High-altitude battle tanks | Light on their tracks

The high-altitude stand-off with China has forced the Indian Army to recognise the need for light tanks. A new project to design and build armoured vehicles for the Himalayan frontier is waiting for the go-ahead

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An Indian T90 Bhishma tank near the LAC in the Chumar-Demchok area of Eastern Ladakh; (Photo: ANI)

After the last round of the corps com­mander-level meeting recently, the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China have agreed to pull back (or disengage) from the Gogra-Hot Springs area, one of the flashpoints in eastern Ladakh. But real peace on the icy heights of the Himala­yas will remain elusive until both sides agree to de-inducting forces amassed close to the border to the pre-April 2020 position. The 28-month-long military standoff has posed multiple challenges for both sides. For Indian forces, the experience has been a wake-up call on the need for some critical weaponry. At the top of the list are light tanks, something entirely missing from India’s inventory, since Indian armour is meant to operate on the plains. The Chinese, for their part, have deployed light tanks designed for high-altitude operations on their side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The PLA’s Type 15 ‘Black Panther’ light tank, also known as ZTQ-15, is a Chinese third-generation light tank that made its appearance in Ladakh.

After the last round of the corps com­mander-level meeting recently, the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China have agreed to pull back (or disengage) from the Gogra-Hot Springs area, one of the flashpoints in eastern Ladakh. But real peace on the icy heights of the Himala­yas will remain elusive until both sides agree to de-inducting forces amassed close to the border to the pre-April 2020 position. The 28-month-long military standoff has posed multiple challenges for both sides. For Indian forces, the experience has been a wake-up call on the need for some critical weaponry. At the top of the list are light tanks, something entirely missing from India’s inventory, since Indian armour is meant to operate on the plains. The Chinese, for their part, have deployed light tanks designed for high-altitude operations on their side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The PLA’s Type 15 ‘Black Panther’ light tank, also known as ZTQ-15, is a Chinese third-generation light tank that made its appearance in Ladakh.

Now, in an effort named Project Zorawar, the Indian Army will remedy this glaring absence, pushing for the development of indigenous light tanks for faster deployment and easy manoeuvrability in high-altitude areas, and pressing the Union ministry of defence for faster approval. India, in fact, has one of the largest stables of armoured hardware in the world, with 4,300 tanks and 8,700 armoured vehicles. However, the army admits that its heavier tanks, like the Russian-origin T-72, weighing 45 tonnes, and the T-90, which weighs around 46 ton­nes—both of which have been pressed into service in Ladakh—are not meant for high-altitude deployment. India’s main battle tank Arjun is heavier still and can’t be deployed on the China border because the 68-tonne monster is designed to counter the thr­eat from Pakistan on the deserts or plains.

In the past, the Indian army has made effective use of light tanks in Ladakh—Stuart Mark 6 light tanks were decisive in the battle of Zojila in 1948 and the French-built AMX light tanks played a dramatic role in restricting China’s advance in the western sector in 1962. In later years, however, the focus shifted entirely to heavy tanks as tensions on the Himalayan frontier with China receded for several decades.

Major General Birender Dhanoa (retired), an armoured corps officer, says that with increasing clashes with the PLA across the LAC, the Indian army realised a light tank would best meet the need to counter the growing Chinese threat and have an effective fighting platform of its own. But the current world inventory for light tanks is very limited. Worse, the available options are not optimal for high altitudes.

Dhanoa points out that from the 1960s till the mid-1980s, India did have light tanks such as the AMX-13 and PT-76 in its arsenal. But an ageing light tank fleet, a fixation with the threat from the West and a desire to modernise as well as reduce/ do away with holdings of old equipment saw the Indian armour in the late 1980s and 1990s focus on only a few medium tanks such as the Vijayanta, T-55 and T-72. The army favoured main battle tanks (MBTs) while focusing on the plains of Punjab and deserts of Rajasthan as the theatres of decision in future wars. In the mid-1980s, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) did experiment, replacing the turret of the Soviet-desi­gned BMP infantry combat vehicle (ICV) with a 105mm gun but, with the army indifferent to it, the project was eventually terminated in 1994. The DRDO designed another light tank based on the same licence-built ICV chassis, by mounting it with a French GIAT TS-90 turret and a 105mm gun. Firing and stability trials were conducted, but once again, the army’s disinterest saw the project being shelved. An aluminium alloy light tank was also designed by the DRDO but met the same fate as the army doctrine was focused on heavier tanks. The light tank programme of the Indian Army was finally shelved in 2009.

Military analysts point out that it wasn’t just the Indian army that was myopic in its vision for light tanks. The world over, light tanks were largely ignored for several decades. It was only later that the wars in Chechnya, the Gulf and Syria proved that MBTs required the support of lighter tanks. Light tank programmes were thus hastily revived. In some cases, they went back to the drawing board; in others, existing platforms were revived or modified to meet the need. In the US too, the Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) programme recently placed an order for nearly a hundred new GDLS Griffin II light tanks.

In India, the wheel came full circle, according to military observers, when the PLA first deployed its Type 15 light tank, weighing 35 tonnes, on the border with Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh in 2018, shifting the balance of power in China’s favour in such tactical high altitude battlefields. “China was secretly developing it, and the world only came to know about it in 2018,” says a defence scientist. An export variant of this tank called VT5 has been sold to Bangladesh.

“Voices within the armour comm­un­ity who were vocal for a light tank and who had been kept in the backgro­und now came to the fore,” as Maj. Gen. Dhanoa puts it. To address the army’s dire need at the earliest, a twin app­roach consisting of purchasing light tanks from a reliable strategic partner (read Russia) and fast-tracking domestic procurement is being pursued. If the domestic light tank programme gets inordinately delayed, the army may acquire the newly developed Sprut SD Russian tank under the emergency procurement route.

But the army’s requirement along the 3,400-km-long LAC, the de facto border with China, will amount to some 350 light amphibious tanks. Since the government has listed light tanks under the negative list for imp­ort, the defence ministry was left with no option but to rely on Indian ind­ustry. The government has finalised the making of the light tank under the Make-I or the “government-funded” project category.

THE UKRAINE WAR HAS EXPOSED THE VULNERABILITIES OF CONVENTIONAL TANKS. THE PROPOSED 25-TONNE TANKS WILL NEED ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, INTEGRATION WITH TACTICAL DRONES AND AN ANTI-TANK ACTIVE PROTECTION SYSTEM

The urgency of the matter is shown by the fact that army headquarters has finalised its general staff quality requirements (specifications) and is now awaiting the acceptance of necessity (AoN)—the first step that will set the project rolling—from the defence ministry. The target development veh­icle should be a special purpose tank weighing less than 22/23 tonnes with a low profile, and high gun angles for the mountainous terrain and a capacity to operate in low temperature, low oxygen conditions. Given the vulnerabilities of conventional tanks that have been so conspicuously exposed in the war in Ukraine, the prospective 25-tonne tanks will need to be armed with Artificial Intelligence (AI), and an active protection system as a guard against anti-tank guided missiles. They will also have to be integrated with tactical surveillance drones to provide situational awareness, as well as with loitering munitions (missiles that stay airborne for some time, identify a target, and then strike it).

The army headquarters initiated the project in April 2021 by issuing a Request for Information (RfI). Since then, scientists of DRDO’s Combat Vehicles Research & Development Est­ablishment in Avadi (a town close to Chennai), along with Larsen & Toubro (L&T) have set to work in earnest on the design. “The project is working fine and we expect to complete the design by early next year. Development is happening as per the army’s requirements. Once approved, production will take place at L&T’s Hazira plant in Surat,” says a defence official, who did not elaborate more on the project, citing its “classified” nature.

The army’s renewed attention towards light tanks has brought hope among other private players such as Tata, Mahindra and Bharat Forge, as they are keen to be part of the project. However, the entry of more players could also delay the programme. Some believe that after signing of the contract (after prototype development and field trials) with a private firm in the next three years, the first light tank will not be rolled out before 2030. Will the high-altitude borders be quiet in the intervening years?