Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it a point of spending Diwali with personnel of the armed forces at their forward bases. Diwali in 2020 was no different as Modi visited Army personnel in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, close to the border with Pakistan.
As has been his practice, Modi distributed sweets to the soldiers and gave a rousing speech. During his speech, Modi referred to his government’s stress on self-reliance and the ‘vocal for local’ campaign and complimented the armed forces for the decision to bar import of over 100 weapons and defence equipment.
And Modi, perhaps, highlighted his commitment to ‘vocal for local’ by finding time to get atop an Arjun main battle tank of the Indian Army. The Arjun is the first indigenously developed battle tank of the Indian Army. The first of 124 Arjun tanks were delivered to the Indian Army in 2004 after development of the project started in the 1970s.
The Arjun has been the subject of considerable criticism given its significantly heavier weight (over 55 tonnes versus less than 45 tonnes for Russian T-72 and T-90 tanks) and issues with its engine. The project that resulted in the Arjun tank took on a sense of urgency in the 1980s as news emerged that Pakistan was evaluating the US-built M1 Abrams tank.
The Abrams was significantly heavier and better protected than the Russian T-72. In fact, Pakistan’s military dictator general Zia ul Haq was killed in a plane crash in August 1988 as he was returning to Rawalpindi after attending a demonstration of the M1 Abrams in Bahawalpur.
While Pakistan ultimately did not buy the Abrams, the Arjun’s designers had already decided to ‘beef up’ their tank. The Arjun features a 120mm rifled-bore gun in comparison to a 125mm smoothbore gun found on the T-72 and T-90. It also has a formidable armour system called the Kanchan that was indigenously developed.
The DRDO had developed an improved version of the Arjun, called the Arjun MK-1A, which has improved fire control, sighting system and transmission compared with the first-generation Arjun tanks. In March this year, it was reported that the defence ministry had concluded negotiations with the Ordnance Factory Board for 118 Arjun Mk-1A tanks, with a tentative price of $888.7 million.
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