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: