain of Ladakh/Tibet. That, for the limited employability in the carefully mapped ‘Go’ and ‘No Go’ Areas can be tackled with already inducted T-72 and T-90 tanks in the interim till a light tank is inducted. As discussed earlier that there would be a requirement of minimum 10-12 Regiments and in due course replacement, upgrades and life cycle support. An off the shelf purchase, especially now having developed our own tank and with huge Defence Industrial base, is a strategic blunder. Instead strategic prudence lies in having our own light tank developed in next one to two years, since now we have the experience of developing one. The option could be to use the K9 Vajra hull with added armour protection with 105mm rifled bore Turret gun system with 1000HP tweaked engine, under license production for high altitude, which would maximum weigh 33-35 tonnes. This would be a light tank in the true sense. The disadvantage of not having missile is easily offset with proliferation of other fire support measures including missiles with Mechanised Infantry operating in conjunction. Even if it is required with T-90 Turret Weapon System, to have the advantage of missile, the tank weight will be max 38 tonnes. Except for a marginal increase in weight, the light tank will have all the advantages of T-90 albeit a little lesser protection.
Indigenous production will ensure smooth induction, controlled time lines and life cycle support with singular and huge advantage of future upgrades and variants. Also the equipment is contemporary and not vintage like Sprut-SDM1. It will also give a desired boost to the indigenous industry.
The requirement of inducting armour on the Northern Frontiers is indisputable. Given the dynamics of threat and the diplomatic, political and military negotiations to minimise the same, may have given us the strategic space to re-arm ourselves. To do that with vintage, substandard, unpopular equipment which in a way has been rejected by the forces of the producing (selling) country and others, would be an extremely regressive step. Instead strategic prudence lies in exploiting this bandwidth to equip our armed forces with indigenous light tank which will transmit a far stronger message of indigenously equipped self-reliant nation.