This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Monday, 26 November 2012

Chink In The Armour: India's Arjun Fiasco

From Dec 2009

Dawn begins to illuminate the mist-covered battlefield.

As the soldiers stumble out of their bunkers, rubbing their eyes sleepily to take their places in the front line, a terrific barrage suddenly bursts over their heads. Shrapnel rains down around them, and the shock wave of exploding shells sends them cowering to the ground, seeking safety in the earth’s embrace. And then...

And then, through the parting mists they come, wave after wave of armoured tanks, charging mechanised doom, churning up the earth with their tracks, raking the trenches with their machine guns and firing shells through blockhouse and pillbox. The defending soldiers see their fire bouncing off the armour plate of these clanking monsters, and in a few moments they break and run – those of them who are left. By the time the sun has risen, the other side’s infantry are in control of the trenches, and the armour roams over the countryside, chasing the routed enemy, victory already in their sights.

A seductive vision, isn’t it? Any student of military history will recognise it: first used in World War One to crush the German lines and then adapted by them in turn, as the Blitzkrieg, breaking through the enemy lines, rapier-like thrusts to the heart of the enemy. The tank, the king of the battlefield (the queen, according to the Soviet General Voronov, was the artillery), the ultimate arbiter of combat.

Nobody who has any knowledge of combat can take away from the tank its central role on the modern battlefield. Since the Second World War, it’s held its central role in ground strategy, breaking through defensive lines and creating general mayhem. Recall how Marshal Zhukov’s T34/85s cut through the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS to take Berlin in 1945 and how the M1A1 Abrams of the US Army smashed Saddam Hussein’s cherished divisions in Kuwait in 1991, and you’ll see how the tank has endured.

So what, precisely, is a tank? Put as simply as possible, it’s a mobile armoured weapons platform, carried on tracks instead of on wheels, whose primary battlefield purpose is to break through enemy defences and penetrate deep into the enemy rear, so that enemy attempts to regroup and counterattack can be defeated. This has always been the tank’s primary battlefield role, right from the time the first British Mark Two tanks clattered at walking pace across the churned mud of Flanders back in the First World War.

Therefore, given its battlefield role, the tank requires certain basic features to be effective in its role.

First, it has to be heavily enough armoured to defeat defensive fire. Said defensive fire can be as basic as light machine guns or as advanced as laser-guided anti-tank missiles; if the tank can’t survive the defensive fire the particular enemy can bring against it, it can’t operate effectively.

Secondly, it has to be heavily armed enough to defeat enemy defences. If the enemy is only fielding infantry without concrete fortifications, a machine gun might be enough; but if the enemy has its own tanks or concrete pillboxes, even a 120 mm main gun may not be sufficient. A tank that can’t beat the enemy’s defensive systems isn’t an effective tank.

Thirdly, a tank has to be fast enough to take advantage of any initial breakthrough to prevent the enemy from regrouping and recreating a new front line. If the tank isn’t swift enough to do that, if it, like the First World War models, is so slow that the other side can set up fresh defences across the line of advance, it’s going to have to break through the enemy lines all over again...and again...and again.

Fourthly, a tank has to be agile and adaptable enough to cope with all forms of terrain. If a tank can’t climb a slope or cross a river where there aren’t any functioning bridges, its value is strictly limited to what it can achieve on a level plain without canals or rivers. First World War tanks were, in fact, specifically designed to get over enemy trenches, and a modern tank can usually cross under shallow rivers, using a snorkel arrangement to provide air to the engines and the crew.

It ought to be obvious that the first and second requirements are somewhat in conflict with the third and fourth – a very heavily armed and armoured tank, which can be assured of being able to take apart the enemy defences, is likely to be also a very heavy and therefore slow and clumsy tank. A very heavy tank with a very powerful engine may be highly mobile, but is likely to pay for that mobility with high fuel consumption and seriously limited range. On the other hand, a fast and lightly armoured tank is more vulnerable to any defensive fire which does strike it. Modern tank designs, therefore, tend to be compromises between the competing requirements.

Fifthly, a tank needs to come at the right price. Modern tanks are remarkably expensive, and with limited funds for defence needs most armies can only field a limited number of tanks. One tank, however well-built, has a strictly limited value, which extends to the range of its main armament. Any armoured thrust requires a large tank force to achieve success, something first recognised by the Germans between the war years and codified as “the more (tanks) you use, the fewer you lose”.

Sixth, the modern tank can’t be too high-maintenance. It has to operate in complex and fluid battle conditions and might not be able to access mobile workshops and refuelling stations at regular intervals. So it needs to have components that stand up to a lot of wear and tear without breaking down (highly complex equipment, as anyone knows, also tends to be equipment that breaks down more often), and needs to have reasonably low fuel consumption. It also needs to be so constructed that parts that need repair and replacement can be easily accessed to repair and replaced, if at all possible by the crew members themselves.

Seventh, although a tank’s primary role on the battlefield remains unchanged, it nowadays has to fight and defeat enemy armour, in other words, tanks of roughly comparable abilities as itself. This, as well, has its own effects on design and development (which I’ll talk about in a moment), and adds to the complexity and cost of the tank.

Therefore, a modern tank isn’t simply a steel box on tracks (like the Mark 2, above) any longer. It’s a complex piece of expensive machinery and operates within an extensive set of design compromises. It has to beat powerful anti-tank weaponry, break through various defensive fortifications, and fight in conditions as diverse as the desert and the Arctic. And it’s still the most essential land battlefield weapons platform. Nothing else comes close.

Given all this, it’s kind of obvious that any nation would like to get it right when choosing and equipping itself with a tank. And since complex systems usually require large numbers of spare parts and support, it needs to have a reliable source of access to that as well. In other words, it would be well advised to either buy tanks from a reliable and tested ally – or else design and construct tanks of its own.

Now, really, there’s only one sort of alliance that can be counted on absolutely – the one where one ally makes itself absolutely subservient to another. Only then can one depend at all times on a steady supply of spares and back-up support, come what may, at a reasonable rate. Otherwise the tanks one buys from a foreign supplier can swiftly become hunks of rusting metal, if the vendor goes out of business or relations sour (or sanctions are imposed; some armament producing nations are also extremely sanction-happy when it suits them to be).

Therefore, a nation that’s reasonably comfortable with its level of technology will usually prefer to try and develop its own tank rather than depend on a foreign supplier. And therefore the Indian defence establishment was absolutely logical when, in 1972, it decided to try and construct its own main battle tank (MBT) to replace the Vickers “Vijayanta” and T55 which were at the time the cutting edge of the Indian armoured formations. This project, called the MBT 80 (the main battle tank of the 1980s) has gone on to become a gigantic farce, in fact, the epitome of everything that’s wrong with India’s domestic armaments development industry.

Before going any further, a brief description of the construction of a typical modern tank might be useful for the understanding of what is to follow...

Briefly put, a modern tank comprises a hull containing the engine, the tracks (borne on wheels and rollers) on which the vehicle moves; and a rotating turret placed on the hull which contains the main weapon, usually a gun of large calibre (120 mm or 125 mm is the usual for modern tanks). There are usually either three or four crew members, of whom one (the driver) sits in the hull and the others are in the turret. If there is (as in most tanks) a four-man crew, the turret has the tank commander, the gunner who is responsible for aiming and firing the gun, and the loader, whose job is to manually load the shells from ammunition racks into the gun. If there is a three-man crew, there is no loader; an automatic loading system is employed. (Both versions have advantages and disadvantages which we’ll be talking about.)

In addition, the armour of a modern tank isn’t comprised of just thick steel plates, because modern anti-tank weapons can punch, melt or burst through steel plating of any reasonable thickness. Modern armour is a highly complex creation, which may involve ceramic layers to spread the heat of certain types of anti-armour projectiles away from the point of impact, or “reactive armour” which explodes outwards when struck by a shell or missile, the explosion countering the inwards exploding force of the weapon; or combinations of these and other complex systems. No armour is completely invulnerable, of course; both armour and weapons are constantly “evolving” in the labs of defence scientists, each trying to defeat the other.

Then, apart from the armour and the main gun, there are other subsystems. For example, the tank commander, driver and the gunner need to know about the battlefield if they are to function efficiently while locked up inside the tank. Therefore they need proper sights to steer, locate targets and threats, aim, evade return fire, etc, by day or night, and in all sorts of weather conditions. They need to communicate efficiently with other tanks to co-ordinate operations. They need to be able to cross rivers and canals if the bridges are down. And so on.

Right. So there we have some idea of what the designers of the MBT 80, the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation(DRDO) would be looking to create when they took up the challenge in 1972. And by the standards of the time, when tanks were still not particularly complex beasts, it shouldn’t have been that much of a job.

Let’s remember that the tank (soon to be renamed the Arjun, after one of the main characters of the Indian epic the Mahabharata) was supposed to be the main battle tank of the army in the eighties. Yet the first prototype was produced only in 1984, and unveiled publicly the following year. Some more prototypes were built during the following years, by which time the programme was already running so far behind schedule that the army had long since inducted the T72M1 to replace the T55 and Vijayanta.

Before I continue: I shall, for the purposes of this article, assume that the Indian armed forces actually need a main battle tank. This is contrary to what I personally believe, which is that with zero possibility of a full-scale war (the only scenario in which tanks can be employed) for reasons I have discussed earlier, large armoured formations are large herds of white elephants. But if we assume the army needs tanks, obviously, it’s the best judge of what kind of tank it ought to have. Right? on.

The prototype Arjun the DRDO produced was something that ended up looking rather like the earlier models of the German Leopard 2 tank, with a huge flat-sided turret, a broad hull, and a 120 mm main gun, which was rifled rather than smoothbore (the standard for today's MBTs) - a half-assed justification for the rifled barrel is given in the DRDO propaganda piece I've linked to at the end of this article.

It carried four crewmen – including a loader in place of the autoloader mechanism used by the T72M1 – and in terms of weight approached 60 tons, well over the limits demanded by the army. As I said earlier in the article, the heavier a tank is, the greater the problems associated with mobility. Most Indian roads and bridges, in particular, can’t deal with weights over 40 tons. The 120mm rifled main gun proved to be highly inaccurate, and the engine the DRDO promised never came into being. So a German engine was fitted – and that overheated and failed repeatedly in the conditions encountered in the Indian desert, which is the only real tank country in the subcontinent.

There were other problems the army pointed out, some so basic that one wonders what the designers were thinking about. For instance, the driver was seated in the front of the hull in a compartment separate from the rest of the crew and with no direct access to them. He entered and exited by a hatch of his own...and when the gun pointed forward, the turret overhang stopped the driver from opening the hatch. In an emergency, unless the turret was slewed to the side, he was effectively trapped.

Another gem was the positioning of the anti-aircraft machine gun on the turret roof. It was supposed to be operated by the loader, to “free the commander of this additional responsibility.” All very fine...until you remember that the loader was responsible for loading the main gun. Obviously, if he’s busy shooting at planes, he can’t load the gun, so if there’s an air attack, the main gun’s out of action for the duration. Duh.

[This might be the moment to discuss the loader vis-a-vis the autoloader mechanism. An autoloader, used by most recent Soviet/Russian origin tanks, the French Leclerc, the Swiss Stridsvagn 103 ( a turretless design), and the Pakistani/Chinese Al Khalid, develops a much higher rate of fire than a manual loader crewman who has to select and load shells one by one, by hand. On the other hand, having an extra crewman available allegedly makes maintenance easier and less fatiguing. But in the context of a modern army, and most modern armies aren’t exactly brimming over with volunteers, a smaller crew makes more sense because it utilises manpower more efficiently. Besides, a fourth crewman means that the tank has to be larger in order to accommodate him and makes a larger target (the loader has to have the maximum room available of all the crew, since he has to move around to access the ammunition racks and the tank gun’s breech). The T72M1 the army was using already had an autoloader and there was no particular reason the Arjun couldn’t have had one too...if the designers had wanted. But what with everything else failing, perhaps it’s as well that they didn’t try making an autoloader as well. It might have got up to all kinds of nasty mechanical mischief.]

Then there was the engine. In order to cool down the engine enough so it didn’t overheat, the DRDO engineers installed two large, bulky, and not terribly effective cooling packs. There wasn’t space in the engine compartment for them, so they were installed on the rear deck, behind the turret. Wonderful...until one realised that they prevented the tank gun from pointing level or depressing when the turret was turned round.

As for the armour, it’s something called Kanchan, which means “gold”. Nobody seems to know precisely what it’s capable of, but I read way back in 1987 that it was already dated. I scarcely think it’s suddenly taken a giant leap into modernity since then.

There were many other problems, with the sights, which malfunctioned, and the tracks, which wore out quickly, and the fact that the internal temperatures during desert operations reached 55 degrees Celsius, not precisely the best conditions under which to operate for prolonged periods. The tank also happened to be so wide as to project beyond the standard railway flatbeds used to transport armour. So new flatbeds would have to be constructed to transport it, in sufficient numbers to be able to shift the tank swiftly to any necessary theatre of operations. And this indigenous tank still has about 60% of its equipment and fittings sourced from outside the country. That, um, would seem to defeat the very purpose of having an indigenous tank.

And meanwhile, the cost of the project went up, and up, and up – already, to over twenty times the initial projected cost. To this day the problems pointed out by the army haven’t been solved, but the DRDO doesn’t seem interested in solving them. The tank has repeatedly, and miserably, failed in user trials, but it still hasn’t been scrapped, even though in the words of a brigadier who was closely associated with its development, “The Arjun tank has no future. It still cannot fire straight. The T-90, a far superior tank, can kill the Arjun. We would not cross any border with these tanks.”

So what is the DRDO’s reaction to the tank’s repeated failure? There’s a peculiar feature of Indian-designed machinery, be it cars or planes or anything; they are – officially – always “one of the best” in the world. There’s never a word, of course, on which is actually the best, or in what way the Indian item qualifies as “one of the best”; it just is. So it is with the Arjun; the tank is “one of the best in the world”...because the DRDO says so, in trasparent propaganda pieces (see "further reading", below, for a link to one). If it failed its user trials, it’s because, hold your breath, the army’s crews are deliberately sabotaging it.

That’s right. Sabotage!!! The same soldiers who would, in the event of war, put their lives on the line, are deliberately sabotaging a superior piece of equipment at the orders of who knows who in order to import an inferior product. Kafka would love these people. They must have some kind of collective death wish.

But at the same time there’s the fact that deeds speak louder than words, and the deed, in this case, is that the army is replacing its tank fleet, not with the Arjun, but with the Russian T90S, and upgrading its T72M1s to the more advanced T72S standard. The government has arm-twisted the army into buying 124 of the Arjuns – two regiments – but these are, the army has itself declared, meant purely for evaluation and training; and it has stated that it will place no further orders. (Meanwhile, the Chinese/Pakistani Al Khalid tank, of much more recent design, is already in service with the Pakistani army.)

Facts, as I said, speak louder than words.

The story of the (by now 37 year old) Arjun fiasco is absolutely typical of DRDO and the Indian defence industry in general; the taking up of an overambitious project, massive delays and cost overruns, the creation of a shoddy product which is forced on to the military for “patriotic reasons”, the claims that the said product is “among the best in the world”, and the military, meanwhile, purchasing what it needs from abroad, from fighter aircraft to assault rifles and anti-aircraft missiles. I could mention the Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas, for instance, which has been in development almost as long as the Arjun; and the Akash missile, and so on, and on, and on. But what’s the point?

The story has been repeated over and over, and yet nobody seems ever to learn.

(Note to reader: Yes, I love tanks. So does Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden. Yes, I love Iron Maiden.)

Further Reading: (A DRDO propaganda piece)

No comments:

Post a Comment