Blog: Project Zorawar - How India Plans To Counter China At High Altitudes

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What could be the future of tanks? The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict is a case study for nations to rethink strategies. It's well known that many Russian tanks have proven to be sitting ducks for cheap, DIY Ukrainian drones. On the other hand, during the border conflict between India and China in Ladakh, tanks from either side stood facing each other, separated by several metres. While India put up the T-90 Bhishma, T-72 Ajeya, and armoured vehicles like the BMP-2 and the K-9 Vajra self-propelled artillery during the massive build-up, the Chinese added the ZTQ-15 light tanks to their armour. The Chinese did that due to the existing conditions in Ladakh and operational requirements. The temperature at those heights can plummet to -40 degrees Celsius, and climate conditions can heavily impact the performance of such platforms. The road infrastructure is weak and both T-90s and T-72s have certain limitations. 

Focusing On Light Tanks

These are the reasons the Indian Army is today keen on adding indigenously made light tanks to its arsenal. Developed under a public-private partnership with the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and Larsen and Toubro (L&T), the Army's ambitious light tank project, titled 'Zorawar', was envisioned in 2021. Under it, the Defence Ministry seeks to procure 350 light tanks in a phased manner. Notably, the project has been named after General Zorawar Singh Kahluria, who had served under Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu's Dogra dynasty and played a pivotal role in expanding the Dogra territory by conquering Ladakh.

Speaking about the army's plan for future wars, Army Chief General Manoj Pande, at the recent NDTV Defence Summit, pointed out, "The geopolitical landscape is facing unprecedented changes, and today, nations have shown the willingness to use hard power to secure their interest and there is a situation of return to conflict to achieve political and military objectives." Amid such a landscape, light tanks and infantry combat vehicles will help modernise India's forces. 

What The Defence Ministry Wants

The Ministry of Defence had in April 2021 issued a project brief soliciting interest from manufacturers.  According to the brief, the tanks should execute operations in varying terrain conditions across the country with adequate firepower, protection, surveillance, and communication in High Altitude Areas (HAA) and Marginal Terrain (Rann). The ministry listed operational parameters too: the tanks should be designed for a crew of two or three personnel with a combat weight of at least 25 tonnes to ensure transportation via road, rail, or air. Also, the nominal ground pressure (NGP) should be around 0.7 Kg/cm3 for better manoeuvrability, and a high power-to-weight ratio for better performance, crucial especially at high altitudes where rarefied air and low temperature decrease efficiency. A tank's NGP is its weight divided by the soil-track contact areas. It represents the ground pressure under the track based on uniform distribution and is an important parameter in determining mobility, tractive performance, and soil compaction.

The brief also suggests an Active Protection System (APS), designed to engage with incoming projectiles intended to destroy tanks. "A soft kill capability is essential, but a hard kill feature will be desirable...Along with APS, the tank should have electronic countermeasures, counter-countermeasures, laser warnings, and smoke dispensers," the requirements state. The Army also wants a main gun with 105 mm or higher calibre, similar to the Chinese Type 15, and it should be capable of firing an Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM), preferably third generation or higher.

Trials for Project Zorawar are already ongoing and the tanks are expected to become a reality soon, though there have been delays due to issues with the supply of German engines. According to reports, the DRDO has now decided to go ahead with the American Cummins engine.

Why Light Tanks Are Important

A September 2020 video of the T-72 Ajeya and the T-90 Bhishma lined up in the Chumar-Demchok area at 15,000 feet to face China head-on can easily underline how the medium battle tanks (MBT), though capable of performing at -40 degrees, face geographical challenges. Heavy armour cover can increase the weight of a tank, which ultimately impacts its manoeuvrability. To illustrate, the PT-76 tanks, which turned the tide against Pakistan in the battle of Garibpur in 1971 and weighed almost 14 tonnes, had light armour plating. Heavy armour would've increased its weight and reduced its ability to float for amphibious operations.

The following numbers further illustrate the challenges with covering elevation. Taking Leh as a reference point, which is at an elevation of approximately 10,000 feet, the following charts show the ascent in altitude from Leh to forward areas like the Depsang Plains in the north and Demchok in eastern Ladakh.

The distance between Leh and Depsang Plains is around 200 km, but the elevation at Depsang is approximately 5,500 m (or 18,000 feet), which drops to around 3,352 m (11,000 feet) in Leh.

Leh to Depsang

Leh to Depsang
Photo Credit: Google Earth

Chart 2 (Leh to Demchok) - The distance between Leh and Chumar-Demchok is 270 km, with a gradual ascent from 3,200 m to nearly 5,000 m.

Leh to Demchok

Leh to Demchok
Photo Credit: Google Earth

Manoeuvrability, Performance 

Tracked vehicles with low ground pressure are better suited for rocky, dusty terrain because they distribute their weight over a larger area, reducing pressure on a single track. They thus allow for better navigation in regions like Ladakh or Sikkim, which have limited road infrastructure. At high altitudes, if heavy tanks are deployed during a climb, then, due to a higher NGP, the pressure will be concentrated on a smaller area, which can cause the track to lose traction or cause slippage on uneven surfaces.

India's Medium Battle Tanks (MBT) in Ladakh were a seal of approval for the forces' prowess. They can function in freezing temperatures, but due to low air pressure, and lack of oxygen, the performance of the tanks gets hindered, as does its capability to fire with more precision compared to the efficiency at lower heights.

In contrast, during the 1947-48 war with Pakistan, the battle of Zoji La was a testament to the strength of light tanks at high altitudes. The enemy was taken by surprise when, upon the direction of Major General K.S. Thimayya, India deployed Stuart Light Tanks of the 7th Light Cavalry. India ultimately retained control of the Zoji La pass. That was the first time tanks were deployed at such an altitude. 

Transportation Troubles

The T-90 and T-72 are transported via road in trucks or trailers, or via air in the Air Force's carriers. The C-17 Globemaster III has a carrying capacity of around 78,000 kilograms, and thus, only a limited number of tanks can be transported in a sortie.

India's Arjun Mk1, or the 'White Elephant', is a heavy tank weighing over 58 tonnes, and therefore, it was missing during the peak of the conflict with China. The bulky Arjun can only be transported by rail and the wide base requires special equipment to load it on a transport train, making it a challenging task. Today, tensions have largely simmered down after the disengagement and with forward deployments called off, but if quick mobilisation is needed at 15,000 feet in the near future, manoeuvrability, which heavy tanks, unfortunately, do not offer, will be a challenge.

While T-90s still manage to climb at an incline of around 30 degrees in Ladakh with the help of its turbos, Arjun's 1800-bhp engine and heavy weight make it a struggle to perform such manoeuvres, sources explain. Though equipped with accurate, superior firepower with new-age technology to take on the enemy in a day and night operation, the challenges in Ladakh do not make Arjun a great choice.

The military's infantry, mechanised infantry, armour, and other combat arms work together in a 'Combined Arms Approach' for quick deployment and fulfilment of the objective. The light tanks India is in the process of procuring, thus, are not to replace the Ajeya or the Bhishma, but to fulfil functionally different objectives.

(Divyam Sharma is a Senior Sub-Editor at NDTV)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.