Cheap Indian tank will pound the African sands, Russia left a void

The Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) has received an order from the Indian Army for 118 units of the domestically-produced Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun, marking what could likely be the final order for this heavyweight combat vehicle. 

89 improvements to India's Arjun MK1A tank, incl auto-tracking
Phoot credit: Indian Government

The fulfillment of this order is projected to occur by 2025-26. Meanwhile, India is actively seeking potential global buyers to maintain the production of the MBT, colloquially referred to as the ‘hunter-killer.’ 

The Indian Army’s inventory presently boasts 124 Arjun MBTs, which, at a formidable 68.25 tons, rank among the heaviest tanks in the world. The current contract with the OFB is geared towards the production of 118 enhanced Mk-1A models. 

Post the agreement signed in 2021, the first batch of five MBTs is expected to be delivered to the army within a timeframe of 30 months. Subsequently, 30 MK-1As are set to be delivered annually until the remaining 113 platforms are transferred, to fully equip two armored regiments by 2025-26.

Potential buyers

“India’s investment in the Main Battle Tank (MBT) is attracting potential buyers from Africa. The production line is being maintained successfully,” a defense official explaned. However, the use of Arjun tanks is currently limited to Rajasthan’s desert region in India.

The Arjun Mk1, a 62-ton behemoth, boasts a 120-millimeter gun, advanced composite armor, a turbocharged engine generating 1,400 horsepower, and state-of-the-art fire control and thermal sights. The Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) incorporated Western design principles in developing the Arjun tanks, particularly the heavy armored protection. 

The induction of Arjun tanks into the Indian Army has propelled India into an exclusive club of 10 nations that have independently designed and developed their main battle tanks. This elite group includes the UK, France, Germany, the US, Israel, South Korea, Russia, Japan, and China. 

For African nations in need of armored tanks, the Indian tank presents a cost-effective and superior alternative. Traditionally, Russia has been the primary defense supplier to Africa. However, due to Russia’s ongoing conflict with Ukraine, a gap in the market has opened up. 

T-90 vs Arjun

If a T-72/T-90 tank runs from dust, it creates a big infrared trail
Photo credit: MWM

A revealing report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, presented to the Indian Parliament in 2014, disclosed a comparative trial between the Arjun and the imported Russian T-90 tanks conducted by the Indian Army in April 2010. The report highlighted that despite setting stricter benchmarks for the Arjun compared to the T-90, the Arjun outperformed the T-90 in several aspects. The trials were based on four key parameters—firepower, survivability, reliability, and miscellaneous issues. 

Many African nations maintain substantial tank fleets. For instance, Egypt has a reported total of 4,295 tanks, followed by Algeria with 1,195 tanks and Sudan with 465 tanks. On average, African countries maintain a battle-tank fleet of approximately 166.5 tanks. 

India’s active engagement with the African defense market is also a strategic move to counter China’s growing influence on the continent. 

Ready for export

At the DefExpo 2020, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh announced that India aims to export military hardware worth US$5 billion over the next five years, with a significant portion destined for African countries. Singh stated, “India is prepared to provide Offshore Patrol Vessels, fast interceptor boats, body and vehicle armor, Night Vision Goggles, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Dornier aircraft, and arms and ammunition to our African counterparts.” This announcement was made at the first Indo-Africa Defense Ministers’ Conference, attended by 12 African defense ministers and representatives from 38 nations. 

The conference resulted in a joint declaration advocating for increased cooperation in the defense sector, including joint ventures for the development of military hardware and software. 

Since this conference, India has extended a line of credit of approximately US$14 billion to 42 countries in the African Union. While a majority of this credit line is earmarked for infrastructure development, India has indicated a willingness to use it for defense deals as well. In early 2023, India hosted the inaugural India-Africa Army Chiefs’ Conclave in Pune. 

At this conclave, India showcased its indigenous military equipment, such as the Arjun battle tank and Pinaka rocket launchers. Indian military vehicle manufacturers, including Tata Motors and Ashok Leyland, supply various military vehicles like troop carriers, trucks, buses, and other vehicles to several African countries including Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, Djibouti, Seychelles, and Botswana.

Could Arjun emerge as contender?

When it comes to weight, the Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun matches the UK’s Challenger 2, Canada’s Leopard 2A6M, and the US’s Abrams M1A1, tipping the scales at 62.5 tons, 62.5 tons, and 67.5 tons respectively. These measurements take into account the combat-ready weight of 75 tons. 

Conceived in the 1970s, the Arjun tank project incorporated the locally designed composite blend Kanchan armor, which provides the tank with its significant weight and robust protection. However, this enhanced protection comes at the expense of tactical and operational mobility. The tank is powered by a German-made MTU water-cooled diesel engine, boasting a 1,400-horsepower. The horsepower-to-weight ratio stands at 22.5 to 1. 

While the Arjun was initially intended to replace the Soviet-built T-72 tanks, its heavyweight nature and the existing infrastructure’s incompatibility in the Western sector have prevented the Indian Army from procuring additional units. 

Significant limitation

Beyond weight considerations, the Nominal Ground Pressure (NGP) of the Arjun Tanks poses a significant limitation to its cross-country mobility. This limitation effectively precludes its deployment in Punjab and other regions that were the sites of major armored battles during the wars India waged with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. 

Bahrain seeks MBT, 120mm Arjun Mk II with Israeli ALWACS is an option
Photo credit: Tactical Report

An anonymous Indian Army official expressed concerns regarding the NGP, which is the pressure exerted on the ground during movement. “The NGP is more of a concern than the weight,” the official shared. 

It’s worth noting that most bridges across Punjab were constructed to withstand a load of approximately 50 tons. Despite the Arjun Mk-1A being equipped with wide tracks to evenly distribute its weight, its NPG of 0.85kg/cm sq makes traversing the area challenging. Additionally, its wide body hinders rail transportation. 

The Indian Army’s reluctance to induct the MBT Arjun in large quantities can be primarily attributed to the incompatible terrain and infrastructure. On the eastern front against China, which is dominated by hills and in the Andamans and Nicobar islands, the Indian Army favors lightweight tanks. 

Nevertheless, entering the African market could represent a significant victory for the MBT. “The tank has only operated in India so far. Experiencing different operational environments could lead to further enhancements of the tank,” the Indian Army official highlighted.


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