On December 22, 2022, projects for the Indian Army valued at around Rs 85,000 crore, including light tanks, Futuristic Infantry Combat Vehicles (FICV), mounted gun systems, drones and minesweeper vessels, were cleared by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The Indian Army requires a light tank with combat weight not exceeding 25 tonne, alongside integration of cutting-edge technologies such as active protection system, all round situational awareness and tactical drones. The AON granted in December last reserves 59 of the 354 light tanks for DRDO which is developing the prototype partnering with L&T. The remaining 295 tanks are to be manufactured under the government-funded design and development project for the industry in the `Make-1’ category. The cost of acquisition of the light tank named Zorawar, is expected to be around Rs 16,000 crore. The Indian Army had strongly pitched for all 354 tanks to be produced by the private sector under the Make-1 category.
The Request for Proposal (RFP) for the project would be in a stage of finalisation. There have been news reports of various Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) offering their platforms for this project. The Indian Army should not entertain such proposals which go against the spirit of ‘Make in India’. This is because building complex systems requires a unique set of considerations to achieve success in our operating environment. The light tank is a complex system requiring integration of a number of sub-systems to deliver the required performance specific to our operating environment.
The urgent nature of the capability gap at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) necessitates a time-bound development of a platform that can operate in the higher reaches of the Himalayas with predictable reliability. The uncertain nature of the threat necessitates the adoption of a time-based capability-centric strategy. In previous armoured vehicle acquisitions, procurements for the Indian Army were based on a clearly defined threat. For instance, the Indian Army established the requirements for T-90 tanks based on the type of platforms, mainly the T-80, that were likely to be fielded across the Western borders. The light tank is not only required to counter the availability of combat systems such as the Type-15 designed to operate in hilly areas and plateaus across the LAC where heavier tanks are constrained to operate like lumbering machines, but are also needed to address critical operational capability gaps of current systems deployed along the LAC. Such gaps need to be carefully scrutinised and included as Key Performance Parameters (KPP) in the RFP.
KPPs are those characteristics of a system that are considered critical to the development of an effective military capability and make a significant contribution to mission success. For example, heavier Main Battle Tanks suffer from poor mobility in the hypoxic environment, whereas the Type-15 can operate at high altitudes with its powerful engine and oxygen generators. It is able to move at faster average speeds than heavier Main Battle Tanks due to its light weight and high power/weight ratio and hence can be made available at the point of decision in quicker time frames. One hopes that while framing the requirements, such mission engineering has been carried out. The Indian Army needs to revisit its military history and consider how availability of tanks proved to be a game changer in the capture of Zojila in 1948, and how absence of light tanks brilliantly positioned in the sector in 1962 led to the capture of Rezangla by the PLA.
The acquisition of light tanks should not be a case of acquiring a foreign system under collaboration. Else in all likelihood, it will degenerate into an activity of assembly of a tank by the private sector using imported core sub systems as was done by the public sector in the past. It needs to be taken up as an indigenous capability creation effort to architect and engineer a complex combat platform specific to our needs, possessing the required abilities to operate in the most difficult terrain and weather conditions at super high altitudes for which no foreign tank has ever been designed. An evolutionary approach has to be key factor of this effort. Evolutionary approach delivers capability in increments, recognising the need for future capability improvements.
The objective is to balance needs, available industrial capability with resources and putting a capability into the hands of the user in stages. In Stage 1, the tank could be developed as a reliable weapon platform to address operational capability gaps at the LAC. This is because operational capability gaps at the LAC are more critical in the current security landscape. Any move to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach and attempt to develop a wonder weapon that can operate in all kinds of operating environment, be it high altitude areas, plains, deserts, water bodies or woodlands will not only cause cost and time overruns, but will saddle the Indian Army with a machine with fancy attributes utilising screwdriver-grade foreign know how, that will soon create operational vulnerabilities.
The success of the strategy depends on consistent and realistic Qualitative Requirements (QRs) that are refined in stages. It has to accept a balance with the availability of local technologies and competencies and manage risks in the interim by other means. For example, during the Yom Kippur war, maximum attrition to Israeli armour was caused by the Malyutka anti-tank guided missiles and not by tanks. Such a balanced approach will lead to time-bound development and manufacture of platforms providing increasing operational capability as indigenisation progresses and system maturity is achieved. In stage 2, the system can be evolved for deployment in deserts, plains, and island territories. It is important to remember from a system or counter system heuristic that a system designed to counter a threat is seldom going to encounter such a threat. No adversary will like to engage in a clearly losing situation and hence may launch a capability surprise by deploying a radically different counter system that can become a game changer. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated this in ample measure.
A system is a complex set of dissimilar elements or parts so connected or related so as to form an organic whole where the whole is greater than the sum of parts. Fig 1 shows the technology tree of the light tank. It indicates that the platform comprises three prime systems, namely mobility, armament and survivability. Besides, there are over 40 sub-systems that have to be seamlessly integrated to deliver an equipment capability. Sub-systems are built by separate manufacturers, if 70 to 80 percent of these are built by Indian MSMEs, what a robust, vibrant manufacturing base will get created. It is here that serious capability gaps exist as there are no indigenous solution providers for even core foundational systems such as the mobility or survivability module.
A strong capability does exist in armaments and ammunition which needs to be consolidated by stipulating that indigenous ordnance will be preferred. A key job in system architecting is to define and control the interfaces with propulsion, structure, vehicle dynamics, navigation, command and control systems. Another area of focus is the reliability, maintainability, availability, affordability and accountability that are often considered superfluous, as unnecessary gold plating that causes delays. The Indian Army needs to realise that these are imperatives for the real world when system will get deployed to fight. And finally, the need to remember that the design should not become overly complex as it has been observed that the more complex a system, more parts it will have, higher the cost and higher the failure rates.
TECHNOLOGY TREE LIGHT TANK
A simple definition of systems engineering is “An approach to translate operational needs and requirements into operationally suitable block of systems.” It permeates design, manufacturing, test, evaluation and life time support of the system. The Defence Acquisition University of the United States Department of Defense, refers to it as a balanced approach to delivering a capability to the war fighter. Consideration of the following system engineering processes is sine qua non.
- Mission Engineering. An analysis of the Request for Information (RFI) of the light tank gives an impression that the Indian Army wishes to employ the platform to primarily defeat enemy armour, a fall out of the prevailing mindset that a tank was evolved to defeat a tank. The RFI states at para 2(h)…. “To defeat tanks/‘A’ vehicles, UAVs, soft skinned vehicles and PGMs”, indicating an overwhelming desire to arm it with all encompassing attributes. The light tank deployment should essentially be to establish an operational capability overmatch to rapidly engage and destroy a wide range of stationary and mobile threats at the LAC. It should have the capability to employ many types of munitions with lethal effects under all weather conditions. It should be able to provide rapid and lethal direct fires to support the assaulting infantry. With its 105mm or higher calibre main gun, the light tank should be able to support assaulting Infantrymen at close ranges of 50 to 500 metres as it happened at Zojila. It is important that the main ordnance should be of Indian design – an optimised 105 or 120mm calibre low recoil gun made locally, with ammunition stored separately from the crew, will provide strategic assurance to the war fighter. To be able to achieve this, it is worth considering to provide design documents of the Arjun and Vijayanta tank guns to the industry as an IDEX project to refine it as a modern, soft recoil armament. Finally, it should enable rapid repair of battle damage, a striking lesson that has emerged from the Ukraine war.
- Life Cycle Capability Management. The second consideration needs to be the effective sustainment of capability readiness over the life-cycle i.e. the ability to deliver an equipment capability at par with the capability possessed at the time of induction. Say, if a system had a mean kilometres between failures of 350km (mobility module) and mean rounds between failure of 200 rounds (armament module), it should be able to deliver near similar capability while in service. Here emerges the need for reset, refit and technology insertion. Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) issues find few takers in the Indian Army in the overwhelming desire to acquire superiority in weapons and munitions. Consequently, even after 20 years of deployment of a platform, one finds no urgency to initiate re-fit and reset activities. Add to it the current intransigence on the need to modernise, digitise MRO operations and preparing it for maintenance surges of the future. A systems view is essential if an operational capability is planned to be delivered effectively when the need arises.
- System Integrity. It is important to focus on creating the required ecosystem alongside the development of Zorawar. To enable this, the purchase of commercially available technologies and subsystems and its cobbling together into a platform has to be avoided. The light tank has to be an Indian design and development effort because the capability and the national will to do so, exists today. It is the gaps that need to be filled up by accessing innovative capabilities from foreign sources where required. Any attempt to encourage assembly of a foreign platform under the premise that it will be indigenised later, would be a retrograde step against the Atmanirbharta policy. Self-sufficiency in defence will come to fruition if a serious effort is made to incubate indigenous proprietary technologies that guarantee system integrity by maximising use of core technologies powered by indigenous hardware, software and algorithms. An indigenous suite of capabilities to design, develop and build an Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV) along with an understanding of how to upgrade and insert a wide range of new technologies has to be created alongside the development of Zorawar.
Building the Light Tank
It is important that the development of the light tank is taken up with a differentiation instead of treading the beaten path. The Indian Army’s stance that production of all light tanks be given to the private industry indicates a lack of confidence in DRDO’s ability to deliver. It is surprising since as on date, the DRDO happens to be the only agency with the knowledge cache to design a land system ground up; having delivered the Arjun, bridge layers, Akash, and Pinaka. The private sector neither possesses adequate AFV systems engineering, the domain and design knowledge nor the ability to design, validate and interpret the results of AFV testing. The BMP repowering project has amply demonstrated this gap. An effective approach would be to adopt a strategy of collaboration with the DRDO being the anchor institution. The industry primes be asked to submit as many digital designs as feasible. The designs are vetted by a PMG, led by the Indian Army comprising user, maintainers, scientists, SMEs and sub-system designers. Without the Indian Army leading the pack, the project will either get loaded with time and cost overruns or degenerate into the assembly of a foreign design.
After the designs are analysed in depth, the most appropriate and updated design could be selected and the entire industrial might of the nation put behind the project to bring it to fruition. The existing industrial capability in armaments, ammunition, running gear, hull and turret fabrication, integration of auxiliary systems could be supplemented by inputs from foreign suppliers of sensors, computing, robotics and optronics with the stipulation that 90 percent localisation should be achieved by the 50th platform rolled out. One can recount the approach of Israel in the development of the Merkava tank. Plans to produce an Israeli-made tank, commenced after drawing on lessons from the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
By 1974, initial designs were completed and prototypes were built. After a brief set of trials, full-time development and manufacture of the tank was taken up. The military officially adopted the tank in December 1979. The lead integrator was IMI (Government owned) with participation from both public and private entities. Technologies like power pack, communications, tracks and advanced materials were jointly manufactured with foreign collaboration. Today, more than 90 percent of the content is indigenous in Merkava 4. In case of the Arjun ARRV developed under the aegis of Corps of EME, a similar strategy was adopted as a result of which the system has been able to meet most performance requirements in a short span of six years.
In the case of Zorawar, dividing the requirement between the DRDO and the industry has impacted the economies of scale and may deter foreign firms from participating in Joint Ventures (JVs). Foreign OEMs remain worried about clearances and continuity. They may prefer to sell sub-systems and aggregates in fully formed states, adversely impacting cost effectiveness and system readiness as the Arjun experience has shown. It may be prudent to include the requirements of all variants of the light tank and even FICV through commonality of sub systems, to enlarge the total numbers to be manufactured.
A production run of 1,000-plus platforms would help stabilise system maturity and system readiness, besides enabling the creation of an indigenous eco-system that could power the development of future combat systems. A run-of-the-mill acquisition process could firstly delay or stymie the entire initiative due to claims, counter claims of competing parties. Competency and abilities-based participation of the industry will ensure a level playing field, control time and cost overruns and above all, deliver the required combat capability through team effort. Successful development of Zorawar could establish a niche for the ‘Made in India’ brand, even propelling it towards global acceptance, in keeping with the vision of the Prime Minister of India.