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Defence Researched Institute in India
Posted on | 23-Jun-2020

REINTRODUCTION OF LIGHT TANKS FOR NORTHERN BORDERS

BY | Lt Gen AB Shivane, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)


General

The satellite imagery visuals of Chinese T-15 / ZTPQ Light Tanks camouflaged in the depth areas of Eastern Ladakh, during the recent stand-off, is a wakeup call for upgrading deterrence in areas where medium category tanks are difficult to employ. Eastern Ladakh saw it coming....we cannot keep procrastinating .....  Imagine the presence of air portable amphibious light tanks in Pangong Tso or in valleys of Ladakh to push back any transgression. Deterrence would have been more credible.

STUARTS OF 7TH LIGHT CAVALRY AT ZOJI LA - 11,575 FEET - SAVIOURS OF LADAKH NOV 1948

Victory in 21st Century is measured by least cost and minimum time. The importance of Light Tank as a mobile protected firepower for the Indian Army for multi spectrum, multi front application cannot be ignored by professionals. It’s time Indian Army looks at upgrading the Combined Arms Capability for the Northern Borders. The present requirement of light tanks has been endlessly debated by the Indian Army, albeit more often than not with clouded fixations to medium tank and technological perceptions of yester years. With technology now permitting and evolution of next generation light tanks in the battle space, time has come to review our ‘one size fits all’ med tank solution. The need is to revert to a mix of medium and light tanks to meet emerging threats and generate future capability to fight the next war differently.

While we continue to deliberate, we see the resurgence of state of art Light Tanks world over, including the threat from Chinese Light Tank ZTPQ recently deployed opposite our northern borders in Tibet. It’s time we stop discussing and start acting, building up on our experience of the past and the operational necessity of the future. Let us not forget given the same borders and foe, the light tanks did us proud and emerged victorious, even when we had medium tanks as part of our inventory. Let the Light Tank be a shining model under “Make in India”.

Lessons of the Past and Images for the Future

Historical Evidence. While history is a place of reference not residence, its relevance needs to be imbibed by a professional Army for future conflict. History is a testimony of Light Tanks doing the nation proud. In the Indian context, light tanks (Stuarts and Shermans) of the 254 Indian Tank Brigade in the World War II at Kohima successfully stalled the ingress of the Japanese Army. This has been described as one of the bloodiest battles in history surpassing the famous ‘Battle of Waterloo’.  Soon after independence in the first Indo-Pak War of 1947-48, the bold and innovative employment of Stuart Light Tanks at unimaginable 11,575 feet high ZojiLa pass pushed back the shocked Pakistani invaders and saved Ladakh.  Light tanks were also employed in Rajouri during the same period. Later in the Indo-China 1962 conflict, AMX-13 Light Tank were air lifted by an AN-12 aircraft and gallantly fought alongside infantry in the famous ‘Battle of Gurung Hill’. Also, in the Eastern Sector, the light tanks were employed in Bomdila and Darrang. Again in 1965 Indo-Pak war, the AMX-13 tanks were deployed at Natu La.  In 1971 Indo- Pak conflict, both AMX-13 and the amphibious PT-76 Light Tanks played a major role in the liberation of Bangladesh spear heading the advance through marginal terrain. A squadron of Indian PT 76 in one swoop completely destroyed the Pakistani Squadron consisting of 14 American made M-24 Chaffee tanks and mauled two infantry battalion of Pakistan in the famous battle of Garibpur. Indeed, a decisive blow which created a sense of psychological despondency and physical paralysis leading to the surrender of Pakistani force.

OUR VICTORIOUS WAR HORSES

 

Lessons for the Future. So, what are the lessons we draw from these conflicts for the future:-

  • Light tanks enjoy enhanced strategic, operational and tactical mobility for rapid deployment in inaccessible areas and where medium tanks movement is impeded.
  • Development of punitive deterrence based capability on the Western Front and dissuasive deterrence capability on the Northern Front mandates a mix of medium tanks and light tanks.
  • Given our operational matrix and capability development, light tanks will be a force multiplier and a game changer in high altitude / marginal terrain in the Indian context.
  • 4GW environment and Hybrid Wars will mandate agile and deployable mobile protected firepower best executed by an agile light tank as part of a combined arms team.
  • In today’s security paradigm, as India finds its rightful trajectory in the comity of nations, role of light tanks for strategic out of area contingencies (OOAC) and security of our island territories as part of a Rapid Deployment Force will seek ascendancy.

 

Global Overview of Light Tanks

There are a large number of light tanks, both tracked and wheeled, in the inventory of foreign armies. Amongst the more advance are the Russian SPRUT- SDM1, the Chinese ZTQ 105 / Type 15 and the USA Project MPF Light Tank.

Light Tank  - Operational Perspective

India’s security paradigm entails multi-spectrum, multi-front and diverse terrain challenges at short notice. In particular the threat trajectory is likely to take ascendancy on our Northern Borders and future limited wars, being fought in the mountains and marginal terrains. Deterrence and coercive diplomacy will thus need to be empowered through combat ready and credible rapid deployable forces. Towards this end the Indian Army restructuring initiative aims to generate lean, agile, versatile and technology enabled Integrated Battle Groups. The equipment profile of Mechanised Forces must accordingly have the right mix of medium and light tanks to generate greater operational options and versatility in future wars. The reintroduction of light tanks would permit air deployability, move on tracks or wheels  across mountain passes/low classification bridges, pass through narrower lanes inbuilt up areas, and wade through marshier / riverine terrain like in Punjab or Rann of Kutch, otherwise impeded bythe present medium tanks in inventory.

The broad employment concept of light tank thus revolves around its superior mobility (Strategic, Operational and Tactical), versatility, enhanced manoeuvrability (small turning radius, high power to weight ratio and low nominal ground pressure), and lethal firepower especially high angle fire cum missile firing ability. While strategic mobility advantage of light tank certainly provides strategic flexibility, however its superior agility, ‘power to weight ratio’, and ‘dimensions’, which gives it a major advantage with reference to inter and intra valley movement in high altitude terrain.

Along the Northern Borders, it would augment the defence potential by forward deployment and denial of corridors to enemy. The primary role would essentially be to close in and destroy enemy forces and facilitate the freedom of action by infantry in mountainous or marginal terrain. Its availability would add teeth in limited offensive or quid pro quo operations into enemy territory. The light tanks would not only target the will of the enemy but also enhance capability through pre-emption, dislocation and disruption of enemy forces. Thus, light tanks would add to the credible deterrence posture and war fighting capability in the Northern Front especially where the medium category tanks cannot reach.

Along the Western Borders proliferation of BUA and canals / swamps have restricted mobility corridors for medium tanks. The Rann of Kutch with its low soil bearing capacity also impedes movement of heavier vehicles. A mix of medium and light tanks with amphibious capability and superior tactical agility would thus facilitate the tempo of operations as also serve as potent reconnaissance force in the Western Front. Its innovative application could help in seizing control of time, space and force matrix in war. Light tank would also find its enhanced utility in hybrid wars of the future.

With its air portability and amphibious characteristics, its role as part of Rapid Deployment Force for OOAC as part of an emergency response force, backup armour-deficient airborne troops,amphibious operations for establishing a beachhead and protection of our island territories, would add to our capability matrix. Its utility as part of UN Forces could also find favour and add to the nation’s international stature.

 

Role, Deployability and Desired Capabilities

Role. The light tank must be designed to defeat armour and low flying helicopters, provide fire support to assaulting infantry, destroy strongholds and fortifications and perform reconnaissance and combat security task.

Deployability. The light tank weight and its dimensions must facilitate tactical, operational and strategic lift capability and adaptability to designated operational roles. It must ensure transportability by rail, road (on tank transporters) and in service aircrafts, as also operational and tactical mobility within the theatre of operations. It must be an amphibious fighting vehicle capable of day and night operations in both High Altitude mountainous terrain of Northern Borders and plains of Western Front. It should facilitate low air drop in emergencies.

 

Desired Capabilities. The desired capabilities necessitated are:-

  • Lethality. Ability to destroy enemy targets both armoured and fortifications at 2000m and possess ATGM missile firing capability up to 4Km both by day and night. High angle firing capability of elevation not less than 17 degrees using a state of art fire control system. Stabilised shoot capability on the move. Secondary armament and AD machine gun with a remote control mount. Its sighting configuration must cater for a “Hunter - Killer” mode.
  • Mobility and Agility. It must generate a high power to weight ratio of minimum 25:1 with steep gradient climb ability. The engine derating in High Altitude must not fall below 20:1 capability. It must have a higher power density ratio and low nominal ground pressure with a small turning radius to travel over passes and bridges as obtaining in the Northern Borders particularly of eastern Ladakh, on track (rubber pads)/ wheels. Auxiliary power unit and amphibious capability are essential.
  • Survivability. It must be able to survive against RPGs, and artillery air burst with scalable modular add on armour and option for active protection system for a full combat configuration. Its survivability must essentially be in its low silhouette, advance stealth technology suite, automatic screening system besides NBC protection and fire suppression systems.
  • Mission Reliability and Logistic Ease. It must maintain high operational readiness rates through reduced logistic / maintenance foot prints, modular form fit sub-systems, in-built diagnostics & redundancies (fault-management) and high mean time between failure.
  • Digitisation and Vetronics. These must generate higher situational awareness, network enabled operations and higher interoperability. In reality, this network centric approach in an AFV- involves the following systems and sensors as given fallows:
  • Battlefield Management System (BMS)
  • Software Defined Radio (SDR)
  • Automated Target Tracker (ATT)
  • Commanders Panoramic Sight (CPS)
  • Gunners Main Sight (GMS)
  • Laser Target Designator (LTD)
  • Laser Range Finder (LRF)
  • Laser Warning and Countermeasure System (LWCS)
  • Drivers Sight with Thermal Imager (TI)
  • Affordability.  There will always be the issue of fiscal support that comes with increased complexity, as these advanced solutions must be able to operate reliably in all environments and be resilient to all types of threat. However, it is desirable that the cost of Light Tank be lower than a medium category tank for greater acceptability in today’s Corona inflicted fiscally constrained environment.

 

Way Forward

Given the emergence of Chinese Light Tank and escalatory matrix of the threat on our Northern Borders, the operational necessity for a light tank is well established. A pragmatic and professional analysis is indicative of operational imperative of light tanks for the Indian Army. The process is often debated and offers multiple options for procurement. In the order of priority, it could be through the SP partnership model, a Government to Government deal, a variant of FICV or new project under Make categorisation. It must be shining example of Make in India initiative. May the decision makers never be clouded by myopic vision and address this critical capability, already delayed beyond reasons professional, at the earliest.

 

 

 

Disclaimer:  Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CENJOWS.