Rediff.com – News-Special Part- III
‘DRDO took up Arjun before it learnt to make tanks’
Some 20 years ago, the defence ministry entrusted the DRDO with two projects: the development of a battle tank and a multi-barrel rocket launcher system.
The DRDO called the former, assigned to it in 1974, Arjun, and the latter Pinaka.
Two-plus decades later, the Arjun is considered a major failure. And so is the Pinaka. The Indian army found the latter passed only seven of its 29 requirements.
Defence experts allege that DRDO continues to work on Arjun and Pinaka just to keep its laboratories open.
“The Arjun main battle tank is not world class and has failed to meet the required levels of accuracy. But DRDO is keeping it alive because it does not want its factories to close down,” says Major General (retd) Ashok Mehta.
Experts like Major General Mehta feel the Arjun could have been a tank with potential if DRDO had got its act together. But the premier defence research organisation continues to exert pressure on the army to accept a limited series of production for the Arjun.
Army officers say it is politics and not the tank’s potential that is at work in the defence ministry, which last year placed orders with the Avadi Ordinance Factory to manufacture 124 Arjun tanks.
“I am happy to inform you that not only is the army satisfied with the Arjun tank’s performance, but it has placed an order for 124 more such tanks,” Defence Minister George Fernandes had told Parliament. “With this India has achieved the capability for indigenous manufacture of battle tanks.”
Army officials, however, say no other defence agency in the world must have spent 25 years and Rs 3.5 billion on developing a tank that has failed to perform.
“We have wasted money and time in producing a tank that is just not a world class product these days,” an army officer in Hyderabad says.
Insiders say the army was not “satisfied with the Arjun’s performance” as Fernandes claimed, but was coerced to accept it by the DRDO.
N K Mohan Pillai, a retired army officer who witnessed the Arjun trials, says the tank lacked three vital strengths. First, its engine is weak. Second, its suspension needs permanent maintenance. Third, its gun control is not accurate enough to obtain first round kill probability.
“In fact, the main problem was that DRDO took up the Arjun project before learning how to make tanks,” Pillai remarks.
In 1994 when DRDO announced that the Arjun tank was ready for production, then army chief General B C Joshi witnessed the trials. He sent a note to the DRDO and the defence minister saying the tank fails to meet standards and therefore was unacceptable. General Joshi then laid down a dozen imperatives that DRDO should take to improve upon the tank.
General Joshi’s main concerns were that the tank that weighs 57 tonnes lacked armour protection and vital suspension for crew comfort and gunfire accuracy.
But DRDO, which has showcased the Arjun as its finest indigenous product, claims that the problem is not with the tank, but with the army.
“The army is used to handling only T-72 tanks. For the soldiers who have fired T-72 tanks, operating the Arjun is a gigantic task. So we have told the army to train their crew before accusing us of inferior production,” a DRDO engineer says.
Despite DRDO’s claims, many in the army believe that the 124 Arjun tanks will drain the exchequer just like the multi-barrel rocket launching system Pinaka did.
In 1999 the Comptroller and Auditor General severely indicted DRDO for its failure to develop critical components for Pinaka after spending Rs 424.5 million on the project.
The defence ministry had entrusted DRDO with the Pinaka project in 1980. The deadline given was 1994. Twenty years later DRDO is nowhere near finishing. The war heads and all the three vehicles necessary for launching the rockets are yet to be developed by DRDO. Against the requirement of eight types of warheads, only three have been developed. Of this, one is not acceptable to the army and the other is only a dummy.
“The delay in the development of the EWPinaka has compelled the army to depend on our existing 20 kilometre-range system even during Kargil conflict. The DRDO is entirely responsible for this,” charges an army officer.
According to experts, the Pinaka system has met just seven of the 29 requirements of the army during trials. The indigenous rocket launcher lacks the promised range, fire power, loading time of the salvo and deployment time.
These, however, are “minor problems” according to DRDO.