In light of India and China’s territorial dispute over Ladakh, New Delhi has established a significant military presence in the region. Because the vast, open valleys of Eastern Ladakh are perfect for tank engagements, the Indian army has deployed many main battle tanks (MBTs) and armoured vehicles in reaction to China’s aggressive operations.
In the event of a deterioration in the situation, the Indian command expects Chinese units to attempt to gain Indian territory by advancing via the river basins of Ladakh. The Indus River flows from China-controlled Tibet via Ladakh and into Pakistan. Indian units in this region practised river crossing skills during recent exercises. Military transport planes such as the Il-76 and C-17 have flown T-90S Bhishma, T-72M1 Ajeya, and BMP to the region located at an altitude of about 5,000 metres.
However, operating tanks in the area presents several challenges. Tank operations are complicated by weight and climate. The low air pressure at high altitudes reduces the performance of the tank power plants, and crews must activate the engines for up to 30 minutes every two to three hours to prevent their components from freezing.
China has addressed these issues by deploying Type 15 light tanks (VT5 ZTQ-15) in the Himalayas, explicitly designed for mountainous terrain. Type 15 is a “new” Chinese military product introduced in 2016. It is designed to provide infantry and light armoured vehicles with direct support during hostile position assaults. Speed and manoeuvrability were prioritised during its development at the expense of armour and armament.
The light tank Type 15 can operate at high altitudes due to its powerful engine and oxygen generators. In contrast, heavily armoured vehicles such as the MBTs T-72 and T-90 confront difficulties due to oxygen deficiency. According to the publication, its lightweight and high power-to-weight ratio make it more mobile than heavy tanks.
The Type 15 is armed with a 105mm rifled cannon with automatic loading and a 38-round ammunition capacity, a remotely controlled 12.7mm machine gun, and a 40mm grenade launcher. It can attain 70 km/h on paved roads and 40 km/h off-road. Passive explosive reactive armour (ERA) pieces reinforce the tank’s standard steel construction on the turret and sides. Additionally, it can be fitted with an active protection system (APS) manufactured in China.
The Type 15 is equipped with cutting-edge electronics, such as a laser rangefinder, night vision and infrared optics, a warning sensor system, satellite communication, and inertial and satellite navigation systems.
The hydro-pneumatic suspension of the tank enables the cannon to be elevated to greater vertical angles than conventional tanks, which is advantageous for engaging targets in high-altitude combat conditions.
Western observers estimate China has approximately 500 Type 15 tanks in its arsenal. Their deployment in the Himalayas has revealed deficiencies in India’s armoured arsenal, which largely relies on MBTs less suited for high-altitude operations.
Since 1989, when the Soviet PT-76 was phased out of service, the Indian Army has lacked light tanks. It utilises MBTs weighing between 58 and 68 tonnes, such as the T-90S Bhishma, T-72M1 Ajeya, and Arjun. These tanks were acquired in response to the threat posed by Pakistan and are better adapted for open plains and deserts.
Since 1983, The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has made intermittent attempts to develop a new light tank, but none of the initiatives have been completed. In 2020, however, the fighting in Ladakh prompted a renewed effort to obtain a light tank.
In 2021, the Indian Ministry of Defence said it intends to acquire 350 light tanks. These vehicles should weigh no more than 25 tonnes, have a 105 mm gun and have a crew of two to three people. Additional requirements include an automatic-loading, remotely-controlled machine gun, the capability to discharge “smart” ammunition and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), and the ability to mount explosive reactive armour (ERA) blocks. Tanks must operate in High Altitude Areas (HAA) and marginal terrain such as Rann and conduct amphibious operations.
Initially, it was speculated that India would acquire the 2S25 Sprut-SDM1 from Russia, which had offered to transfer the requisite production technologies. Its 125 mm gun has commonality with the T-72. The Russians additionally offered a lightweight T-90 Tank with commonalities to the T-90S Bhishma tanks deployed in significant numbers by the Indian Army. Hanwha Defence, a South Korean company, was reportedly also poised to offer the IA its K21-105 Light Tank. This tank’s 105mm main cannon can engage targets from an elevation of 42 degrees to a depression of 10 degrees, indicating its versatility in mountainous terrain. The Indian government, however, expressed a preference for a domestic tank under Project Zorawar. The Zorawar project is named after General Zorawar Singh, who reclaimed Ladakh from Chinese dominion in the early nineteenth century.
Late in 2022, the Ministry of Defence authorised the purchase of 315 tanks, which would comprise seven regiments, with the option to increase the order to nearly 700 tanks. In April 2023, the government awarded the Indian firm Larsen & Toubro (L&T) a contract to construct the prototype of the new equipment. L&T had been named the government’s partner in developing the new equipment. It will be outfitted with an MTU 800 horsepower engine, Renk transmission and a 105mm gun manufactured by the Belgian company John Cockerill.
According to Indian officials, the first tanks will be available for testing by the end of the year, with an initial order of 59 units.