During the visit of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to Russia in September 2020, Russia offered the Sprut SDM1 light tanks in response to Rajnath mentioning that India was looking for light tanks. Now Russia has responded to the RFI with the same offer.
|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
The Chinese aggression of 2020 and the continuing India-China standoff in Eastern Ladakh have led the Indian Army (IA) to demand early procurement and fielding of light tanks. Despite the ongoing diplomatic parleys for disengagement from Gogra and Hot Springs heavy deployment from both sides along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is going to be a permanent feature especially where there is little scope for the ongoing talks to succeed and Depsang and Demchok are not even being discussed.
China has deployed its ZTQ 105 / Type 15 lightweight tank in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) opposite Ladakh and Sikkim. The Type 15 has a maximum weight of 36 tonnes and offers the mobility and the firepower of a standard Main Battle Tank (MBT). Also called VT-5, the Type 15 is armed with one 105mm rifled gun with a thermal sleeve and fume extractor which has a maximum firing range of 3,000 metres. The gun is able to fire anti-tank missiles fitted with a tandem HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) warhead that can destroy armoured or tanks protected with reactive armour (ERA). The missile has a maximum firing range of 5,000 metres.
In absence of light tanks which are best suited for mountainous and high altitude terrain, the Indian Army has deployed the Russian T-72 and T-90 MBT in Eastern Ladakh
In absence of light tanks which are best suited for mountainous and high altitude terrain, the Indian Army has had to deploy the Russian T-72 tanks weighing 41.5 tonnes and T-90 MBT weighing 46.5 tonnes in Eastern Ladakh. India did have light tanks for mountainous terrain in the past: 16 tonne M-5 Stuart tanks were deployed during the 1947-1958 operations against Pakistan; 13 tonne French AMX-13 tanks were deployed in Ladakh during the 1962 Sino-Indian War, and; 12 tonne PT-76 tanks were deployed during the 1962 Sino-Indian War and 1971 Indo-Pak War. However, all light tanks have been phased out. The Armoured Corps did raise the demand for light tanks in 2009 but these were not pursued because the main focus was on the border with Pakistan.
It was brought out in these columns earlier that the Indian Army had issued a RFI (Request For Information) in April 2021 inviting responses from overseas and domestic vendors by June 18 for its planned procurement of 350 locally manufactured 'light tanks' weighing less than 25 tonnes along with performance-based logistics, niche technologies, engineering support package, and other maintenance and training requirements. The RFI states that the light tanks are to be procured in a "phased manner" under the 'Make in India' category of the Defence Ministry's Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020 (DAP 2020).
Indian Army had issued a RFI in April 2021 for its planned procurement of 350 locally manufactured 'light tanks' weighing less than 25 tonnes
This RFI calls for a light tank featuring a multiple, modular and upgradable weapon system with the capability to destroy and offer countermeasures to varied threats, also featuring multiple weapons for anti-aircraft and ground role with different calibre assisted with remote control weapon station; the tank should employ modern advance multipurpose 'smart munitions' with a gun able to fire anti-tank guided missiles; auxiliary power unit; preheated, environment control unit; anti-drone capability; UAV jammers and; net-enabled functions.
During the visit of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to Russia in September 2020, Russia offered the Sprut SDM1 light tanks in response to Rajnath mentioning that India was looking for light tanks. Not only has Russia responded to the RFI with the same offer, it has offered India 'exclusively' to join the trials in Russia this year itself although there are some reports of the Sprut SDM1 already inducted in the Russian Army. An India team will reportedly be going to Russia in the same connection to witness the firing and mobility trials of the tank.
The 18-tonne Sprut-SDM1 tank is fully amphibious, is capable of being airlifted, parachuted with crew inside and can even disembark from a ship. It can fire guided missiles and has a potent armament suite that includes a 125mm gun, a 7.62mm remote-controlled machine gun and a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun. The tank's onboard guided missile weapon system can engage armoured targets, including explosive reactive armour (ERA)-equipped ones at ranges up to 5-km, besides engaging low-flying helicopters by the roof-mounted machine-gun.
According to sources, the Sprut-SDM1 is the only light amphibious fighting vehicle in the world that possesses the firepower of a MBT. The other unique future is the ability to fire cannon while afloat. Moreover, the Sprut-SDM1 has the same gun as in the T-90 tank and fires similar kind of ammunition implying common logistics and maintenance systems. The Sprut can also travel over a distance of 500 km without refueling.
The Sprut-SDM1 is the only light amphibious fighting vehicle in the world that possesses the firepower of a MBT. Its other unique future is the ability to fire cannon while afloat.
If India is satisfied with the trials, it would be prudent to import specific quantities of Sprut SDM-1 tanks followed by production under 'Make in India'. If we go for only 'Make in India', it may take few years to meet the requirement. As a consequence there will be that much wear and tear on our heavier tanks like the Russian T-90s, which is not good in the long run, maintenance costs included. The pace of indigenous manufacture too cannot be predicted going by past experience.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Larson & Toubro (L&T) are looking to convert the K9 Vajra 155mm/52 calibre Tracked Self-Propelled Howitzer into a light or medium-weight tank that could be used in mountains. They are also examining reducing the 47-tonne Vajra Tank to around 30 tonnes by replacing the 155mm gun with a 105mm or 120mm gun plus using other weight-reducing technology and materials.
Whether the IA would get the Sprut SDM-1 or another light tank and in what time frame is anybody's guess. The bureaucracy is adept in freezing actions beyond responses to the RFI using any amount of red tape to promote the desired product. The plank of 'Atmanirbhar Bharat' too can be applied 'when considered convenient' to overrule whatever the operational urgency.