The outcome could decide whether the Indian Army will ride Indian tanks into future battles or continue its reliance upon a heavily criticised fleet of Russian T-72 tanks, which even the army chief admits is 80 per cent blind at night, when most tank battles occur.
The army's Bikaner-headquartered 24 Infantry Division will conduct the month-long trials in the desert expanses around Bikaner, Suratgarh and Pokhran. A squadron (14 tanks) of the Arjun will be pitted against a T-90 squadron. Both will be evaluated by day and by night, comparing their abilities to speed through rugged, sand-dune-infested terrain; to fire accurately even while moving; their abilities to operate for long periods over long distances; and the fatigue they impose on their crews.
The declared aim of the comparative trial, surprisingly, is not to identify the better tank. The army claims the T-90 is not on trial; instead, the strengths and weaknesses of the Arjun are being evaluated, to help the army decide what operational role the Arjun could play, and which sector of the border it could effectively operate in.
But the Defence Research &Development Organisationwhich has developed the Arjun tank at the Central Vehicles R&D Establishment at Chennaiinsists that if the Arjun performs well against the vaunted T-90, the army will be forced to order the Indian tank in larger numbers. Arjuns could start replacing the T-72, while the T-90 remains in service for another three decades.
So far, the army has only ordered 124 Arjuns for its 4,000-tank fleet. An incensed DRDO has long demanded comparative trials against the T-72, and the newer T-90, to prove the Arjun's quality. Trials were scheduled, and then postponed, because of a shortage of Arjun ammunition. With the ammunition now available the army, significantly, has withdrawn the T-72 from the trials.
"The army knows that the T-72 would have performed very poorly in trials against the Arjun", complains a senior DRDO officer. "Despite that, the army continues to sink money into its 2400 outdated T-72s. Any comparative trial with the T-72 would make it clear that the Arjun should replace the T-72."
But there is also concern about the subjectivity of trials involving an entire squadron in tactical manoeuvres. Major General HM Singh (retired), the father of the Arjun tank, says, "It is impossible to measure the tactical performance of 14 tanks. There are too many variables, including the skill of the tank crews and coloured perceptions of the judges. A comparative trial should be a scientific comparison of each tanks' physical performance in identical situations."
The Ministry of Defence has not responded to an emailed questionnaire from Business Standard on the comparative trials and the condition of the T-72 tank fleet.
Meanwhile, the Arjun is ready for production in larger numbers, with a production line at the Heavy Vehicles Factory near Chennai established at a cost of Rs 50 crores. Capable of producing 20 Arjuns annually, it has already equipped India's first Arjun unit, 43 Armoured Regiment. Now, a second unit, 75 Armoured Regiment, is being converted to the Arjun.
But that is as far as the army is prepared to accept the Arjun. According to the army's long-term plan, which Business Standard has accessed, no more Arjuns are planned. Instead, the army will field equal numbers of T-90s and T-72s for the next 15 years, spending thousands of crores on extending the life of the T-72.
But these trials, despite the reservations about their relevance, are the moment of truth for the Indian tank. A strong performance by the Arjun will force the army to redo its maths. Conspicuous failure, on the other hand, could cap the programme at just 124 tanks.