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T-90:The army's armour of deception

February 04, 2010 03:31 IST

On August 24 last year, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) dressed up failure as achievement when--almost nine years after India bought the T-90 tank from Russia--the first 10 built-in-India T-90s were ceremonially rolled out of the Heavy Vehicles Factory near Chennai.

No reasons were given for that delay. Nor did the Ministry of Defence reveal the T-90's ballooning cost, now a whopping Rs 17.5 crore. On November 30, 2006, the MoD told the Lok Sabha that the T-90 tank cost Rs 12 crore apiece. Parliament does not yet know about the 50 per cent rise in cost.

The story of the T-90 has been coloured by deception and obfuscation from even before the tank was procured. Business Standard has pieced together, from internal documents and multiple interviews with MoD sources, an account of how the Indian Army has saddled itself with an underperforming, yet overpriced, version of the Russian T-90.

The deception stemmed from the army's determination to push through the T-90 contract despite vocal opposition from sections of Parliament. Former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda argued--allegedly because a close associate had a commercial interest in continuing with T-72 production--that fitting the T-72 with modern fire control systems and night vision devices would be cheaper than buying the T-90. Deve Gowda correctly pointed out that even Russia's army had spurned the T-90.

To bypass his opposition, the MoD and the army reached an understanding with Rosvoorouzhenie, Russia's arms export agency. The T-90 would be priced only marginally higher than the T-72 by removing key T-90 systems; India would procure those through supplementary contracts after the T-90 entered service. Excluded from India's T-90s was the Shtora active protection system, which protects the T-90 from incoming enemy missiles. This was done knowing well that Pakistan's anti-tank defences are based heavily on missiles.

Other important systems were also pared. The MoD opted to buy reduced numbers of the INVAR missile, which the T-90 fires. Maintenance vehicles, which are vital to keep the T-90s running, were not included in the contract. All this allowed the government to declare before Parliament that the Russian T-90s cost just Rs 11 crore, while the assembled-in-India T-90s were Rs 12 crore apiece.

The MoD did not mention that these prices would rise when the supplementary contracts were negotiated. Nor did it reveal that India's pared-down T-90s barely matched the performance of the Pakistan Army's recently acquired T-80 UD tank, which India had cited as the threat that demanded the T-90.

Worse was to follow when the initial batch of 310 T-90s entered service (124 bought off-the-shelf and 186 as knocked-down kits). It quickly became evident--and that too during Operation Parakram, with India poised for battle against Pakistan--that the T-90s were not battleworthy. The T-90's thermal imaging sights, through which the tank aims its 125mm gun, proved unable to function in Indian summer temperatures. And, the INVAR missiles assembled in India simply didn't work. Since nobody knew why, they were sent back to Russia.

Even more alarmingly, the army discovered that the T-90 sighting systems could not fire Indian tank ammunition, which was falling short of the targets. So, even as a panicked MoD appealed to the DRDO and other research institutions to re-orient the T-90's fire control computer for firing Indian ammunition, Russian ammunition was bought.

With Russia playing hardball, none of the supplementary contracts have yet gone through. The TI sights remain a problem. The army has decided to fit each T-90 with an Environment Control System, to cool the delicate electronics with a stream of chilled air. None of the world's current tanks, other than France's LeClerc, has such a system. The American Abrams and the British Challenger tanks fought in the Iraq desert without air-conditioning. India's Arjun tank, too, has "hardened" electronics that function perfectly even in the Rajasthan summer.

Nor has the MoD managed to procure the Shtora anti-missile system. The Directorate General of Mechanised Forces  now plans to equip India's eventual 1,657-tank T-90 fleet with the advanced ARENA active protection system, for which it has budgeted Rs 2,500 crore in the Army Acquisition Plan for 2009-11.

The greatest concern arose when Russia held back on its contractual obligation to transfer the technology needed to build 1,000 T-90s in India. But, instead of pressuring Russia, the MoD rewarded it in 2007 with a contract for 347 more T-90s. In an astonishing Catch-22, the MoD argued that the new purchase was needed because indigenous production had not begun. 

Next month, when the T-90 is measured against the Arjun in comparative trials, the T-90s' drawbacks will not be evident. But, as officers who have operated the T-90 admit, these could be crucial handicaps in battle.

"It is for these reasons that I have consistently argued for supporting the Indian Arjun tank," says General Shankar Roy Chowdhury, former army chief and himself a tankman. "Another country can hold India hostage in many ways. We need to place an order for several hundred Arjun tanks so that economies of scale can kick in and we can bring down the price even further." If the Arjun performs strongly in next month's comparative trials around Suratgarh and Pokhran, that order could be in the offing.

Ajai Shukla in New Delhi
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