Significance of Al Khalid

In the haze of well-being that has enveloped us after the Kargil war, not many people seem to have grasped the significance of Pakistan's announcement that it is beginning the production of its indigenously developed main battle tank, the Al Khalid. Even those who noticed may be inclined to dismiss its significance: hasn't Pakistan just learned the hard way that the world will simply not tolerate a nuclear power entering into a conventional war with another nuclear power? So who is it going to use the Al Khalid against anyway? In any case, it is just a Chinese tank dressed up in Pakistani rags.

Neither the complacency nor the condescension are warranted. For the issue is not whether India can place an order for and deploy a tank that will neutralise the Al Khalid. It is that Pakistan's minuscule defence research establishment is far more able to meet the country's genuine defence needs than are the 36,000 scientists of the DRDO and its high profile chief, Dr. Abdul Kalam.

Let me begin with the Al Khalid. Even a cursory look at its capabilities shows that except on one parameter, where no information was given in the news report, it is an armoured corps commander's dream. In its offensive capabilities, and speed on level firm ground, it meets every requirement that the Indian army's most up-to-date GSQR for India's MBT project more than a decade ago. More important, it has a fire control system that enables it to acquire and shoot at targets while moving at high speeds over rough terrain. This is something that India's mainstay, the T-72, cannot do (some are being upgraded to have this capability). The fact that all this capability has been packed in a tank with only a 1200 HP engine, means that it has an overall weight of 40 tonnes or thereabouts against the Arjun's 55 tonnes. This will give it a lower profile than the typical MBT and make it harder to hit.

China's technological help has undoubtedly played a very important part in its development. It is even possible that most of the parts and systems are Chinese. But it would be a mistake to belittle the specific Pakistani input. For China's tanks have been designed, like European tanks, to work in relatively cool climates. An Indian or Pakistani tank must be capable of operating in Sindh in summer. This means up and down sand dunes in an ambient temperature of 50 degrees Celsius. Other than the American Abrams tank, and possibly an Israeli MBT, none of the tanks developed elsewhere has passed this test. The design of the Al Khalid would not have been sealed if it did not meet this requirement to an extent sufficient to satisfy the Pakistan Armoured Corps.

The problem that DRDO failed to resolve, but Pakistan obviously has, is that diesel engines generate heat. The bigger they are, the more heat they generate and therefore the larger the proportion of the power that has to be diverted for air conditioning. The Arjun has a 1500 HP engine, but 300 HP gets used up in air-conditioning. As a result at 50 degrees Celsius the tank is able to travel only at a snail's pace and is a sitting duck.

Attempts to solve this problem within the basic parameters of an engine that was developed in the early fifties have forced other compromises that gravely impair the Arjun's offensive capability and increase its vulnerability. Not surprisingly, the Indian army has flatly refused to induct the Arjun into the armoured corps in more than token numbers and is insisting on the purchase of the T-90. In short, after 16 years of 'research' the DRDO has produced a lemon.

How could such a monumental waste of energy, time and money have come about? Pakistan's success with Al Khalid makes it essential that we answer this question now, before the afterglow of Kargil fades. The key difference is that in Pakistan, the army decides what it wants to buy, the army owns the defence production factories, and the army manages the defence research institutes. In India the armed forces have only a distant, passive say in the acquisition of weapons. Each service decides what kind of weapons it needs and with what capabilities. This is compiled into a QR - quality requirement - and handed over to the Defence Ministry. After that its role is to attend the supplier or the DRDO's trials, and at the final stage of selection just prior to induction, carry out its own field trials. Only if the MoD has selected more than one system, does it get to indicate its preference. That almost never happens. Even then, there is no certainty that this preference will be respected. This procedure breaks one of the cardinal rules of good management, which was discovered in a landmark study of relationship between Technology, Organisation and Business success by a team of researchers headed by the late Joan Woodward of the Imperial College of Technology in 1955-58. This is the necessity, in special order batch production for a constant and close interaction between the product user and manufacturer. The primacy of the army in Pakistan has, accidentally, ensured that this rule is respected in its defence research and development. The ascendancy of the Defence Ministry has made sure that it is not in India. What this has meant is that the armed forces no longer necessarily get what they want, but also when they need it.

Examples abound. A 155mm howitzer was indented for in 1978. The Bofors was finally acquired in 1986. The eight-year delay meant that while Pakistan got its 155mm howitzers in the early eighties for $850,000 a piece, India paid $ 3 million for each gun. As if that were not bad enough, following the outcry over kickbacks, Bofors was blacklisted from 1987 till after the Kargil war began in 1999. All that while the army was left with 400 of these guns instead of the 1200 it had wanted, and was starved of shells and spares to the point where it was compelled to cannibalise some of the guns in order to keep the others functioning. Its entreaties that the blacklist be lifted were ignored.

India first failed to spot, and later took six weeks to ascertain the number of invaders in Kargil because among other reasons, its satellite did not have a sufficiently high resolution. At that precise time the government had signed an agreement with Russia for pictures from a satellite with a six times higher resolution, but they had not begun to arrive because the MoD had not paid the contract price!

The problem has been complicated by the sudden rise of DRDO as a competing weapons provider. For now the army has to contend not only with the delays that are imposed upon it by ministry officials who feel no sense of urgency about doing their job, but also by the delay that arises when the DRDO chief insists that there is no need to import a weapon because he can design and produce it at home. The Arjun lemon is by no means the worst example of the cost this can impose on the army. In 1987 the American defence department finally and reluctantly cleared the sale of a WLR - a gun locating radar that tracks artillery shells feeds the coordinates into one's own guns and directs the return fire automatically to destroy the enemy gun from which the shell came - to India. The army was ecstatic because Pakistan had had an American WLR since the eighties and the one the US were offering India was superior. The deal was finalised and the purchase was about to be made when, on the urging of Dr. Kalam, the then defence secretary cancelled it and decided to let DRDO develop a WLR instead!

Two years later, the army still had no WLRs. As a result many young men who died in Kargil, fell victim to Pak artillery fire which the Indian guns could not suppress because they did not have WLRs. The all-pervasive fear in the armed forces is that with the return of peace, the MoD and DRDO will have neither learned nor forgotten anything. If Mr. Vajpayee has a lasting contribution to make it is to shift the boot from the MoD's foot to that of the Army. So far the army has proposed and the MoD has disposed. Now the MoD and DRDO may propose but the armed forces must dispose.