On Thursday (3 March), the Ministry of Defence accorded in-principle approval for the indigenous design and development of light tanks.
The Indian Army had floated the idea of acquiring light battle tanks after China deployed its Type-15 light tank (also known as the ZTZ-15 or VT5) in eastern Ladakh during the military standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), forcing India to airlift additional main battle tanks used in the high-altitude region C-17 and Il-76 transport aircraft.
However, the T-90 and T-72 main battle tanks deployed by India in high-altitude areas along the LAC face significant operational challenges due to rarefied air with low oxygen levels and sub-zero temperatures. The tough conditions in high-altitude areas like eastern Ladakh severely limit the performance of armoured platforms. Just to keep the tanks operational, the army uses special lubricants and turns up the engines twice every single night so that the tanks’ subsystems do not freeze.
In comparison, light tanks will be more agile and easy to deploy in high-altitude areas along the LAC due to their relatively lower weight.
To avoid these limitations, the army issued a request for information (RFI) in April 2021 for the procurement of 350 light tanks weighing less than 25 tonnes. The light tank, it said, is to be procured "under the 'Make-in-India' ethos of the Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) — 2020".
The in-principle approval for the project has been granted under Make-I, or “government funded” project category. According to DAP 2020, projects involving "design and development of equipment, systems, major platforms or upgrades thereof by the industry" are covered under this category. The DAP document says that the government "will provide financial support upto 70 per cent of prototype development cost or maximum ₹ 250 crores per Development Agency."
The approval comes just weeks after the government, in the budget for 2022-23, said that 25 per cent of the Research and Development budget for the defence sector has been reserved for industry, startups, and academia to push greater private sector involvement in defence manufacturing.
Reports suggest that Larsen and Toubro (L&T) is the front runner for this project as it has built K-9 Vajra self-propelled howitzers at its armoured system complex at Hazira in Gujarat with technology transfer from South Korean defence major Hanwha Defense. Along with the Defence Research and Development Organisation, L&T is working on modifying the K-9 into a light tank by mounting a gun on its chassis, news reports say.
India could soon place a repeat order worth over Rs 10,000 crore for 200 more K-9 Vajra howitzers, India Today reported in January.
Hanwha Defense has also said that it is willing to jointly produce the K21-105 light tank with L&T for the Indian Army.
“Hanwha Defense will discuss with its Indian partner the level of technology as required under the Make in India policy,” the Hanwha Defense spokesperson told Janes in February this year.
Tanks In Ladakh
In the 1990s, the IAF had airlifted 30 T-72 tanks from Agra to Leh for deployment in eastern Ladakh. This region has seen multiple Chinese transgressions over the last two decades. In the 1990s, however, local army commanders thought the tanks were of little use. They were dismantled and flown back to the mainland using Il-76 aircraft of the IAF’s 25 Squadron.
This was reversed in 2014, when the IAF’s C-17 aircraft, capable of carrying 40-70 tonnes up to a distance of 4,200 to 9,000 km in a single hop, took off from the Chandigarh Air Base with dismantled tanks.
The move was part of a plan to beef up the presence of mechanised forces in high-altitude areas, both in the eastern and western sectors of the LAC.
While mechanised warfare has traditionally been associated with the plains, there are regions in Ladakh, mostly in its eastern part, where such forces can be deployed and the firepower that they bring to bear exploited.
In the event of a war, tanks will be used to defend the flat top approaches, from Tibet towards Leh, such as those near Chushul and Demchok. The flat terrain in this region, strategists say, allows the use of mechanised forces.
Over the years, China has built a network of motorable roads in the region, which in turn is linked to the G219 Highway (connecting Lhatse and Xinjiang) passing through occupied Aksai Chin, making it easier for the People’s Liberation Army to patrol the region and pour in troops from the mainland.
"With tanks, we can cross the Demchok funnel (where Indus enters India) and intercept the highway in case of hostilities," Major General (retd) Sheru Thapliyal, former commander of the Ladakh-based 3rd Infantry Division, said in 2016.
While few know that there are areas in Ladakh where tanks can move, even fewer know that India has actually used tanks against China in the region.
During the 1962 war with China, the IAF had airlifted tanks to Chushul in south-eastern Ladakh right under the nose of the enemy. Antonov An-12 transport aircraft of IAF’s 44 Squadron, inducted just months ago in 1961, had moved six AMX-13 tanks of the 20 Lancers to Chushul.
In Chushul lies one of the main approaches that China can use for an offensive into Ladakh. Indian posts around Chushul are critical for controlling these approaches from Tibet towards roads and valleys leading to Ladakh.
As a result of the firepower that tanks brought to bear in Chushul, China paid dearly for every inch of land it captured in Ladakh. Its war machine suffered far more damage in the Western theatre than it did in the North-East Frontier Agency (now known as Arunachal Pradesh).
By some accounts, the tanks acted as a deterrent and contributed to stemming further Chinese adventurism in the region.
Brigadier Amar Cheema, in his book The Crimson Chinar: A Politico Military Perspective, notes that the tanks accomplished their task of deterring the enemy.
“The artillery, armour, services, and the Air Force can all be proud of the Battle of Chushul, and it can be counted as one of the most fiercely fought battle of the war, and one where Indians, working in synergy blunted the Chinese attack successfully,” Cheema writes, adding that the “armour acted as a tonic in more ways than plugging the Spanggur Gap. Tanks gave the men hope”.
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