German hitch: Indian Arjun 1A tank faces 4-year development delay

India’s top-notch Arjun Main Battle Tank has run into a hitch with production. The latest problem comes from German company MTU, which may push back the tank’s engine production by four years. But this delay might be a good thing, as it could allow for the tank’s engine to be made locally. 

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

The Arjun Main Battle Tank is one of India’s major arms projects. The latest issue from Germany means the tank’s engines could be delayed by about four years. This is a significant setback for the tank program. Last year, India agreed to order 118 Arjun Mark 1-A Main Battle Tanks for INR 7,523 crore [$900 million]. These tanks are also known as ‘Hunter Killers’. 

The new version of the Arjun Mk-1 main battle tank is currently used by the army. The improved Arjun Mark 1-A tank has more local parts, an upgraded robust 120mm rifled gun, and superior Kanchan armor. The tanks are manufactured by the state-owned Heavy Vehicles Factory in Avadi, Chennai. However, the planned delivery of the tanks could be stalled because of an anticipated scarcity of engines. 

German engines

The tanks were supposed to be powered by German engines, but this project has hit a stumbling block due to long hold-ups by the German company. According to ANI, the German engine makers have said they need about four years to get the engines for the Arjun Mark 1A tanks up and running again. 

Some engines are already being held by the manufacturers. They will be used to build the initial set of tanks as part of the Defence Ministry’s 118-piece order. Even though the project has been pushed back, the relevant agencies are using this delay as a chance to create a local engine solution for the Arjun Mark 1A tanks. 

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

The Indian Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) is heading up this project. “The aim is to have a locally-made engine ready to go within the next three years”, DRDO says. The DATRAN 1500 engine, initially made for the Future Main Battle Tank program, is now being reworked to suit the upcoming Arjun Tanks. This new engine successfully passed its first testing phase as part of the future tank program last year.

Root causes

India had an issue before when it tried to get engines from Germany. The whole situation reminded people of a time when Germany’s government agency, BAFA, held back on sending engines for a local tank prototype, the Zorawar. This eventually led India to get tank engines from an American company, Cummins, in October 2023. At that time, Germany didn’t state why it decided to hold back engine supplies for Indian tanks. 

Germany is strict about who they sell weapons to. They consider things like human rights, regional stability, and war-torn areas. Because of these rules, countries like India might face delays or restrictions when trying to buy arms from Germany, depending on the current political and security situations. 

Experts spoke about the delay in supplying engines for India’s Arjun tanks. They suggested that there might be other reasons, like a small number of orders, issues of scale, and internal obstacles in Germany. 

Restore a supply line

Lt. Gen AB Shivane, former Strike Corps Commander, and Director General of Mechanised Forces, guessed that the “limited quantity” of orders might be why it’s taking a long time to bring the production line back to life. 

India fires a laser-guided ATGM from the 120mm gun of Arjun tank
Photo credit: DRDO

Rahul Manohar Yelwe, a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Security Studies, also talked about it. He shared that reactivating the engine production line would require the German company, MTU, to rebuild the whole supply chain related to the project, something that takes a lot of time. 

Yelwe also pointed out another possible reason: Germany doesn’t have a lot of tanks like the United States, Russia, and India do. This means they don’t need many engines. So, if an engine type doesn’t get many orders, they might just stop making it. To sum things up, Germany’s delay in delivering engines for the Arjun Mark 1 tanks could be because of the challenge of setting up a new supply chain. This includes finding new suppliers and arranging new deals with other subcontractors.

Challenges in engine crafting

Germany’s delay in supplying engines might be just the motivation India needs to step up and enhance its own engine-making capabilities. Right now, India is working hard to make its own engine for the Arjun tank, a challenge that is certain to bring difficulties that must be overcome.  

One main concern is whether this shift towards a new engine might lead to delays in the whole project, having an impact on the overall Arjun tank program. Rahul Manohar Yelwe observed that the original design of the Arjun tank was based on the German engine. So, introducing a new engine means the design might need adjustments to fit it.  

After these changes are made, both the engine and the tank will go through intense separate and combined testing to assess if the new engine effectively meets all the necessary standards.  

Undoubtedly, this plan is likely to extend the overall delivery timeline. By the time everything is finished, Yelwe expects a need for a new tank to arise, probably to replace the existing T-90 and T-72 models.  

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

Gaining the know-how

Looking ahead, Lt. Gen. AB Shivane accepts that while India indeed can make its own engine, the cost-effectiveness of this plan is questionable, especially when compared to investing in the production of currently designed medium and light tanks.  

Simultaneously, there are ongoing efforts to gain the know-how needed to maintain the existing German engines. The aim is to decrease dependence on MTU and increase the availability of the Arjun tank. India’s Engine Factory Avadi has recently started to perform internal repairs for Arjun Tank Engines and has found success.  

The first test of the revamped engine was overseen by Dr. Kamat, Secretary of the Department of Defence Research and Development [R&D] and Chairman of the Defence Research and Development Organisation [DRDO]. According to the factory, “After passing the test, this project will mark a step towards self-reliance through the Make in India initiative.”

Arjun operational challenges

Most of the Indian Army’s tanks, almost 1,900 in fact, are Russian-made T-72M1s that have been crafted locally. The army also houses around 1,500 T-90Ss, which are a modern version of Russian tanks. India created the Arjun tank to be an upright competitor and successor to the T-72. In several respects including stability and precision, the Arjun outshone the Russian T-90s tanks during a friendly face-off in 2008-2009. 

While the Arjun exhibits great features, its heavy weight drags it down. The initially estimated weight of 48 tons shot up to a whopping 62 tons, and lately, it’s reached 68.5 tons. The present weight of the Arjun makes it a less desirable option for the Indian Army. Lt. Gen AB Shivane conceded that the Arjun Mk1A and Arjun Mk2 are too heavy for their requirements. This weight issue also clashes with the infrastructure of the army’s Western sector. 

According to Rahul Manohar Yelwe, firepower, protection, and agility are key when it comes to developing and procuring a tank. He added that the Arjun’s design is akin to Western tanks like the Leopard 2A4. 

A local blend of armor

Unlike Russian tanks that focus on firepower and agility, Western tanks emphasize more on protection and firepower. The Arjun uses a special local blend of armor called Kanchan armor to boost its resilience 

Yelwe believes it’s not fair to point fingers solely at the DRDO for these issues. The Indian Army often demands additional features as the project advances, which complicates the process. 

Many border bridges were built for the lighter Russian tanks, making Arjun’s hefty weight a significant issue. Additionally, its large size causes trouble in railway transportation. The current Indian logistics system is just not designed for a tank of this size, further compounding the issues.

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