The Indian Army chief's concern that India's tank fleet was largely incapable of fighting at night highlighted only a part of the problem with the Russian T-72, the army's main tank. In fact, the T-72 is in far worse shape than General Deepak Kapoor described last month.
Another signal of the T-72's obsolescence was its recent withdrawal, by the army's Directorate General of Mechanised Forces (DGMF), from next month's comparative trials with the indigenous Arjun tank. An embarrassed DGMF has realised that, without major refurbishing, the T-72 was not in the Arjun's class.
But in the army's long-term planning, the T-72 -- which the more advanced T-90 will replace only gradually -- will continue to equip almost half of the army's 59 tank regiments as far in the future as 2022.
Business Standard has accessed a sheaf of technical reports and funding requests that actually quantify the state of the T-72. Exactly 32 years have passed since the first T-72s arrived in India; army guidelines stipulate 32 years as the service life of a tank. The earliest tanks from the army's 2,418-strong T-72 inventory should have already been retired, making way for a more modern tank, such as the T-90 or the Arjun.
Instead, the DGMF -- longstanding advocates of Russian equipment -- plans to spend Rs 5 crore per T-72, hoping to add another 15-20 years to that tank's service life by replacing crucial systems, such as its fire control system, main engine and night vision devices.
The military's Annual Acquisition Plan for 2008-2010 (AAP 2008-10) lists out the cost of modernising the T-72 fleet as follows:
The Rs 5-crore cost of upgrading each T-72 knocks out the argument that the T-72 -- at Rs 9 crore apiece -- is value-for-money. Retrofitting upgraded systems will escalate the cost of the T-72 to Rs 14 crore. In contrast, a new Arjun, with a 1,500 horsepower engine, state-of-the-art integrated electronics, and the indigenous, widely praised Kanchan armour, can be had for a marginally more expensive Rs 16.8 crore.
"It is folly to stick with Russian tanks despite having developed the Arjun, and the design capability to continuously improve it," says Lt Gen Ajai Singh, who headed the army's Directorate of Combat Vehicles before becoming Governor of Assam. "India can tailor the Arjun to our specific requirements and continuously upgrade the tank to keep it state-of-the-art. Why upgrade old T-72s? It is time to bring in the Arjun."
The T-72's galloping obsolescence is magnified by the MoD's failure to overhaul tanks on schedule: Some 800 T-72s are years overdue for overhaul. Originally, each T-72 was to be overhauled twice during its service life of 32 years. But as the overhaul agencies -- the Heavy Vehicles Factory, Avadi; and 505 Army Base Workshop, Delhi -- failed to meet their overhaul targets of 70 and 50 tanks, respectively, the army decided that one overhaul was good enough. And, with even that schedule not implemented, a desperate MoD has approached Indian industry to play a role in overhauling the T-72 fleet.
The total expenditure on the T-72 tank, budgeted for AAP 2008-10, is over Rs 5000 crore. The cost of overhaul has not been accurately determined.
Image: File photo of Indian Army's T-72 tank
Photograph: Wikipedia Commons