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Can India's Zorawar Match China's ZTQ-15?

January 17, 2024 10:03 IST

DRDO's latest tank will face trial in Rajasthan's summer which will be followed by 'user trials' ahead of facing battle in the high-altitude deserts of eastern Ladakh and Sikkim, reports Ajai Shukla.

IMAGE: The Zorawar tank. Photograph: ANI Photo

During April and May, an indigenous light tank that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is developing will commence 'development trials' in the brutal summer heat of Rajasthan's Thar desert.

These trials, which will be followed by 'user trials', will confirm whether the Indian tank is a match for the Chinese ZTQ-15 light tank. This tank could face a battle in high-altitude deserts of eastern Ladakh and Sikkim.

The tank has been named Zorawar after the 19th-century general who conquered Ladakh and Baltistan for his Dogra overlords.

New Delhi decided in 2020 to design, develop and manufacture some 300 to 500 light tanks after hundreds of Chinese soldiers of the People Liberation Army, supported by tanks and artillery, intruded into Indian territory in Ladakh. They remain there even after 20 rounds of talks between senior military commanders from both sides.

The Indian Army has airlifted close to 200 tanks to Ladakh, but the PLA enjoys an advantage. Indian tank units struggle to move their underpowered, Russian-origin T-72 tanks over 17,500 foot-high passes.

In contrast, China's ZTQ-15 light tanks, which weigh just 33 tonnes (36 tonnes with additional slap-on armour), move through the 14,000-foot-high valleys with far greater ease.

The ZTQ-15's 1,000 Horse Power (HP) Norinco engines, generate power-to-weight ratios of more than 30 HP per tonne, adequate even for that oxygen-depleted altitude.

In contrast, India's 42-tonne T-72s, with their underpowered 780 HP engines, offer a power-to-weight ratio of just 18.5 HP per tonne. The mobility of the larger T-72s is further constrained by Ladakh's narrow roads and small bridges.

India's tank designers envisioned two options for a light tank. Both would have hulls and engines based on the K-9 Vajra -- a 28 tonne, tracked gun that L&T built for the army at its Talegaon plant near Pune with technology transferred from South Korea's Hanwha Defence. After L&T delivered the 100 guns on order, the army ordered another 100.

There were two options, however, for the light tank's turret. In one, the K-9 Vajra's 155 mm artillery gun turret would be replaced by a T-90 tank turret with a heavy 125 mm tank gun.

However, the 8 to 9 tonne T-90 tank turret, mounted on the 28-tonne chassis, took the weight of the light tank to an unacceptable 36 to 37 tonnes.

The second option involved replacing the K-9 Vajra's turret with a smaller one, fitted with a 105 mm direct-firing, 105 mm gun. This would be procured, ready-built, from Belgian firm John Cockerill, violating the defence ministry's 'Make in India' norms.

With the defence ministry insisting on going indigenous, DRDO decided to build its own hull and to import engines from MTU Germany. But the German government, after first giving permission to export the engines to India, then withheld the licence, causing a one-year delay in the project.

Eventually, DRDO decided to power the Zorawar light tank with an indigenous, 750 HP Cummins engine, which would be coupled with a German Renk transmission.

If the weight of the Zorawar is kept below 25 tonnes, the power-to-weight ratio will be 30 HP per tonne -- meeting the Indian Army's norms. Furthermore, with the Cummins engine being manufactured in India, the 'Make in India' norm would be met.

The turret of the Zorawar light tank presented an even more challenging task.

But DRDO officials say that, once it was decided to indigenise the turret, their experience in designing the Arjun tank turret proved invaluable.

Furthermore, designing the 105 mm tank gun proved well within the capabilities of the Kalyani Group. The Pune-based forgings giant is growing its metallurgical expertise, along with its role in developing the indigenous 155 mm Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System.

So far, the army has placed orders for only 59 light tanks, some of which will be employed in user trials. These tanks will be manufactured by Larsen & Toubro which is playing the role of DRDO's Design Cum Production Partner to DRDO.

Ajai Shukla in New Delhi
Source: source image