Appearance of large quantum of PLA armour, specially “so called” light tanks,ZTQ-15, has generated number of shock effects. The first has been belated realisation on continued relevance of tanks, especially in high altitude areas. In a recent seminar, it was proclaimed that tanks are going to become irrelevant like walkmans.
Recently, Britain decided to scrap 225 Challenger-2 tanks. An island can afford such luxury, but reality of current tank inventory — Russia (12,900), USA (6,300) China (5,900) and Pakistan (2,500) — cannot be disregarded, especially with our belligerent adversaries.
Manifestation of swarms of PLA tanks in ‘broadcasting’ mode has highlighted versatility of armour, more importantly, it’s coercive and deterrence potential. Unfortunately, double whammy of budgetary capping and dysfunctional procurement system has reduced inventory to zero sum game. There is clamour for shifting resources from western to northern borders, packaged as ‘rebalancing’. It will be appropriate to flag that in 1965 war, Pakistan surprised us with its second Armoured Division; hope review is done with due deference and history not allowed to repeat.
Second, it has triggered knee-jerk reaction to field light tanks, being touted as silver bullet. Lobbies are active to push ultra light Russian Sprut tanks (18 tons) with air dropping capability. DRDO has utilised this opportunity to revive its comatose light tank project. The harsh reality is that considering gestation of procurement/development cycle, chosen tank is unlikely to be effective in current stand-off. Third, there is no real crisis, with potent mix of medium tanks- T-72s and recently inducted T-90s; ICVs- BMP- 2s, synergised with other anti-tank platforms like attack helicopters, PLA armour can be more than matched.
Debate on light tank is vitiated by self appointed terrain experts, weighed down by status-quo mentality. They opine that light tank is not required in Ladakh and fortify their argument with premise that medium tanks will be able to be streamed through mapped avenues and BMPs will be adequate for difficult terrain. Over reliance on limited gaps and BMPs is questionable and defensive. Faced with similar challenges in Sikkim, seasoned tank drivers/commanders were justifiably accorded, primacy, as opinion makers. However, they have correctly flagged complexity of logistics, associated with fielding of additional platform.
The opening question in this debate is, can we have a tank, designed just for Ladakh? The logical answer is, we need not only light, but also ‘agile’ and versatile tank, to operate in various terrains, including Ladakh. It is important to highlight that agile tanks need to be fielded in adequate numbers, ideally 8-10 regiments, exploiting their versatility, to make it cost effective project. Platforms need to be developed as part of an eco-system and example of stymied Arjuna tank, due to limited orders, should serve as warning.
Hence, proposed tank should have utility for reconnaissance units, riverine terrain (Siliguri corridor), marshy areas (Rann), island territories and for out of area contingencies including UN. In high altitude, they can be deployed in Sikkim, Ladakh and other areas. The most crucial determinant is agility, function of engine power balanced with weight, to ensure survivability/protection, as also carry adequate lethality in terms of gun and missile firing mounts. Traditionally, light tanks were in sub 25 tonne weight class. Air portability and amphibious capability with power to weight ratio (PWR) of around 30 are critical parameters. Chinese ZTQ-15, topping 36 tonne is compromise of sorts. It has 105 mm gun, without missile firing capability and engine of 1000 HP, giving it notional PWR of 30. After factoring 20% de-rating of engines in high altitude, effective PWR drops to 24. It has resorted to extra wide tracks to reduce nominal ground pressure to enhance traffic ability and fording/wading capability.
We need to develop family of vehicles, for which the obvious starting point is to select common chassis and work on modular approach, with multiple variants (gun/missile carriers, reconnaissance and communication), customised for different roles and terrains. There is growing talk of disruptive technologies and they will certainly require agile platforms to be fielded in forward areas. Possible options are platforms like recently developed K9 Vajra SP gun or similar suitable chassis. It will be desirable, at the outset to stipulate macro requirements for an agile tank; air portable, PWR-30, gun ranging from 105 to 125 mm, missile firing capability and preferably amphibious/easy fording capability. High altitude variants should have requisite hardening in terms of pre-heating, batteries, cabling and auxiliary engines. Add-ons like extra wide tracks and rubberised track shoes are vital to minimise damage to fragile and limited communication arteries.
In the interim, we should field hardened battery of K9 Vajras, in Depsang for psychological messaging and building knowledge base. Concurrently, we need to set up facilities for retro-fitting to modernise existing armour fleet, especially by upgrading power packs, to boost agility. Another challenge is maintaining high PWR, yet ensuring sufficient protection. Besides engines, we need to invest in developing Active Protection System (APS), currently prohibitively expensive. In the interim, vanguard units and critical platforms can be equipped with APS. Bottom line is that platforms alone will not suffice as clincher is audacity to employ them imaginatively, exemplified by bouncing Meghna with PT-76s of 63 Cavalry and fielding of Stuarts across Jozila by Gen Sparrow.