Great mistakes in politics (No39) The Arjun tank fiasco

One of the great things about modern democracy is meant to be civilian control over the armed forces. In practise however, thanks to the insidious impact of the military-industrial complex, this control has often been weak at best and in some cases seemingly non-existent. Companies need to keep building new weapon systems in order to stay in business and so they lobby governments to keep investing, regardless of whether they need the hardware or not.

You can’t always blame private corporations for these kind of mistakes though. History is full of government defence projects spinning out of control due to politicians repeatedly making bad decisions. Just look at the huge budget over-runs on the Eurofighter or the fact that Britain is currently building two giant aircraft carriers at a cost of billions, despite the fact that we don’t need them. Probably the most famous example is the Indian Arjun tank.

India first identified its need for a new battle tank in the late 1960s. Development of the Arjun began properly in 1972 with the Indian government deciding to keep as much of the work as possible in-house. To say that the project was delayed is a bit like saying it’s a long way to the moon. Actually the USA built and went to the moon much more quickly than India managed to build the Arjun tank. Despite starting in the early 70s it didn’t enter mass production till the late 1990s and was eventually delivered to the army in 2004. Even up to 2010 they were still tinkering with the design because it didn’t meet their original specifications. As a result the military were forced to order vast numbers of Russian T-72s and T-90s in order to fill the gap.

This begs the question of why it took so long? Partly it was the fact that this was the government’s first attempt at building a tank which is a tricky process at the best of times. India has some of the most varied terrain and climate on the planet so creating a vehicle that was suitable for use in most of the country presented even more challenges. The military and bureaucracy also kept changing the requirements in response to the several new tanks Pakistan ordered over the decades.

In retrospect, the various Indian governments should have cancelled the project once it became clear just how delayed and over budget it had become. However they all suffered from the similar problem that it had become a point of national pride and cancelling it would be seen as a loss of prestige. Also they were all under the collective delusion that the final product was just a year or two down the line and if they didn’t keep funding it the earlier money they’d invested would have been wasted. I think this is one of the best examples I’ve ever come across of the old adage of not throwing good money after bad. The Indian government and civil service in this case simply lost all control of the policy process and continued with a bad idea because it was easier than stopping.

They did finally get the Arjun tank working by 2008 and according to reports it out-performed the T-90. Considering, however, that it took them forty odd years to build that’s not exactly a brilliant achievement. Regardless of whether it’s any good or not there’s no getting away from the fact that allowing a defence project to drag on for so long was a huge mistake. Apparently they’ve just started working on a new tank that’s going to be ready by 2020. Given the huge delays they had with the Arjun that might be a tad optimistic.

Here is a brief clip from 2010 with the Arjun starting its trial against the T-90:

For a full list of great political mistakes please click here

About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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8 Responses to Great mistakes in politics (No39) The Arjun tank fiasco

  1. I agree, now that these tanks are in production, the other interesting and important question is about maintenance. Will India be able to maintain these tanks, or will they continue treat these tanks like their aircraft’s and maintain them only when they run into the ground and with often poor quality parts?

    • My understanding is that the army ordered less than 200 so the bulk of their tank forces will still be variants of the T90 (which a friend who really knows about tanks told me is much more reliable). I’d love to see the exact figures of how much money was pumped into this fiasco over they years, especially as they were still buying T72s and T90s for most of it. It’s almost a fact of life now that defence projects will over-run and go over budget but 40 years is just ridiculous.

    • Samantk says:

      I disagree, Indian aircraft’s are maintained we’ll the high attrrion rates are not due to maintenance but due to the life of the aircrafts.

  2. Samantk says:

    Your premise is actually a Tad bit wrong, the defence firm which developed Arjun is a govt. Owned firm and for tech development doesn’t need to be funded to keep it afloat.. Secondly, it is wrong to say that it took as long as you have mentioned, prototypes were made but the goal post kept shifting… I have a short wiki on the Arju here its not very well organised but you will find the facts..

  3. Appu Soman says:

    Sir, why do you write about something about which you obviously know almost nothing? You say it was over budget. Do you know what the budget was?

    • Hi, I asked a friend who’s a military historian to pull me up the figures and according to the data I’ve got the tank did go significantly over budget (even taking into account inflation).

      The main books I’ve read on this subject include “India’s Ad Hoc Arsenal: Direction Or Drift in Defence Policy?” by Chris Smith and “Defence Policy in India” by Prabhu Theran (I had to borrow them from the library). I have to admit I’m not an expert on this subject area so both books could be completely wrong, but other research I’ve done on the web, including quite a few newspapers stories suggest that the Arjun went over budget. If you have other information to suggest that it didn’t go over budget I’d love to see it and would happily post it on my blog.

  4. Ishwar Prasad says:

    Arjun is a materpiece in tank technology. It can with stand attacks from any tanks and can cross country on any terrrain.

    • Regardless of the quality of the tank, don’t you think the development time was astonishingly long? Even considering how long it normally takes to develop weapons systems 30 plus years for a tank seems excessive.

      Also didn’t the Indian government announce this month (November 2012) they were order 230+ new Russian T-90s Considering the Arjun was developed partly to make India less reliant on Russian military tech, they’ve ordered an awful lot of tanks from them in recent years.

      That said the Arjun Mk II looks like a much more impressive machine (but I still think the development was plagued by political, economic and planning mistakes).

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