Last week, India finally floated a Request For Information or RFI for 350 light tanks, seeking prospective vendors to fulfil a long-pending demand of the forces. This comes nearly a year after the new Chinese light tank — Type 15 or ZTQ 15 — was first sighted in Eastern Ladakh. The RFI seeks a modern light tank with maximum weight of 25 tonnes that is amphibious, easily portable by air/road/water, has state-of-the-art mobility, weapons, and protection system capable of operating in varied terrain, including high-altitude areas.
In 2009 a similar RFI for a light tank had been floated but the proposal was shelved due to limited resources in favour of more medium tanks. Based on a 1980s project the DRDO had modified the BMP 1 into a light tank by mounting a 105 mm tank gun, but it was rejected by the Army. The project was revived based on the 2009 RFI but was rejected again by the Army.
The Army has successfully exploited light tanks at Zojila-Kargil in November-December 1948 and at Chushul in 1962. Since 1988, we have successfully exploited medium tanks, T 72/T 90, along with Infantry Combat Vehicle (ICV) BMP 2, the mainstay of our mechanised forces units, in Eastern Ladakh and Sikkim. The author commanded the first combat group of a mechanised infantry battalion and two armoured squadrons inducted into Eastern Ladakh (1988-90) and pioneered the evolution of the concept for employment of mechanised forces in high altitude.
A light tank is no match for a medium tank but its mobility and light weight (half that of a medium tank) makes it more versatile for multiple roles. The moot question, however, is, given the resources crunch, should we opt for stand-alone light tank or should we go for a multi-purpose combat platform, which can have two basic variants — light tank and ICV/Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC), and additional configurations for multiple combat/combat support tasks.
Need for a light tank
Light tanks are required by mechanised forces for reconnaissance and in roles not suitable for medium tanks, like air transported/airborne/amphibious operations, operations in riverine and mountainous/high-altitude terrain, and counter-insurgency/built up areas.
Our mechanised forces in the past had successfully used AMX 13 and PT 76 light tanks for these roles. The former was successfully inducted by air and exploited in Chushul in November 1962. PT 76 tanks played a stellar role in the riverine terrain of Bangladesh during the 1971 War. Once these tanks were phased out, our mechanised forces perforce had to rely upon medium tanks with inherent limitations for the roles highlighted above.
Theoretically, 350 light tanks can be organised into seven regiments of 45 tanks each or 10 regiments of 31 tanks each. However, this would be an inelegant use of the light tanks for the roles specified. It would be more prudent to organise them in composite regiments, that is a mix of tanks and mechanised infantry. These could be based on one/two tank squadrons and one/two mechanised infantry companies. Goes without saying that the organisations should be role specific. Also, to make sub units more agile it would be better to organise light tanks into squadrons of 10 tanks each. Setting aside 30-40 tanks as reserves and for training establishments, we can create 20-25 composite regiments. This would meet all our requirements for reconnaissance, airborne, air transported, amphibious, riverine, island territory, mountains/high altitude and counter-insurgency roles.
Exploitation in high altitude
It has been our experience that medium tanks can be exploited in the broader valleys of Eastern Ladakh. However, there are specific areas like narrow valleys and ridge lines where light tanks are more suitable. A case in point is our deployment in the vicinity of and on the Kailash Range. While medium tanks can be used in the Chushul bowel and Indus Valley, and in the valleys across the Kailash Range, light tanks are more suitable for fighting on the passes and the ridge line. Light tanks and ICVs can also undertake amphibious operations across the Pangong Tso.
Light tanks can move rapidly on roads with rubberised tracks and are more easily transportable by transport aircraft and heavy-lift helicopters. Two light tanks instead of one medium tank can be carried in a transport aircraft. Thus, light tank units are more suitable for rapid mobilisation.
Since light tanks will be no match for medium tanks in the broader valleys, in Depsang Plains and fighting on the Tibetan plateau, it is logical that mechanised forces deployed in Ladakh should be a judicious mix of medium and light tanks. The mix can be introduced at the armoured brigade level or more radically even at the unit level. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has done this at the Combined Arms Brigade level.
Restructuring of formations in Eastern Ladakh
There is an urgent need to restructure the formations in Eastern Ladakh into Combined Arms Battle Groups (CABG). Organisation of the CABG must be tailor-made for specific sectors and flexible enough to permit regrouping. Each CABG can have three to six infantry battalions and one composite mechanised brigade of three to four composite armour heavy/mechanised infantry heavy/balanced units. These must be supported by tailor-made combat support/services units. All transport must be based on high mobility vehicles. The infantry of offensive units must be based on ICVs/APCs. We require minimum six CABG for defensive and limited offensive missions. For a major offensive, a reserve of six more CABGs would be required which can be inducted when required. This restructuring would be in tune with the overall restructuring/reorganisation plan of the Army evolved in 2018-19, the progress on which has been painfully slow.
Since the current crisis began, the PLA has deployed approximately six Combined Arms Brigades, each having minimum four or more combined arms battalions (mix of armour and mechanised infantry sub-units at unit level) supported by combat support/services units. An equal number of Combined Arms Brigades are available as reserve for escalation to a limited war. We have deployed a similar number but based on inefficient traditional divisions/brigades in vogue since World War 2.
Combat support platform
Keeping in view the impending restructuring of the Army in general and the forces in Eastern Ladakh in particular, there is a strong case for the army to invest into a ‘make in India’ multi-purpose combat platform rather than a standalone light tank. Current resources crunch also favours this approach. A classic example of such a platform is the Stryker combat vehicle of the US Army.
The Stryker is an eight-wheeled armoured vehicle that provides a family of ten different vehicles on a common chassis. The Stryker comprises two variants — the Infantry Carrier Vehicle and the Mobile Gun System (MGS) that can function as a light tank. The Stryker has eight additional configurations: Mortar Carrier (MC), Reconnaissance Vehicle (RV), Commanders Vehicle (CV), Fire Support Vehicle (FSV), Medical Evacuation Vehicle (MEV), Engineer Squad Vehicle (ESV), Anti-tank Guided Missile Vehicle (ATGM), and NBC Reconnaissance Vehicle (NBCRV). Keeping in view our requirements, we can develop tracked and wheeled versions of the combat platform and also develop a light tank version.
The ‘Make in India’ project of 350 ‘stand-alone’ light tanks is likely to have a gestation period of five years. It will take the same amount of time for a ‘Make in India’ combat platform and its variants, including light tanks to fructify. The interim needs of the Army can be met by reviving the DRDO’s BMP 2 or Vajra chassis-based light tank project. Keeping in view the impending major restructuring of the Army in the near future, I will place my bet on a multi-purpose combat support platform.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)