The Army recently floated an RFI seeking prospective vendors to procure around 350 light tanks under the Make in India initiative. Though news reports have indicated that these are aimed at sharpening the capability edge in the mountains, the RFI does not specifically state so. The RFI is indicative that the planners are seeking a platform that can execute operations in varying terrain conditions across diverse threat and equipment profile of the adversary. They are also looking at overseas deployment capability. In short, a weapon platform is a kind of a Wunderwaffe or superweapon.
For years the Army has failed to understand the critical need to develop bespoke weapons that perform as permission needs. Typically a new platform is acquired either to address a capability gap or fulfil the needs of a new warfighting doctrine. The current lot of tanks and ICVs that have been placed at the LAC were designed for missions in Western Europe; primarily the race to the Rhine. The Egyptians realized that these systems were not suitable for operations in their environment in the seventies and made the shift. Even the PLA has fielded bespoke systems engineered for combat at the LAC. Two of the most talked-about systems are Type 15 light tanks and ZBL 09 a wheeled light tank. ZBL 09 reflects a revolutionary change in the employment of weapon platforms in mountains.
Type 15 even with its derated power to weight ratio of over 20 in areas like Depsang and Demchok will prove to be more agile than T90 and T72 with depleted power to weight ratios of 10-12. These will be more like lumbering machines, at the mercy of adversary`s precision fires. It is important that tracked vehicles deployed at the LAC are upgraded on a war footing with suitable altitude compensation systems, power units and situational awareness systems to remain agile. As an immediate measure, upgrading the BMP mobility and sighting systems could provide an effective solution to plug capability gaps and manage risk in the interim; being the lightest in the clan it can emerge as a versatile fighting machine that can greatly enhance the staying power of Infantryman. One needs to study events preceding the battle of Rezangla in 1962 to understand this point.
The qualitative requirements of the light tank need to be framed in light of the lessons learnt during the current deployment and 1962 war. The Army may be looking for a one size fits all solution, because it realizes that future military operations could range from peacekeeping to irregular warfare to major combat operations involving conventional combat against a well-equipped adversary. Different combat operations put different demands on combat vehicles, particularly from the survivability angle; the type of weapons that may be fired at the vehicle and the direction from which these strike the vehicle. Mountainous terrains offer a distinct advantage in this regard to troops occupying heights. Therefore, it would be prudent to first address operational vulnerabilities and performance capability gaps that have been identified during the current standoff at the LAC. This is because the threat across the LAC is substantial and multi-domain such as time, mission, space, cyber, electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) with the employment of disruptive technologies and techniques. A weapon system designed against such a threat will have to be fortified against both kinetic and non-kinetic attacks to survive and deliver an operational capability. Sadly, one does not find mention of such requirements in the RFI. Instead, once again an attempt is being made to arm the tank with as many fancy attributes as possible. All this will at a heavy cost and time overruns. It needs to be understood that the light tank is not a do-all and end-all tool and cannot be developed for all contingencies.
The Army could first work on a platform for conventional, short to mid duration infantry predominant combat missions in ultra-high altitudes that are designed for failure-free operations. It needs to be engineered around a typical complex mission that a combat team may be required to perform to support infantry or to destroy enemy forces comprising armoured and motorized troops. Designing a system for high altitude warfare needs a different set of criterion as compared to other terrains. The mobility requirements are different due to power loss, missiles control goes awry as discovered by Russian designers during Kornet E trials. Even modern electronic systems behave erratically as the Americans learnt during the deployment of weapon locating radars. In short, there is no field of technology that will not get affected in such hostile territory. It is usually referred to as the Age, Usage and Deployment effects. In addition, one has to take into account the disruptive capabilities of the adversary. Therefore, the light tank will have to be specifically designed and developed for employment as a mission system in ultra-high altitudes operating in an expansive, lethal and hyperactive battlefield. . On numerous occasions foreign know-how that has come after multibillion-dollar payouts have not worked “as it is“ in India. This lesson has been learnt repeatedly but never corrected, because of the absence of institutional memory.
The need therefore is to define the quality requirements (QRs) based on performance needs on ground. It would be useful to adopt a layered and incremental development strategy. Level 1 should include QRs that have to be provided in the first prototype and are vital for mission effectiveness in mountains against platforms deployed by PLA. Level 2 could include QRs that need to be included in the first prototype though not in a fully mature state. Level 3 could include those QRs that are more relevant for operations in deserts, plains, islands, etc. As an example the mobility system could offer a power to weight ratio above 30 at mean sea level, so as to get good physical agility in high altitudes.
It needs to be taken for granted that the light tank will have to operate in a contested EMS and hence onboard electronics has to be hardened, possess inherent redundancies with electro-optic protective measures. The main Ordnance needs to be Indian and ultra-reliable, unlike the 125 mm gun system in use currently in medium tanks. It may be a good idea to integrate a re-engineered 105 mm gun in the interim and an optimized 120 mm low recoil gun system later, both are Indian systems and have proven to be effective. DRDO could commence work on optimizing these designs along with a reliable weapons module. Alongside, there is a requirement to develop new generation high-performance ammunition employing Insensitive Munitions technology for greater safety.
The tank has to be designed with increased survivability and sustained performance to be able to fulfill specific mission needs and operational tempos. Unlike the AMX light tanks which could not be employed during the battle of Rezangla in 1962 due to systemic malfunctions, the new platform has to be fail safe and remain in a Ready to Fight condition 24×7; not easy given that one year`s exploitation in HAA can be equated to around 5 years in plains as far as mission reliability degradation is concerned. The light tank must possess the ability to function in a purely mechanical mode in case of malfunctions in electronic systems.
It is a common saying that tracks are for deserts and wheels are for mountains. It is obvious, as mountains offer very limited trafficability for tracks and can disrupt lines of communications if immobilized on passes and narrow stretches. A wheeled combat vehicle can be easily pulled aside to clear the route. It would be of great operational consequence if the light tank is developed in two versions; a wheeled tank destroyer cum bunker buster and a tracked platform to increase the bandwidth of employment. This combination can effectively match the mix of light and medium tanks that the adversary has mobilized at the LAC. The wheeled tank can be employed to destroy enemy armour and combat vehicles from vantage points and also provide direct fire support to Infantry. It needs to be ultra-modular so that it can be transported and assembled anywhere on those icy slopes. One needs to revisit the infantry assault on Zojila pass in Nov 1948 and the innovative work of EME that enabled the use of Stuart tanks in the direct firing role. Being simpler in design the tank destroyer can be engineered for high reliability and enduring duty cycles.
It is time that the Army focuses on developing home grown systems to meet the peculiar operational requirements of mountain warfare. For long it has relied on acquiring and fielding imported systems not engineered for combat in such difficult terrains, often extracting sub optimal performance resulting in large casualties. Non availability of the AMX light tank resulted in massive loss of lives at Rezangla in 1962 and frequent stoppages in artillery systems constrained the Infantry to suffer heavy losses during Kargil war. It is time the gallant Indian soldier and junior combat leaders are provided with bespoke weapons that do not encounter barrel burst, stoppages, malfunctions or gasp for oxygen while operating in ultra-high altitudes. Instead, these should provide a distinct capability edge to launch composite responses on the adversary.