Home The Arjun, a Black Swan and the Future Ready Combat Vehicle

The Arjun, a Black Swan and the Future Ready Combat Vehicle

“Army, DRDO fight it out again over Arjun and Futuristic Tanks”[1]. This headline in a news item in The Times of India, of 05 Aug 2015 sought to grab attention by alluding to a ‘fight’. It would be more appropriate to term the issue a debate. Both organisations, the Army and the DRDO, serve the same country and where national interests matter there is a debate over the best course of action but never a ‘fight'.

Weight and maintainability are two issues of the Arjun fleet.[2] The former precludes it from being fielded in the riverine terrain of Punjab. To view the issue in perspective the tables below list out certain basic parameters of the Arjun and two contemporary tanks. These are regarding timelines and increase in weight in successive variants of the same tank.

Table -1 Timelines[3]








1958 (As Chieftain)

First Prototype



1959 (As Chieftain)




1974-1977 (As Shir 1/ Khalid)




1980 (As Shir 2)

First Inducted



1983 (Challenger)

Table -1 Combat Weight[4]


Mk 1

Mk 2

Mk 3

Mk 4












55 (Chieftain Mk 5)

58 (Shir 1)

62 (Mk 1)

62.5(Mk 2)

The tables above highlight the following points:

  • From project conception to first prototype the Arjun took 12 years, the Merkava four years and the Chieftain one year (the short time line was a result of it having been evolvedfrom the Centurion).
  • Shir 1 and Shir 2 were improvements on the Chieftain ordered by Iran. The order was cancelled in 1979 after the Iranian revolution. The Shir 2 was improved for British Army requirements in three years’ time and became the Challenger 1.
  • From prototype to induction for the Arjun took 20 years, Merkava five years and Challenger three years.
  • The combat weight of the Arjun increased by 9.5 tons from Mk 1 to Mk 2, the Merkava by five tons from Mk 1 to 4. In case the Chieftain Mk 5  is called the first Mark of the Challenger, then from Mk 1 to Mk 4 the weight increased by 7.5 tons.
  • There has been no increase in the weight of Merkava Mk3 to Mk4 though a number of features have been added including an active protection system and upgradation of the power pack from 1200 hp to 1500 hp.[6]

Tanks are designed (or purchased) based upon the threat from enemy weapons, the physical environment that they are to operate in, and the military doctrine of a country. Post the 1967 and 1973 wars the IDF[7] had prioritised the requirements in their tank to be armour protection, firepower and mobility.[8]  The Merkava was conceived based upon the technological and military wisdom and experience of Maj Gen Israel Tal, one of IDF’s foremost tank commanders.[9]He designed a tank most suited for Israel’s envisagedbattlefield environment and the IDF doctrine of fighting. The Camp David Accord in 1978 and the peace treaty signed the next year with Egypt signalled the end of a major tank threat on the Southern Front of Israel. The 1973 war had seen many more Israeli tank casualties from infantry ATGMs than from tanks. This experience was reinforced in Operation Peace for Galileein Lebanon (1981-1983) where in spite of major Syrian tank forces being committed, Israeli armour casualties were more from ATGMs especially in the rugged hilly area in Eastern Lebanon as well as the built up areas along the coast leading toBeirut. Some early Merkavas were used here[10] and with their capability to carry upto six infantrymen[11]and with an integrated 60mm mortar proved their worth against defiladed[12] anti-tank teams.

For all its success, almost no interest was shown for the Merkavaby foreign armies. The reason is that it is tailor made for the Israeli environment and not for the environments of other countries. This reinforces the argument that the tank we must have must be most suitable for our environment.Those who quote the complete outclassing of the Iraqi T-72 tanks in the Gulf Wars by the 63 ton Abrams and use this to justify heavy tanks, miss out the complete air superiority of the Coalition and the technically obsolescent Iraqi tanks.

The last of the first production batch of 124 Arjun Mk 1 on order will probably be delivered this year. It has been 45 years from conception to final delivery of the Arjun Mk 1. During this same period a Black Swan event[13] happened. A Black Swan event has the following three attributes, Firstly, it lies outside the realm of regular expectations; secondly, it carries an extreme impact; and lastly, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.[14]

The Rajasthan canal was conceived in 1947 but work on it could start only in 1957 after the Indus waters treaty was signed. In 1983 an year before the first prototype of the Arjun was made, Stage I of the canal reached North of Bikaner.[15]The canal led to a Black Swan event in the 32 years that the Arjun Mark I took to enter service. The deserts where tanks could have unrestrained mobility started becoming restricted. A latticework of canals snaked all over especially parallel to the border and are planned to go upto Gadra Road in Barmer district.[16]An area which was classic tank country has gradually changed into a populated area with restricted employability especially for heavy tanks. A majority of the numerous canals that exist there don’t have bridges/culverts to take over 60-ton behemoths.

A tank is cost effective with economies of scale. Presently the 50 ton T-72 tanks are deployed from Ladakh[17] to the Rann of Kutch.Conversely the Arjun, because of its weight constraint,is employed only in restricted areas of Rajasthan. The restriction is compounded because the Arjun does not have appropriate tank transporters, Armoured Recovery Vehicles or Bridge laying tanks. This is a Catch-22 situation of sorts because it is not cost-effective to build such support vehicles without an adequate tank fleet to support.

During the same period weapons and technology have also changed. This is not a Black Swan event, but it has had its effects. The Arjun and the Challenger remain the only two MBTs in the world which have rifled main guns. These are suitable for HESH[18] ammunition which has much reduced effectiveness against modern composite tank armour. Conversely, rifled guns are not the best option for firing either APFSDS[19] ammunition or guided missiles through the main gun, which are contemporary munitions giving enhanced range and kill probability.

The Future Ready Combat Vehicle (FRCV)as the name suggests is conceived as a future solution. The project is proposed to be developed on a modular concept as part of a family of combat vehicles. The tracked Main Battle Tank will be the primary/base variant on which the support and combat vehicles will be based.[20]Headlines in various military columns and online sites cry hoarse that this is killing the Arjun Mark 2 or the DRDO’s proposed FMBT[21] program. However, a design competition to pick up the best design suitable for our doctrine, terrain and environment and which can generate economies of scale is a step worth taking.

It takes little imagination to conclude why the Army feels that the Arjun Mark II which is reaching a 68 ton weight does not meet its requirement for the future. Its basic features were conceived for a different era. A lighter tank made heavier by adding on armour and additional features can still be made to retain its character by getting a more powerful engine. A heavy tank may not be tolerant to be made lighter without the basic design going awry. This piece opines that the FRCV is a good initiative. What is important is that the project should not go the Arjun way with far too long lead times before moving from one stage to the other. If that happens it is not too difficult to predict that we may again see another Black Swan event. When faced with a Black Swan probability it is best to work out radically new approaches than to stick to status quo methods.

Views expressed by the author are personal.




[1]RajatPandit. “Army, DRDO fight it out again over Arjun and Futuristic Tanks”, TheTimes of India, of 05 Aug 2015

[2]VivekRaghuvanshi. India Grounds Most of Original Arjun Tanks. Defence News, 8 May 2015. http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/land/vehicles/2015/05/07/india-tank-fleet-grounded-arjun-army-imported-components-drdo/70963382/. Accessed 09 Aug 2015.

[3] Christopher F Foss (Ed). IHS Jane’s Land Warfare Platforms, Armoured Fighting Platforms, 2014-2015 (Surrey:2014)

[4]Ibid.  Less weight of Arjun Mk2.

[5]Arjun tank. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arjun_(tank). Accessed 08 Aug 2015.

[6] Christopher F Foss (Ed).P.72-73.

[7]Israeli Defence Forces.

[8] Christopher F Foss (Ed).P.75.

[9]Chaim Herzog, The Arab- Israeli Wars. (Ritana, Indian Edition, New Delhi:1996), P.155.

[10] Ibid. P. 349.

[11]A maximum of six soldiers can be carried by removing 12/ nine main gun rounds per man in the Merkava Mk 1/3.Merkava Mk 3 and 4 Tank. Global Security .org. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/israel/merkava.htm. Accessed 08 Aug 2015.

[12]Concealed behind a fold in the ground or a wall and hence protected from direct observation and fire.

[13]An event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult to predict.

[14]Nassim Nicolas Taleb, The Black Swan- The Impact of The Highly Improbable. (Penguin: London 2007).

[15]RamtanuMaitra. The Indira Gandhi Canal: Greening the Desert in India. Executive Intelligence Review, Volume 14, Number 7, February 13, 1987. http://www.larouchepub.com/eiw/public/1987/eirv14n07-19870213/eirv14n07-19870213_013-the_indira_gandhi_canal_greening.pdf. Accessed 08 Aug 2015.


[17] Ajay Banerjee, India Ramps up Defence along the Chinese Border. The Tribune, 17 Aug 2014.

[18] High Explosive Squash Head (HESH), In this round the explosive is contained in a thin-walled projectile which collapses on striking the target, allowing the plastic explosive to spread and form a suitably shaped 'pat' on the outside of the armour plate before it is detonated. This sends strong shock waves through the armour causing a large 'scab' to form and fragments to fly off inside the tank.

[19]Armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding-sabot (APFSDS) is a type of kinetic energy penetrator ammunition used to attack modern vehicle armour

[20]Request For Information From Vendors For Designs For a Future Ready Combat Vehicle For Indian Army. http://indianarmy.nic.in/writereaddata/RFI/445/FRCV%20RFI.pdf. Accessed 08 Aug 2015.

[21]Future Main Battle Tank. A DRDO initiative to design the successor to the Arjun. 

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Ghanshyam Katoch

Contact at: [email protected]
Narender Kumar
The article suggests that a tank which was required in 20th century has been delivered by DRDO in 21st century. The terrain has changed, the operational environment has changed but DRDO continues to remain sacrosanct in its thinking, working parameters and pace of development and research. It has been left behind by art and science of war fighting, but it probably makes no difference to its ethos. There is an urgent need to put DRDO directly under the Joint Chief of Staff Committee rather than under the MOD. It is beyond reasoning to fathom how on earth bureaucrats are going to evaluate or monitor the research of DRDO. DRDO is responsible for delivering the next generation of weapon systems to the armed forces, but accountable to bureaucrats, who are neither accountable nor responsible enough to equip or modernize the forces. The result is that the outdated systems are being dumped after lapse of two to three decades. Almost every war like store or weapon system DRDO has produced has been found unsuitable for contemporary or future battlefield environment. Given the choice no soldier wants to even use INSAS rifle produced by DRDO, leave aside Arjun or any other equipment. I joined the army at a time when DRDO promised to deliver a world class indigenous tank and anti tank missile systems, I have retired after 33 years of service in the Army and DRDO is yet to deliver the world class tank and anti tank missiles which it had promised. The experiment of keeping DRDO under MOD has failed, therefore, let us give one more try if DRDO can deliver by being put under the service HQs. If that experiment also fails, the only option left to the government is to close down this organization and privatize the research and development of defence related issues.
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