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The Arjun tank faces it biggest trial

India's Arjun tank will battle for its life against a squadron of Russian T-90s in trials likely to determine the controversial vehicle's future.

The long-awaited trials, which start in March, will pit the 14 indigenous Arjuns against the 14 T-90s, day and night for a month, according to the national Business Standard newspaper.

The 24th Infantry Division stationed in Bikaner will conduct the trials in the rugged deserts of the northern state of Rajasthan, around the cities of Bikaner, Suratgarh and also Pokhran, the site of India's first nuclear bomb test in May 1974.

The performance of tanks and their crews will be monitored. Vehicle speed, accuracy in firing while on the move, ability to operate over long distances and fatigue on crews will be observed, the Business Standard article said.

Media reports last fall said the army had purchased an initial 124 Arjuns and was considering it as a replacement for "hundreds" of its T-90s. More than 390 T-90s were ordered in 2001 as a stopgap until the Arjun was made ready. But continued performance and manufacturing problems with the Arjun prompted the army to order another 347 T-90s last November as part of the country's fleet of about 4,000 tanks.

However, the Business Standard article said the army is not now looking to replace its T-90s with the Arjun and so is not calling the trials "comparative." The T-90 is expected to be in service for around 30 years. Instead, the Arjun is a potential successor to the army's aging Russian T-72, of which it has around 2,400.

The T-90 is not on trial, the army said. Performance of the Arjun is.

The strengths and weaknesses of the Arjun are under evaluation "to help the army decide what operational role the Arjun could play and which sector of the border it could effectively operate in," the Standard article said.

"The outcome could decide whether the Indian army will ride Indian tanks into future battles or continue its reliance upon a heavily criticized fleet of Russian T-72 tanks, which even the army chief admits is 80 percent blind at night, when most tank battles occur."

Hope for the Arjun tank's future were raised last October when the army confirmed its order for 124 from the manufacturer Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi and the Defense R&D Organization, which developed the Arjun tank at the Central Vehicles R&D Establishment at Chennai.

A report in The Hindustan Times at the time said that the Arjun -- 35 years in the making -- had been plagued with a number of major problems concerning its fire control system, suspension and poor mobility due to its excessive weight, coming in at just under 60 tons. The T-90s weigh in at around 45 tons.

While the news of the trials is welcomed by the DRDO, there is also some frustration. "The army knows that the T-72 would have performed very poorly in trials against the Arjun," a senior DRDO officer is quoted by the Standard as saying.

"Despite that, the army continues to sink money into its 2,400 outdated T-72s. Any comparative trial with the T-72 would make it clear that the Arjun should replace the T-72."

Doubts about the usefulness of the trials were noted by retired Maj. Gen. H.M. Singh, the "father of the Arjun," according to the Standard article. It will be impossible to measure the tactical performance of 14 Arjun tanks.

"There are too many variables, including the skill of the tank crews and colored perceptions of the judges," said Singh. "A comparative trial should be a scientific comparison of each tank's physical performance in identical situations."

The Arjun measures just under 33 feet long and 12 feet wide. Armor is a Kanchan steel-composite sandwich development. A 1,400 horsepower diesel engine gives it an operational range of 280 miles with a speed of 45 mph on roads and 25 mph cross-country.

The 120mm rifled main turret gun can fire the LAHAT anti-tank missile. Secondary armaments are a MAG 7.62mm Tk715 coaxial machine gun and an HCB 12.7mm AA machine gun.

The Arjun is named after one of the main characters of the Indian epic poem the Mahabharata. The discussion of life and karma is the longest epic poem in the world, being roughly 10 times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined.

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