By Bikram Vohra
We have all read or heard of these famous tank battles. The Battle of Kursk was the largest tank battle in history, involving some 6,000 tanks, 2,000,000 troops, and 4,000 aircraft. The battle marked the decisive end of the German offensive capability on the Eastern Front and allowed the Soviets to mount offensives between 1944–45.
North Africa had been a battleground through WW-II. Germany’s Afrikakorps under Rommel fought at El Alamein and were able to push the British way back to Egypt. Similarly, the battle of Chawinda in 1965 between India and Pakistan is often recalled as the second biggest armored conflict in history.
The Battle of the Bulge or the Ardennes Counteroffensive was Germany’s last stand. Both sides had huge casualties, but Germany could not recover from the blows.
The Battle of Basantar was one of the vital battles fought as part of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 in western sector of India. The Indian troops scythed through the enemy and secured this area in the Punjab/Jammu sector.
The Shakargarh-Shahbazpur-Samba-Chicken’s neck area was safe and Indian armour went deep into the Lahore sector via Shukochak and Chak Amru.At one stage Indian forces around was 3 klicks away from the city limits.
As a war correspondent there on the scene at the young age of 22 deputed by Khushwant Singh, I recall being representing the Illustrated Weekly at the front.
Taking the liberty for a moment of self-indulgence. In the history of the Indian armored corps there is no other family that has had four brothers who have commanded 8 Cav, Hodson’s Horse, Deccan Horse (commissioned in Scinde Horse) 8 Cav, 82 Armored regiment (commissioned in 3 Cav) and Deccan Horse. JM also commanded 14 Armored Brigade.
SM commanded 2 Armored Brigade. All four graduated to General officer ranks which itself was unprecedented. At a given moment my grandfather had four flag cars with stars outside his house. I was fortunate to be the son of the eldest and the war zone those two weeks was more like a family.
I went from Col RM Vohra’s 4 Horse to Brigadier JM Vohra’s brigade in the Samba area like I rule it. It was surreal to know everyone, and everyone knew you. In the middle of a war, they are telling me they were there when I was born.
Sitting on a tank was something (or going to the ranges for firing) we took for granted as we grew up so the fondness for these huge chunks of steel is inbred. The AMX was my introduction. At one stage the four Vohra brothers were commanding 12% of the Indian armoured strength.RM got the MVc and JM was awarded the Sena medal. Pretty decent credentials, hope you would agree.
So when someone asked if tanks were redundant in future wars I answered with some asperity. Tanks are central to any push besides giving infantry cover and being able to clamber over rough terrain. At the time of refreshing my memory getting facts on the T55s and Centurions that took on the Patton in 1971 and created a metal graveyard called Pattonnagar I read this piece in Reddit and it deserves to be reprinted.
“Some people said the tank was doomed in World War I because they constantly broke down, could be penetrated by big enough rifles, and were slow. They were wrong. Some people said the tank was doomed in the inter-war period because unlimited airpower could always destroy it. They were wrong”
“Some people said the tank was doomed during the Spanish Civil War because anti-tank mines, anti-tank guns, and molotov cocktails meant that tanks couldn’t survive on the modern battlefield. They were wrong”
“Some people said the tank was doomed after World War II, because the battlefield of the future would be decided by nukes, not tanks. They were wrong”
“Some people said the tank was doomed in 1973, because ATGMs and RPGs had returned dominion of the battlefield to the infantry. They were wrong”
You should sense something of a pattern in these statements. The burden of proof is on the person saying “The Tank is Doomed” because they have always, always, always been wrong.
Thus far, I’ve yet to see a compelling argument that proves to me that 60 tons of chobham, steel and cannon : Is useless against enemy combatants and equipment and is so vulnerable to be untenable on a modern battlefield.
All these points add up to a death knell for the tank. However, it has survived all these dire predictions and is still central to a conflict.
The Indian Army has a total of over 3,500 battle tanks as compared to 2,496 tanks of the Pakistan Army. Yes, indeed the terrain has changed since 1971 and is now more built up and semi urban. Especially in the Punjab sector. It is also valid that the sand swathes of Rajasthan make traversing difficult. By that token as Indian ruefully learnt in the Rajiv Gandhi inspired Sri Lankan adventure that tanks are sitting tanks if they do not have 360 degree maneuverability. There also exists this fallacy that since battles these days are more combat in urban cities tanks are hard placed to penetrate the enemy strongholds and therefore become easy targets. And with armament today far more sophisticated and anti-tank missiles and air strikes capable of turning a machine into scrap the main battle tank is a liability. Avionics have moved the goalposts onto another field. All that is needed to bust its track and there it is ready for roasting. One weak bridge that will not take its weight and an offensive goes tail up. A deep river and the tank is stranded, a sharp incline and she is a dead elephant.
All this said, the tank per se is still a formidable and valid asset. It can crush obstacles, has massive firepower and the major armies of the world have not eschewed it. The US, the British and the French are still very much in the upgrade game. Even now there is a Franco-German collaboration to rework the LeClerc and the leopard. India is currently in the process of ordering 118 Arjun MK 1A Main battle tanks with over 70 upgrades to the original. These are home grown machines and while the black berets find them very competent and effective, at 68 tonnes they are pretty heavy going. India is not likely to invest in any more of these mammoths and come tomorrow there might be a renewed interest in a parallel research into the efficacy of the current USA programme on Robotic Combat Vehicles (RCV) which are unmanned and controlled from a distance but perform the same roles. The one flaw in a tank is the confinement of the crew and their limited scope of escaping a crippled vehicle. The heroic story of 2/Lt Arun Khetrapal PVC, who perished in a crippled tank he would not leave because the gun was still working underscores the vulnerability of humans in tanks. Unmanned options make sense.
The other problem is transportation and the Arjun for all her glory is a tough bird to transport by air. Logistically a tank is only as formidable as the freedom it is given, dispatch it in a monsoon ravaged slush field and it will sink into the bog.
At present we have enough armour to handle Pakistan. What we do need as a priority is to give armour a boost in the mountains opposite China. For too long have our soldiers been exposed and left only with artillery fire as they clambered towards enemy pickets.
A lightweight tank, more limber and capable of accessing uneven terrain but with enough firepower to give infantry a tangible support is something that would offer our troops a real morale booster. While light tanks like the still valid PT 76 have a long history and lineage going back to the 1918 Renault FT the post cold war options are plentiful. While India may not want to be saddled with something as nimble and small as the Badger such a manned mobile weapon if a little larger and with more firepower could have huge detrimental value in hilly terrain. A regiment of upgraded badgers could scuttle across the range creating havoc.
That may not be on the cards but the choices for a lightweight tank in the modern era are plentiful and India must now seriously look into strengthening its China border defences. The Americans would probably be willing to give us a dekko at the Stingray which can easily be airlifted in a C130 which the Arjun cannot. There is also the British Ajax and the Russian Sprut which at 18 tonnes is flyweight and swift. India has already moved a request for information for as many as 350 such tanks to shore up its northern sector and send Beijing a message of intent. What New Delhi must not do is dither over the decision or cloud it with scandal. Regrettably our military purchases have all too often been mired in suspicion and accusation and delays only leave our border vulnerable. If it is under the Make in India umbrella well then, just get an offset programme into place, find the appropriate vendor and start manufacturing. Our Armoured regiments need these variants.