If one takes time to reflect on strange but significant happenings which fashion your future course, interesting revelations surface. It is in this kind of reverie, I was trying to fathom how and why I got the ‘infamous tag’ of a ‘Gunnery Pandit of our illustrious Corps’. This myth not only gave me immense satisfaction and joy, but also exposed me to a wide range of personal and professional experiences including interacting with illustrious and renowned personalities like General Israel Tal of the famous Arab – Israel Wars. I have therefore traced out a journey in time to detail the genesis of this myth.
There is a popular saying that ‘coming events cast their shadows before’. Earlier it remained a ‘quotable quote’; but as one grew older and started reflecting on various incidents and events with a mature and evolved mind, the meaning started getting sharper edges of reality. This story of mine displays credence to that proverb.
I hail from the Kunadi family of erstwhile Kotah State in Rajasthan. During pre-independence days, all Jagirdars had to maintain horses to be fielded to the State Army in case of war. As a consequence, we also had a large number of horses and family tradition required each male member to learn to ride and become an accomplished cavalier. To maintain this tradition, early hours of the morning, were spent riding.
I still recall, when I first sat on a white horse named ‘Aibak’, an unusual chill went through my spine; a sensation which is difficult to express in words!! In retrospect, I feel that day, somewhere down in my being ‘ a cavalier was born mating itself with the characteristics of a horse, symbolising speed, ferocity, courage, power and the desire for the dash to conquer and win.’ All that was needed was the fusion with the destructive power of a weapon.
These characteristics with the noise and resonance of cannon fire entered my blood at a young age but remained dormant. It was when I was commissioned and joined Poona Horse and mounted the tank for the first time, moved and fired it, that I experienced the same exhilaration when I rode Aibak and heard the cannon being fired at Kunadi Fort.
That was the beginning of my getting wedded to a tank with its unique and decisive battle-winning features; especially the ‘Gun’, the love for which still remains. Thereafter, I got involved with tanks and soon got labelled ‘Gunnery King’. This ended with my being nominated to salvage the 17-year-old indigenous tank development programme; ‘ARJUN’.
Professional gunnery training
My initiation into Gunnery began after commissioning, as the regiment, was shedding the good old Shermans and converting to Centurions. Having yet to do the YOs Course, my training was in the form of an introduction to the tank rather than a formalized conversion. Nevertheless, my enthusiasm to learn made up for that exposure and my confidence was soaring high.
During YO’s Course, Gunnery captured my interest and imagination. My curiosity and creativity were aroused regarding what could be done to give firepower more punch. This feverish interest got a further flip-up when I was subsequently detailed for the Instructors Course. Gunnery then had started occupying the place of pride and there was a rush to seek expertise. To satisfy this enthusiasm and interest, the famous ‘All Guns Course’ was introduced, and I was amongst the first students along with some other stalwarts to be detailed.
I still recall, when I first sat on a white horse named ‘Aibak’, an unusual chill went through my spine; a sensation which is difficult to express in words!! In retrospect, I feel that day, somewhere down in my being ‘ a cavalier was born mating itself with the characteristics of a horse, symbolising speed, ferocity, courage, power and the desire for the dash to conquer and win.’
Due to my exceptional performance on the course, I was posted as an Instructor in the prestigious Armament Group. That was the climax of my professional training, as, besides teaching, I also studied how best the tank can be optimised to make it invincible, within its total armour cum weight configuration. This quest of mine, lead to my being considered a technical expert on tank design. Destiny had chartered my course when I describe the fascinating and unexpected events that resulted.
Drafting the first indigenous tank GSQR
As is now common knowledge, India had been sold 300 Centurion’s by the UK at a concessional rate to offset their debt. Thereafter no more modern tanks were forthcoming, leaving the bulk of the Regiments with World War II vintage Sherman’s and Stuart’s. It was therefore critical to re-equip the Army with a modern tank fleet. Consequently, a decision was taken to frame a GSQR for a modern tank and float it to selected tank developing countries to develop a prototype and field it for user trials for selection and subsequent production.
A team was set up at the Army HQs, in which I was an invitee member. This was the start of my getting involved in tank user trials, design, up- gunning, up-rating, modernising and refurbishing. From 1958 to 1995 I was involved one tank project cum related activity or the other. Destiny charters the path one has to just tread as ordained.
1963-Vjayanta User Trials
UK, France and Germany, developed prototypes based on our GSQR and offered their tanks for trials. These were Vickers Medium, AMX 30 and Leopard 3. The three tanks were assessed at the MoD and purely on cost criteria, the Vickers Medium was selected for user trials and purchase if found suitable.
Following this, a team under Major General RK Ranjit Singh comprising of the user, DRDO and Industry representatives, proceeded to the UK for the trials. I was the gunnery representative. This was my maiden exposure testing a tank’s efficacy. During this process, from just being knowledgeable about gunnery, I learnt all technical nuances that make a ‘Tank an Operationally Effective Fighting Platform’. It was this exposure combined by my combat experience in the 1965 War that launched me into that ‘exclusive family of tank design experts’. Thereafter, I was consulted whenever an opinion was needed by any project.
During the Vickers Trial; I was the only one who rejected the tank, mainly on two accounts; its thin armour protection and being underpowered. The only suitable feature I found was the 105 mm rifled gun and sighting system. However, after detailed discussions and many other factors, the tank was accepted and entered service as the ‘Vijayanta’ with production at Avadi.
However, vulnerabilities pointed out during the trials started surfacing and plaguing the Armoured Corps. The results were obvious, like a sick man, it kept on undergoing modifications one after another till it was finally laid to rest.
1965-Induction of T-54
The 1965 War ended in an uneasy ceasefire with the Indian Army coming out with a slight edge. Taking account of the outcome, it was evident, that long drawn out vulnerabilities of prolonged peace time soldiering had been exposed especially in the field of antiquated equipment.
While ceasefire negotiations were going on at Tashkent, the Army decided to make up their woeful deficiency of tanks. However, no country was willing to sell military equipment on account of the Super Power standoff wherein Pakistan was signatory of the CENTO. Through intensive diplomatic activity, we prevailed on USSR to help us and they acceded to beef up our tank fleet, by directing their friendly state Czechoslovakia to sell us tanks.
At that point, I received orders to report to Army HQ, only to quickly board a plane to Czechoslovakia. It was at Palam Airport that Brigadier (later Lieutenant General) KK Singh, briefed me that he was taking me as a Technical Advisor to test the capability of the T-54.
It was December and Czechoslovakia was experiencing temperatures as low as minus 10 degrees. We were taken to their Ranges for testing the tank. The composition of the team which had more MoD personnel than the two of us; the hurry and secrecy of the entire activity, and the way the trials were conducted in a hushed manner, intrigued me. I therefore waited for the right opportunity to ask Brigadier KK Singh to apprise me of what was in store. Like a good senior officer he maintained the army dictum of “Need to Know Basis” and just said “You assess the tank and let me know whether it will do the job that our faithful Centurions have done?”
In freezing winter I tested out the tank and came to the dismal conclusion that while the tank had some remarkable automotive features, its armament side was poor to say the least and as such, I rejected it. That came as major jolt to the selection team and I was declared persona non grata.
Despite cajoling, I stuck to my guns until I was told that 200 tanks had been purchased. This activity was merely to put a professional acceptance stamp on it, which was being insisted by none other than Brigadier KK Singh, who was an architect of the tank battles in the 1965 War. Since I was part of his formation he had taken me along as his Technical Advisor.
This put everyone in an embarrassing position and the focus of technical acceptance came on me. My stand remained unchanged till I was asked the best way to salvage the prevailing impasse. The way out suggested to accept the tank in its present configuration, was to up-gun the 100 mm gun with our 105mm gun. This was accepted and after getting a nod from the DRDO representative in the delegation, the purchase contract became operative. I was then left behind to get basic training on the tank to take on Conversion for the nominated Regiments.
The idea of up-gunning the T-54 revived an earlier attempt to up- gun the Sherman VI with an AMX 13 gun, which turned out be a total disaster.
Initiation of the concept of up-rating tanks and guns
As late as the sixties, our Army was quite content with aging tanks like Shermans and Stuarts and newly inducted AMX-13 and Centurions.
In 1961, someone came up with the brilliant idea of up-gunning the Sherman IV with the AMX gun. I happened to be in the conference where this idea was being discussed. My rational was that a turret mounted gun of AMX 13 cannot be mounted on trunnions, as they will not take the weight of that heavy gun although their calibre (76 mm) was similar.
Being only a Captain and Gunnery Instructor, my argument was shot down. I brought this technical madness to the notice of the highest quarters, but no heed was paid. The result was the well-known operational problems that 2 Lancers and 18 Cavalry suffered during the 1965 War. It was during this Project that I had a confrontation with Dr Arunachalam the then SA to the RM. He never forgot that incident as later developments establish.
The positive side was that for the first time, the concept of upgrading a tank was introduced and took seed in our nascent tank developing country. I happened to remain in this activity which included up- gunning of T- 54 ,up- gunning and re-furbishing of T- 55, up – rating of Vijayanta engine, changing rifled tank guns to smooth bores, fitting thermal imaging sights, and developing and operationalising the ARJUN.
As mentioned earlier, the T- Series Programme commenced with the up gunning of T- 54 proposed during my visit to Czechoslovakia. It was done at Ahmed Nagar, but I was not part of the team. However, I was suddenly directed to go there as the Trials were dithering. This was on special request by the Commandant Brigadier Arvind Jatar. Once again I was to confront the SA, who was personally masterminding the trials with the assistance of some officers posted there.
On my first interview I made it clear that if I was to handle the programme; I must have a free hand. The bold commander that he had always been, Brigadier Jatar accepted my condition; to the discontent of the SA.
The moment I observed the firing of the up gunned tank, I noticed that it was not balanced on its trunnions. That was mainly because, of the vast difference in the weights of the two guns; the 100mm T-54/55 tank’s original gun and the Indian 105mm, which was to be fitted. I therefore stopped the trial, moved the modified tank to the workshop and put the EME and DRDO teams on the barrel balancing task.
Despite all the instrumentation available it took nearly a month to get the balancing right. However once that had been done, the trials went through without a hitch. It became a historical landmark in Indian capability to understand the intricacies of tank design.
The success of the trail brought praises from all quarters to the main man behind the programme, the SA. That recognition calmed Dr Arunachalam’s initial negative reaction to my being inducted into the trial. Thereafter, he started considering me not only a gunnery expert but a tank design expert as well.
This event was a turning point in my career, as whenever any issue about a tanks technical problem crept up, I was called for expert advice. These included up rating of Vijayanta Engine, fitting of Kanchan armour, re-furbishing of T – Series tanks, introducing Thermal Imaging tank sights and developing indigenous APFSDS ammunition for smooth bore guns.
The Arjun project
The ARJUN Project is a story by itself and would need a full paper to do justice. I therefore confine myself to areas where my direct or indirect involvement was.
It started with my intimate association with General Sundarji, our COAS. Our first contact began when I was his GSO1 in 1 Armored Division. This association because of his kind and affectionate nature soon turned into a professional bonding which fortunately lasted till he passed away. It was on account of this relationship he was very generous asking my views on tanks.
Being a diehard professional he was conscious of the lack of self-reliance in our defense equipment and specially tanks and other mechanized wherewithal that gives offensive mobility. This got him deeply involved in the ARJUN Project which had been languishing for many years without any prospect of success.
He therefore asked how best it could be activated to bring its fruition. Having been intimately exposed to the DRDO work culture, I suggested that unless we have a very senior officer of repute posted to interact with them, the user compulsions will never be conveyed. That apart, by constant overview, the Project will keep getting user inputs which are critical for such a Project.
The ARJUN Project is a story by itself and would need a full paper to do justice. I therefore confine myself to areas where my direct or indirect involvement was.
He agreed, and the appointment of DGCV was created and an outstanding officer; Lieutenant General SPM Tripathi was posted. That was the beginning of the ARJUN Project getting the required impetuous. Thereafter, many other senior officers from the Corps tenanted this appointment; namely Generals Shankar Roy Chowdhary, NS Malik and me.
In 1993 after having hung my spurs I got fully involved in this Project. It so happened that during my tenure as DGCV, Dr Arunachalam was very impressed with my commitment and dedication to the Project. He requested MoD to requisition my services post retirement as a member of DRDO. To my and every one’s surprise, this was agreed to and coincided with the change of SA; Dr Arunachalam handing over to Dr Abdul Kalam. I had never met Dr Kalam, and it was on the day of their handing and taking over that I was also handed over by the Army to the DRDO.
Thus began my tenure in the DRDO as CCR&D (Land Systems); a post created by Dr Kalam. This gave me the authority and jurisdiction to oversee the ARJUN Project. It was on account of this freedom and unqualified support given by Dr Kalam, that a 17 years old dead indigenous tank project was completed in a record time of six months.
When I reflect on this long journey on ‘Tracks’, their roar, thunder of booming ‘Guns’ and elation a tank man feels in that restricted space in the ‘Cupola’; all reverberates in the mind. Being with tanks is a unique experience which can only be felt and not described.
In 1995, I attended the ‘International Conference on Armour Warfare’ at London. It had tank experts from the entire world and being amongst them was awe inspiring. Like all speakers, I was given 20 minutes to address the conference. One had to be very brief and precise in what one had to convey to that august audience. After my talk, someone with an imposing personality came and introduced himself to me.
“General I am introducing myself. I am Gen Israel Tal from Israel. My apology for barging in, but after your most illuminating talk, I could not resist the temptation to come and personally compliment you. From your talk I could make out that you been in intense tank combat, otherwise the emphasis on the relevance of various tank features you described could not have matched my own thinking on those lines. Possibly you know that our country is making the Merkava of which I have been made the Chairperson.
I have learnt you are in a similar mission in your Country with the development of the ARJUN Tank. General, if you do not mind may I offer you some advice from my personal experience; NEVER ATTEMPT TO MAKE A PERFECT TANK. IF YOU DO, IT WILL ONLY COST YOU TIME, MONEY AND LOSS OF SELF CONFIDENCE.
While handling the ARJUN Project I never forgot the words of that famous tank commander and they paid me handsome dividends.