The Indian Army first projected a need for a Light Tank as far back as 2009 when an RFI (request for information) was initiated to procure 300 such tanks expected to weigh 22 tons.
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The proposal languished till 2017 when the MoD asked the Army to draw up requirements for a light tank after China tested its Type-15 tank equipped with a 105mm main gun and a 1,000-horsepower engine.
In an interview with National Defense in March 2019, speaking on the Indian Army’s mechanized forces, Lt Gen AB Shivane (Retd.) revealed that the Indian Army plans to procure light tanks to counter the PLA’s deployment of Type 15 light tanks.
In February 2020, the PLA surreptitiously occupied India-claimed territory along the LAC. India responded by deploying its T-90S and T-72 main battle tanks (weighing 40 to 50 tons each) in eastern Ladakh.
The experience of deploying heavy tanks underlined the importance and urgency of procuring “much more maneuverable” and “operationally flexible” light tanks, with adequate firepower, in mountainous terrains.
In April 2021, the Indian Army (IA) issued an initial Request for Information (RFI) to vendors for the procurement of 350 new generation light tanks, less than 25-ton in weight, in a project under the Make in India with the transfer of technology (ToT).
There is an urgency to procure light tanks, and the government is in no mood to brook any nonsense that impedes the procurement or restricts India’s choices. Clearly, it is imperative to acquire light tanks and the technology to manufacture them within the country.
The leading contenders for fulfilling the IA’s light tank requirement are as follows.
Russia’s Sprut SDMI – The Sprut is an 18-ton tank with a 450-hp engine supporting a 125mm main gun – the same as the main gun on IA T-90 & T-72 tanks. Sprut is amphibious, air-droppable, and in operational service. The Sprut-SDM1 could use all the ammunition produced in India for T-72M1 and T-90S tanks.
South Korea’s Hanwha Defense’s K21-105 – This is a yet-to-be-developed proposed 25-ton tank with a 750-hp power pack. The tank would be built in India by L&T. Its turret would be Belgian.
DRDO’s Zorawar – The highlight of this tank would be its yet-to-be-built 1000-hp High Altitude Operable Power pack (Engine+Transmission). No word on its weight, gun armament, or amphibious capability. The tank is likely to be too heavy to be air-droppable.
The Russian Sprut SDMI appears ahead of the pack, but the problem is – it’s Russian! Could India defy Western pressure and procure what the IA needs urgently from Russia?
Foreign Policy Will Not Sacrifice India’s Interests
During his recent visit to the Australian capital, Canberra, India’s External Affairs minister S Jaishankar on October 10, 2022, said, “We have a long-standing relationship with Russia, and this relationship has served our interests well. We have a substantial inventory of Soviet & Russian-origin weapons.”
Explaining the rationale for India’s continued defense relationship with Russia, Jaishankar said, “This (Russian weapons) inventory grew for various reasons, including the West not supplying weapons to India for decades & seeing the military dictatorship next to us as the preferred partner.
In international politics, we make judgments reflective of our future interests and current situation.”
Russia Sweetens The Deal
Russia has shown an understanding of India’s desire for neutrality between it and the West. It is attempting to sweeten the Sprut deal for India to an extent where India would be willing to shrug off Western pressures – by offering ToT and production assistance.
“We are ready to transfer technologies and provide assistance in launching the manufacture of the tank in India,” a Rosoboronexport official told the press ahead of DefExpo 2022.
Talking of the features of the Sprut-SDM1, the Rosoboronexport official said it was the only light amphibious combat vehicle in its class having the firepower of the main battle tank and equipped with a 125 mm tank gun. “The Sprut-SDM1 can use all the ammunition produced in India for T-72M1 and T-90S tanks,” he stated.
The Sprut can cross water obstacles and fire its gun while afloat, disembark from a ship, and operate day and night on terrain — in the high mountains in conditions of thin air, at very high and low temperatures, the official elaborated.
He added that the tank has a guided missile system to defeat armored targets, including those with ERA, at ranges up to five kilometers.
The Imperative To Build Indian
Operational urgency could compel India to fulfill its immediate Light Tank requirement through foreign collaboration (either for the full system or components such as turret, engine, and transmission), but, likely, India will not abandon the DRDO’s Zorawar light tank project.
Tanks – light, medium, and heavy, Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) and gun/missile mobility platforms represent a large part of the IA’s combat capability. India needs to acquire the capability to manufacture the entire spectrum of the components that go into armored vehicles – power packs, turrets, sensors, and protective armor.
Reliance on imported armor can be toned down as soon as our capabilities mature using the import ban list mechanism.
Procurement strategies must be creative and aimed at maintaining deterrence while favoring indigenous design development and production.
Early induction of suitable weapon systems has a deterrence effect often lost on defense planners. Had the Indian Army procured light tanks soon after it felt the need for them in 2009, it is moot whether the Chinese incursions of February 2020 would have taken place.
- Vijainder K Thakur is a retired IAF Jaguar pilot. He is also an author, software architect, entrepreneur, and military analyst.
- Reach out to the author at vkthakur (at) gmail.com
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