The Indian Army is in the early planning stages for a new light tank capable of traversing the rugged conditions of India’s mountainous northern borders. A directive from the Army setting requirements for the machine comes soon after China tested its own mountain tank in Tibet.
India and China have long-running border disputes at Aksai Chin in India’s northwest and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast. In June 2017, a standoff ensued at Doklam, near Bhutan, when Chinese troops with construction machinery moved into a disputed territory to extend a road. Indian troops arrived and both sides faced off, and both withdrew in late August.
One mutual disadvantage India and China face is a paucity of railroads heading toward the frontier, although China has a terminal as far southwards as Lhasa, Tibet, some 180 miles away from Doklam. Freight trains vastly simplify the logistics of moving tanks and their supporting vehicles. Both countries are trying to fast-track rail construction closer to their borders — but share no direct rail connections between them.
In any case, main battle tanks perform poorly in mountains, which limit their room to maneuver and restrict their angles of fire, strain their engines on steep inclines while further burdening a tank army’s demanding logistical backbone.
At the same time, mountains give more places for infantry to hide from tanks, isolating them — generally speaking, tanks are at their most effective when employed en masse in open country — and then striking at weak points in their armor from above.
To be sure, India has a sizable tank army with more than 1,600 T-90s and 2,400 T-72s, plus 118 — and rising — domestically-designed Arjuns. While India would love to have the ability to send these in huge numbers to its northern borders, their military utility is limited compared to rapidly-deployable lighter tanks.
India has developed a light “tank” for mountain fighting before. In the 1980s, India’s defense research agency produced the DRDO, which combined the chassis from a BMP infantry fighting vehicle with a French GIAT TS-90 turret equipped with a 105-millimeter gun.
The machine’s trials continued into the 1990s, but it never entered into service.
India wants its new light tank to weigh around 22 tons — slightly heavier than the U.S. Army’s Stryker’s Mobile Gun System variant which has a 105-millimeter cannon. This means New Delhi’s future tank should be light enough to lift inside the Indian Air Force’s Il-76MD, C-17 and C-130J transport planes. It’ll probably be too heavy to air-drop with a parachute, however.
The Indian Army also wants its new tanks to operate at 3,000 meters above sea level and engage targets from 2,000 meters away with a main gun and anti-tank missiles, according to Defense News.
China is ahead of India here. The former’s 35-ton ZTQ light tank — or Xinqingtan — showed up for testing in Tibet in June 2017 and first appeared all the way back in 2010. This machine packs an autoloading 105-millimeter gun, a 35-millimeter grenade launcher and a 12.7-millimeter gun. China reportedly wants to field as many as 300 ZTQs. The design appears to be a smaller version of the MBT3000, a Chinese-made tank derived from the T-90.
Which is to demonstrate that China takes its mountain-fighting needs seriously. The ZTQ might be underpowered everywhere else, but it gives Beijing added punch in a potential, future border war on its periphery — which may be the most likely conflict China will face. No wonder India is trying to catch up.