Almost every country in the Asia-Pacific has embarked on military modernisation programmes which include overhauling their Main Battle Tank (MBT) fleets. This article will examine MBT procurement and upgrade programmes ongoing around the region.
IndiaThe Indian Army plans to procure a total of 1657 Uralvagonzavod T-90 MBTs by 2020, which will include 1000 tanks produced indigenously under a full technology transfer agreement with Russia, with all parts made in India. A total of 59 armoured regiments are to be equipped with around 1600 tanks. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) which oversees procurement in India has cleared manufacture of 235 T-90 tanks at the Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF) located at Avadi in south-east India. For those T-90s already in operation with the Indian Army, the force will upgrade more than 600 of these MBTs with new optronics, navigation systems and fire control for a total of $250 million. The Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) formally approved the army’s three-year-old proposal for the T-90 upgrade in February 2014. In keeping with the country’s overriding desire to move towards domestic defence provision self sufficiency, an Indian MoD source said that the tender for the upgrade will be sent only to domestic defence companies.
In addition to the T-90s, the Indian Army’s fleet of some 1900 Uralvagonzavod T-72M MBTs is being upgraded with new optronics and navigation equipment, the latter of which will outfit those T-72Ms configured to provide command and control. Upgraded T-72M tanks are entering service and the upgrade has afforded a life extension that will allow them to remain operational beyond 2025. As far as India’s domestic Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) Arjun Mk.I MBTs are concerned, all 124 tanks have been delivered to the Indian Army. The force’s 43rd and 75th Armoured Regiments are fully operational with 45 tanks each. Trials of the Arjun Mk.I’s sibling, the Arjun Mk.II began in 2012. Series production is expected to begin in 2016. It offers improved protection, firepower and mobility over its predecessor, and it should eventually replace the Indian Army’s ageing Cold War-era T-55 and T-72M tanks in service with the Indian Army.
Compared to the Arjun Mk.I, the hull and turret of the Arjun Mk.II has been redesigned. It has improved protection and locally-developed explosive reactive armour modules have been added. Armour modules counter APFSDS (Armour-Piercing, Fin-Stabilised, Discarding Sabot) and HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) rounds, as well as Rocket Propelled Grenades. Ammunition is stored in the turret bustle which is equipped with blowout panels. The Arjun Mk.II is also fitted with advanced laser warning and countermeasures systems which confuse enemy sensors. Furthermore, this new MBT is armed with a fully-stabilised 120mm rifled gun which is loaded manually. A rifled gun of such calibre is only used on the British BAE Systems Challenger-2 MBT. This gun is more accurate at long range compared to smoothbore guns. India claims that during trials this new Indian tank outgunned both the T-72M and T-90 (see above). The Arjun Mk.II is also compatible with Israel Aerospace Industries’ LAHAT (Laser-Homing Anti-Tank) surface-to-surface missiles. These missiles are launched in the same manner as ordinary projectiles, and the tank can accommodate a total of 39 rounds, including the LAHAT missiles. The Arjun Mk.II is fitted with advanced optronics and has improved communication and navigation systems. Secondary armament consists of a coaxial 7.62mm machine gun and a roof-mounted remote-controlled weapon station, armed with a 12.7mm heavy machine gun.
PakistanPakistan’s two main tanks are the Al-Zarrar and Al-Khalid MBTs, both of which are manufactured by the Government-owned Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) organisation. Although The Al-Khalid initially entered service in 2001, around 300 are in service but this is expected to rise to 600 with an improved version which will include a more powerful diesel engine, more ammunition storage and a better Fire Control System (FCS) together with new optronics (see Alex Calvo’s ‘Deterrence and Doctrine’ article in this issue). The Al-Khalid is a license-built version of the Kharkiv Morozov T-54 MBT. An Al-Khalid Mk.II is in development which will feature a new turret, modular armour and a new power pack. Recently HIT signed a memorandum of understanding with China’s Norinco for ongoing technology transfer, help with exports and profit sharing. HIT sees possible markets existing in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and possibly the Middle East.
Bangladesh and IndonesiaBangladesh has ordered 44 Norinco MBT-2000 tanks and three recovery vehicles with deliveries having commenced in 2014. Indonesia, meanwhile, has committed to buying 93 Rheinmetall Leopard 2A4 MBTs and ten engineering and support vehicles. At least 61 of the Leopard 2A4 MBTs which Indonesia has purchased will receive elements of the Rheinmetall ‘Revolution’ modular upgrade package. These upgraded MBTs have been re-designated as the Leopard RI, to denote ‘Republic of Indonesia’. In 2012 the German government gave Rheinmetall the green light in 2012 to export 104 Leopard 2A6 tanks, 50 Marder 1A2 infantry fighting vehicles and ten other platforms, including armoured recovery vehicles, mobile bridges and military engineering vehicles to Indonesia. According to Indonesian officials, the initial agreement for 130 tanks was valued at $280 million, while Rheinmentall’s press release placed the figure at $293.7 million. The deal includes training, logistical support and an initial supply of practice and service ammunition. The deliveries are due to be concluded by 2016.
Malaysia and SingaporeMalaysia purchased 48 Polish Bumar Labedy PT91 Twardy MBTs in the early 2000s. These MBTs are in turn developed from the T-72M (see above). There appear to be no plans to replace these in the foreseeable future as Malaysia has other defence priorities. Like Indonesia (see above) Singapore purchased 66 ex-Heer (German Army) Leopard-2A4 MBTs plus 30 spare tanks, together with ten Bergepanzer-3 Buffel armoured recovery vehicles in 2007-2008. Most of the tanks were recently upgraded to the Leopard-2SG standard with advanced modular armour protection from IBD Deisenroth Engineering of Germany and Singapore’s ST Kinetics. They are fitted with IBD’s Evolution suite that boasts fourth-generation Advanced Modular Armour Protection (AMAP), which employs steel alloy, aluminium-titanium alloy, nano-metric steel, ceramic inserts and nano-ceramics. Steel slat armour is installed on the hull and turret rear and flanks while the hull bottom is reinforced against mines. The Evolution suite increases the tank’s weight from 55 tonnes to 60 tonnes.
ThailandThailand’s government signed a $240 million contract for the purchase of 49 Malyshev Factory T-84 Oplot MBTs from Ukraine in March 2011, the T-84 being chosen ahead of the Republic of Korea’s (RoK) Hyundai K1A1. Thai-Ukraine cooperation is at an all-time high following the earlier purchase of Kharkiv Morozov BTR-3E1 eight-wheel drive armoured personnel carriers. Thailand could possibly acquire up to 200 T-84s to allow retirement of its elderly Cadillac/General Motors M41A3 light tanks. It is anticipated that Thailand will eventually purchase up to 200 tanks with the first 50 being delivered in 2015.
VietnamAmongst all ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) armies, Vietnam has the largest MBT fleet and has been a long time user of Soviet-era T-54/55 series and Norinco Type 59 MBTs, with several units actually being Vietnam War veterans. Sources say that 600 to 850 T-54/55 tanks remain in Vietnamese service, with around 310 modernised using Israeli technology to take them to T-54/55M3 standards which involved the replacement of the original Soviet 100mm gun with a 105mm M68/L7 gun, along with the installation of explosive reactive armour, smoke grenade launchers, a new engine, a 60mm mortar and upgraded sensors. There were previous reports that Vietnam planned to purchase 150 T-72 main battle tanks from Poland, but the order did not materialise and the budget was instead used to purchase naval assets as the threat to its offshore interests from China are considered more strategically pressing.
ChinaChina is a major producer of innovative tanks, the newest of which is the Norinco ZTZ-99. The ZTZ-99 (Type 99), 500 of which are in service with the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), features significant advances in technology and protection. It is equipped with Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA), a laser warning system and a 125mm ZPT-98 main gun. The newest variant is the ZTZ-99A2 with improved ERA, a modified rear hull and turret, a new panoramic commander’s sight, a millimetre-wave radar, an upgraded FCS and a digital Battle Management System (BMS).
Another project is the Type 99KM which is equipped with a modular Active Protection System (APS), an active laser defence system and a larger-calibre gun able to fire next-generation kinetic ammunition. Norinco is developing and marketing the third-generation MBT-3000. This is an upgrade of the MBT-2000 (see above) and it could deploy with the PLA by the end of 2014. The MBT-3000 has a 125mm gun capable of firing missiles, and is powered by a turbo-diesel engine.
Republic of KoreaThe mainstay of the RoK’s MBT fleet is around 1500 Hyundai K1 and K1A1 vehicles. General Dynamics has assisted Hyundai to upgrade the KIAI with the addition of a Battle Management System (BMS), global positioning system-based navigation, an identification friend or foe system and new optronics for the driver. The Republic of Korea Army (RoKA) has been testing this modernised K1A1.
Hyundai is also developing the 55-tonne K2 Black Panther for the RoKA. The service intends to order 397 K2s. It will feature a 120mm main gun coupled to an autoloader, a missile approach warning system, BMS and an indigenously-designed soft-kill APS. It also fires the innovative high-trajectory, fire-and-forget KSTAM (Korean Smart Top-Attack Munition) anti-tank round. The K2’s introduction was delayed until March 2014 because of mechanical problems with the locally developed Doosan DST engine and S&T Dynamics automatic transmission. As a result the first 100 production vehicles will use MTU-890 engines and RENK transmissions both imported from Germany.
The K2 Product Improvement programme (PIP) expected to commence in the future will have add features such as non-explosive reactive armour, an upgraded suspension and a hard-kill APS. An electrothermal-chemical gun may also replace the existing 120mm armament. Designers are attempting to integrate an unmanned ground vehicle into the K2’s architecture to give the MBT a remote scouting capability. The RoK intends to offer the K2 for export but this may prove difficult given the number of cheaper refurbished tanks available.
JapanJapan is planning to downsize its fleet of MBTs, which consists mainly of Mitsubishi Type 90s to 400 examples. It is intended to replace the bulk of these, which are considered too heavy and unsuitable for Japan’s highly urbanised environment with the new Mitsubishi Type 10 MBTs. The high-tech Type 10 is lighter than its predecessor and builds on lessons learned from counter insurgency and asymmetric warfare in Iraq. It has a remote-controlled machine gun atop the turret, while the modular armour package can be adjusted to suit threat levels. In the turret is a 120mm smoothbore cannon that fires a new APFSDS round with greater penetration. Its engine is connected to an innovative continuously variable transmission that allows the vehicle to drive equally fast either forwards or backwards. Furthermore, a BMS connects tanks to each other and to higher echelons of command. Both the Japanese and the RoK MBTs discussed above feature hydropneumatic suspension, as the ability to kneel is extremely useful in rugged terrain since it gives the gun more elevation and depression. It is expected that 68 Type 10s will be in service with the Japan Ground Self Defence Force by 2015.
TaiwanTaiwan has a need to replace its sizeable fleet of M41 and M48 MBTs and is negotiating with the US to purchase refurbished General Dynamics M1A1 Abrams MBTs which are becoming available as the US army downsizes its fleet. Sources within Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence recently said that Taiwan needs up to 200 new MBTs. Although no order has yet been made it is expected that Taipei will give governmental approval for the acquisition in the near future.
SummaryMany commentators forecasted the death of the MBT following the end of the Cold War and the experience of counter insurgency and asymmetric warfare in the Middle East and Central Asia since the turn of the century. However, throughout the Asia-Pacific region this is far from the case as the expansion of tank fleets continues apace fuelled by the availability of materiel as Western nations downsize their legacy Cold War tank fleets, along with continuing geopolitical rivalries in south Asia and Chinese expansion.
An Article by John Ross