In a reversal of the Indian Army's stand on the indigenous main battle tank (MBT) Arjun, which has been 37 years in the making, Army chief General Deepak Kapoor has written to the defence ministry appreciating the tank's performance.
The army chief's letter has come months before the MBT Arjun, which India has been trying to manufacture indigenously for more than three decades, is headed for head-to-head 'comparative trials' with the Russian T-90 tanks that the army currently operates.
"The army chief for the first time has appreciated Arjun tank for performing well. In a letter written earlier this year he said that the tank was subjected to the most strenuous of tests and it performed 'admirably well'," a defence ministry official told IANS on the condition of anonymity.
The letter from the army chief came after last year's winter trials of the tank, which has already cost the exchequer Rs 3.5 billion ($71.7 million). The stand is a complete u-turn as the army had made it clear that it would buy no more than the 124 Arjuns it has contracted for because it is unhappy with the tank on various counts.
The Defence Research & Development Organisation's (DRDO) demand for the comparative trials of the two tanks is being seen as a desperate bid to save the Arjun as it would need to manufacture at least 500 tanks to make the project feasible.
"The defence ministry had been pushing for the joint trials for the past one-and-a-half-years but people in the military set up were not too keen," the official added.
A reluctant army had also said that the Arjun can at best remain in service for five to 10 years while it is looking 20 years ahead and needs a futuristic MBT.
However, the defence ministry, which has been putting thrust on the indigenisation of the defence industry, wanted to see the project through.
On Feb 11, Defence Minister AK Antony had expressed his happiness on the Arjun tank becoming "a reality". "We have seen light at the end of the tunnel," Antony had said speaking of the project.
The tank has been mired in controversy with the army last year having told a key parliamentary panel that the Arjun failed to deliver at the winter trials conducted in the Rajasthan desert in 2007. The army said that many improvements would have to be carried out before it was satisfied with the tank.
Adding fuel to the proverbial fire, Minister of State for Defence Rao Inderjit Singh hinted at the possibility of "sabotage" during the 2007 winter trials.
The Indian Army laid down its qualitative requirement (QR) for the Arjun in 1972. In 1982, it was announced that the prototype was ready for field trials. However, the tank was publicly unveiled for the first time only in 1995.
Arjun was originally meant to be a 40-tonne tank with a 105 mm gun. It has now grown to a 50-tonne tank with a 120 mm gun. The tank was meant to supplement and eventually replace the Soviet-era T-72 MBT that was first inducted in the early 1980s.
However, delays in the Arjun project and Pakistan's decision to purchase the T-80 from Ukraine prompted India to order 310 T-90s, an upgraded version of the T-72, in 2001.