DRDO offers two options to develop an Indian light tank

Last July, the Indian Ministry of Defence fast-tracked the emergency purchase of light tanks to counter possible attacks by over 20,000 Chinese troops poised on the Ladakh border along with tanks, artillery, air defence and road construction units, Ajai Shukla reports in Business Standard.
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T-90S Bhishma, a too heavy tank for mountain, forested and other difficult areas (Picture source: Army Recognition)

To eliminate the costly and time-consuming import of light tanks, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) has developed plans for building an indigenous light tank for use in mountains and in jungle terrain.

Arrayed on the Ladakh border is the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) new light tank, the small, agile and versatile ZTQ 105 – also known as the Type 15 tank. To counter these, India’s Ladakh garrison has just three tank regiments with a total of 150 old T-72 tanks that, with their some 42 tonnes, are designed for the plains. Movement on mountain roads is slow and often impossible. Given the limited elevation and depression of its heavy gun, the T-72 cannot engage targets on hilltops and in valleys.

Let’s remind that Indian, British and U.S. troops used light tanks in their fight against the Japanese in Northeastern India and Burma during World War 2, the light tank being the U.S.-made M3/M3A1 Stuart delivered in the framework of the extraordinary Lend-Lease Act signed in 1941. They also used M3 Grant medium tanks and, later, M4 Sherman medium tanks, also supplied by the U.S. In 1948 these same Shermans pushed back Pakistan forces in the Zojila pass. Against China in 1962, the army used French-made AMX-13 light tanks in the battle of Gurung Hill near Pangong Tso and also deployed them in Bomdila and Dirang in Arunachal Pradesh. In the 1971 Bangladesh campaign, French AMX-13 and Soviet PT-76 amphibious tanks played a stellar role in the battle of Garibpur.

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U.S.-made M3A1 Stuart (foreground) and M4 Sherman (background) of the British and Indian troops having fought the Japanese in India and Burma, now displayed in Yangoon (formerly Rangoon) (Picture source: Alain Henry de Frahan)

Hence, Business Standard learns the DRDO has short-listed two options for developing an indigenous light tank within 18 months. Both these involve combining the DRDO’s tank development expertise created while developing the Arjun tank, with the defence manufacturing capability of companies such as Larsen & Toubro that are already building the K9 Vajra self-propelled gun system.

The first option involves creating a 34-35-tonne tank by fitting a 105mm John Cockerill turret onto a K-9 Vajra hull, powered by a 1,000 hp MTU engine optimised for high altitudes. DRDO sources say this hybrid tank could go into production within 18 months.

The second option retains the K-9 Vajra hull and MTU engine, but matched with the gun turret of the T-90S Bhishma tank that the army already uses. This 38-tonne tank would also require 18 months for going into production.

Larsen & Toubro is assembling the K-9 Vajra under licence from South Korea and will deliver its current order by next year. If the K-9 Vajra chassis is to form the basis for an Indian light tank, it would have to extend that licence.

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K9 Vajra self-propelled howitzer (Picture source: Army Recognition)

The DRDO is confident that either of these hybrid tanks would be better options than what the MoD is considering buying: the Russian Sprut SDM1. They point out that the Sprut is a tank destroyer with old technology and that no other country has bought it. Since the Russian army has bought only 24 Spruts, it is not in regular production, making it hard to meet early delivery schedules and Russia would have to be approached for spares, overhaul and future upgrades.

The DRDO has earlier attempted to develop light tanks, but there was never any real interest from the army. In the 1980s, the DRDO integrated the chassis of the Soviet BMP-1 infantry combat vehicle with a 105mm gun, but the army was not interested. Next, the DRDO mounted a French GIAT TS-90 turret and a 105mm gun on the BMP chassis, which the Ordnance Factory Board was building in Odisha. Again the army was indifferent and the project was shelved. In 2009, the army’s interest in light tanks was renewed with the sanction of two armoured brigades for high altitude operations alongside the mountain strike corps. The army issued a request for information (RFI) in 2009, but eventually T-72 tanks were deemed adequate and the RFI was abandoned.

Now, there is fresh interest with the possibility of encountering the Chinese new ZTQ 105 light tank. The VT5, also named Type 15 or ZTQ-15 in the Chinese army, is a lightweight battle tank designed and manufactured by NORINCO (China North Industries Corporation). The VT5 was unveiled to the public during the Zhuhai AirShow China in November 2016. According to NORINCO engineers, the VT5 was developed for the export market. The VT5 has a weight from 33 to 36 tons depending on the armor fitted to the tank. With this weight, the tank offers more mobility than a standard main battle tank offering the same level of firepower. The power-to-weight ratio is between 27 and 30 hp/ton depending on the armor package. This tank can be used in mountain areas and operate in terrains that are inaccessible to standard main battle tanks weighing around 50 tons. The VT5 features good battlefield awareness, strong information capabilities and high maneuverability. It is suitable for modern joint operations, according to NORINCO. On December 27, 2018, the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense Wu Qian announced that the new Type 15 lightweight tank was commissioned by China's army. Type 15 was shown for the first time to the public during the military parade rehearsal for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 2019. According to information published in December 2019, the Bangladesh Ministry of Defense officially announced that its army has ordered VT5 light tanks from China.