|BATTLE TANKS |
Deve Gowda sparks an unlikely row by pushing for the purchase of the T-72S tank in place of the T-90S, the choice of the army and Defence ministry.
By Manoj Joshi
H.D. Deve Gowda, "humble farmer", politician and former prime minister, is a familiar figure. But Deve Gowda, a tank expert? If a series of letters he has shot off to the prime minister, the Speaker and the defence minister over the past few months are any indication, the former prime minister would have everyone believe he is one. The letters not only challenge the Indian Army's choice of the T-90S main battle tank but also insist that an older tank, the T-72S, is a better and cheaper option.
An exasperated Defence Minister George Fernandes has made it clear that there is no deal. As of now, the Government is doing exactly what Deve Gowda wants -- evaluating the T-90 option. According to him, "These tanks have already been evaluated in the first quarter of 1998 in Russia and shall be subjected to trials in India in the ensuing summer."
Ministry of Defence (MOD) officials say Deve Gowda's passion for tanks is itself questionable, motivated by a lobbying campaign by Promoexport, a Russian company whose job is to dispose the vast hoard of equipment lying in Russian depots. After his first letter to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee charging irregularities in the deal, the team of officials involved in the T-90 evaluation were asked to brief him. But in a letter to Fernandes earlier this month, Deve Gowda said he was not satisfied by their explanation. In fact, he went out of his way to attack the appointment of Deputy Chief of Army Staff (DCOAS) Lieutenant-General S.S. Mehta as head of the negotiation committee because the same officer headed the evaluation team.
Army officers are privately bitter at the innuendo about Mehta, an officer of impeccable integrity. "Mehta has not been specially favoured," says a colleague. "As DCOAS (Planning and Systems) his job is to handle procurement anyway." The choice "was not that of the army but civilians in the MOD". Mehta is from the armoured corps and he commanded an armoured strike corps before his present appointment as DCOAS.
While the army is silent, the MOD, stung by the Deve Gowda barrage, has hit back. In January this year, it noted in a statement that after receiving letters supporting the T-72S from Deve Gowda and others, it had gone back to the army for an opinion and was again told that the T-90S was its choice. Quoting the army's response, the MOD declared: "Any suggestion that the T-72S tank is superior to the T-90S is incorrect and stems from motivated interest."
What's the T-series war all about? The T-72S is an upgraded version of India's current main battle tank (MBT), the T-72M that India produces under licence from Russia; the T-90S is its successor. Nikolai Malykh, head of the Uralvagonzavod State Production Enterprise that makes both tanks, says taking everything into account, the T-90S is "1.5 times" more capable than the T-72S.
But the battle is not really between the T-72S and the T-90S but between an Indian MBT-2000 and its Pakistani counterpart. In 1996, despite considerable Indian lobbying, Pakistan struck a deal to obtain 300 T-80UD tanks. This was also a successor to the T-72S, but produced in what is now another country -- Ukraine. When the deliveries of this highly capable tank began in 1996, there was nervousness in the army. According to the MOD's response to Deve Gowda, when the Russians offered the T-90S to the then defence minister Mulayam Singh Yadav during his visit to Russia, "topmost priority was accorded to the acquisition of this tank considering the urgency of requirement".
The choice before the army was limited: any new tank had to be at least superior to the T-80. This is where the T-72S lost out because it was of an older generation and, according to Malykh, would not be able to cope with the effectiveness of the anti-tank missiles and density of fire that the '90s tanks were designed to contend with.
While all three -- T-72S, T-80 and T-90S -- are equipped with a gun that can also fire missiles with a range three to four times that of the gun itself, their defensive capabilities against similar projectiles vary. Unlike the T-72S, the T-80 and T-90S feature a new Shtora-I electronic system which deflects incoming missiles.
But the T-90S has an edge over the other two tanks because it is protected by a new and innovative blend of layered armour and explosive reactive armour (era, a system that explodes outward when struck thus dissipating the explosive power of a missile). The older tanks have era panels bolted on them. The T-90's gun-fired missile not only has a range advantage of 1 km over that of the T-72S and T-80 but it is also designed with two warheads in tandem capable of penetrating older era systems.
If in all this no one seems to be talking about India's own MBT, the Arjun, it is not surprising. The sad fact is that stuck with the '70s technology the tank, which is yet to be perfected, has already become obsolete. It's vulnerable to missile-firing tanks, its Kanchan armour is dated and its grooved gun cannot fire a missile, even if one were available. The army is going through the motions of acquiring a limited number for squadron trials, but the tank is as good as finished.
Army negotiators say the T-90S whose specifications are widely available is not quite the tank they will bargain for. "We are looking for a T-90 'plus' because we know the Russians always keep some things up their sleeve." Among their major demands is that the tank be provided with a powerful 1,000 hp engine and a later version of the Shtora system. The negotiations will factor the need to get technology to upgrade existing T-72M tanks to the T-72S level as well.
MOD officials say it is premature to raise the issue of price since the evaluation is yet to be completed. They discount the figure of Rs 12 crore per tank, being cited by Deve Gowda. "The final issue will not be the base price alone but a techno-economic matrix accounting for the tank itself, its combat environment, upgrade potential, licence-manufacturing fees, discounts and so on." Deve Gowda is not likely to be satisfied, but there are some things, he should know, better left alone.
� Living Media India Ltd