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LAC Stand-Off: How India will counter PLA's tanks

By Ajai Shukla
August 10, 2020 17:05 IST
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DRDO plans to build a tank for use in the mountains and in the jungles.
Ajai Shuka reports.

IMAGE: Indian Army soldiers atop T-72 tanks cross a bridge during a military exercise. Photograph: Kamal Kishore/Reuters

The ministry of defence last month 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 guns, and road construction units.

To eliminate the costly and time-consuming import of light tanks, the Defence Research and Development Organisation has developed plans for building an indigenous light tank for use in the mountains and in jungle terrain.

Arrayed on the Ladakh border is the People's Liberation Army'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 -72 medium tanks.

Weighing a hefty 42 tonnes, the T-72 is 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.

In contrast, the Indian Army has used light tanks to great effect in the mountains.

In 1944, it used Stuart and Sherman tanks in the Battle of Kohima.

In 1948, these same tanks pushed back Pakistan forces in the Zojila Pass.

Against China in 1962, the army used light AMX-13 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 tanks played a stellar role in the battle of Garibpur.

DRDO has short-listed two options for developing an indigenous light tank within 18 months.

Both these involve marrying 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 to 35 tonne tank by fitting a 105 millimetre Cockerill gun turret onto a K-9 Vajra hull, powered by a 1,000 horsepower MTU engine optimised for high altitudes.

DRDO sources say this hybrid tank could go into production within 18 months.

DRDO's second option retains the K-9 Vajra hull and MTU engine, but matched with the gun turret of the T-90S tank that the army already uses.

This 38-tonne tank would also require 18 months for going into production.

L&T 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.

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 military 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.

DRDO has earlier attempted to develop light tanks, but there was never any real interest from the army.

In the 1980s, DRDO integrated the chassis of the Soviet BMP-1 infantry combat vehicle with a 105 millimetre gun, but the army was not interested.

Next, DRDO mounted a French GIAT TS-90 turret and a 105 millimetre 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 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 PLA's new ZTQ 105 light tank, built by China's North Industries Group Corporation and unveiled during the Zhuhai air show in 2016.

The ZTQ 105 has a 105 millimetre rifled gun that can destroy tanks at ranges of three kilometres and can fire anti-tank guided missiles that knock out tanks at ranges of 5 kilometres.

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Ajai Shukla
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