September 19, 2021
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Survival of fittest
Indo-Pak tank warfare scenario

Comparison of the respective weapon systems in the arsenals makes little sense in the India-Pakistan context. Pakistan has always had technologically superior weapons because of its access to western arms bazaars particularly the US for being a lackey in the anti-communist phalanx.

Being a member of the Baghdad Pact, later called the Central Treaty Organization along with Iran under Shah Reza Pehlavi, it got the latest tanks and aircraft in return for bases from where the US launched reconnaissance aircraft to spy on the former Soviet Union till a U-2 spy-plane flown by Gary Powers was shot down near Moscow. But it has never won a war against India.

Even in Jammu and Kashmir in 1948 when it had a head-start with the Pakistan Army-led tribal mujahids knocking at the gates of Srinagar, the arrival of the Indian Army just at the nick of time saw the conspiracy rolled backwards and only the strategic blunder by India for depending on the UN for a fair settlement allowed Pakistan a locus standi that is based only on India’s error rather than any great military acumen on the part of Pakistan.

At best it achieved a dubiously claimed ”stalemate” in the 1965 war which it started in the hope of finally de-linking the whole of J&K from the rest of India through a combined infiltration and frontal attack which resulted in huge loss of Pakistani territory along both the international border as well as across the then Ceasefire Line.

Past battle

Pakistan’s gains in territory were confined largely to the barren salt-flats of the Kutch marshlands whereas Indian troops were standing at the gates of Lahore and much of Pakistan’s granary in Sialkot was in Indian hands.

Pakistan’s much-vaunted US-supplied Patton tanks were literally butchered when they tried to assault Amritsar. They were stopped at a place named ‘Asal Uttar’ specifically for one of the great tank battles after World War II.

Pakistan’s superior Patton tanks found themselves floundering in the flooded sugarcane fields and the relentless barrage from India’s ageing Centurian tanks. The battlefield is now known as Patton Nagar as if it was the mausoleum of US General George Patton much to the chagrin of Pakistan’s ally.

Then again in the Battle of Basantar in 1971 in the Shakargarh bulge where Pakistani territory had strategic advantage in that if properly utilized it could be used to cut off Jammu and Kashmir and cut the Indian State of Punjab into two.

Yet, in spite of a huge minefield laid both in the Basantar River bed (a tributary of the Ravi as well as along its banks the Pakistan Army Patton tanks could not stop an assault by Indian T-55 Soviet-supplied tanks.

In the battle one squadron of three tanks led by young Lieutenant Arun Khetrapal destroyed 10 Pakistani Patton tanks in a slugfest that lasted 7 days. Pakistan lost more than 80 tanks that were either destroyed or damaged compared to India’s 10.

Then again in the Battle of Longewala in 1971 – an air-land battle in the defensive mode in a classic sense – the post stopped the advance of a regiment of Pakistani Pattons in the middle of the night with just 81mm mortars, one jeep-mounted RCL (recoilless) gun and a battery of field artillery.

In the morning the Indian Air Force intervened and before dusk Pakistan had lost 36 tanks just in Longewala. None of these tank battles on the western front had any effect on the outcome of the war in East Pakistan, where Pakistan lost its entire air force, 93,000 soldiers surrendered to Indian troops and East Pakistan became independent, sovereign Bangladesh.

The thrusts in the West were supposed to dampen and hold Indian advances in the East. Nothing worked for Pakistan, neither their tanks nor their aircraft.

Also 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war gave the lie to Pakistani claims of being superior warriors compared to Indian troops. The claim was that one Pakistani soldier was equal to ten Indians.

Recent developments

The arrival of the Al Khalid tank in the Pakistan Army Armored Corps has once again sparked off the traditional hype about the superiority of the tank vis-à-vis the Indian Arjun.

The long gestation period of the Arjun-more than 36 years from drawing-board to battlefield-and its overall weight of 58.50 tonnes is being held against it and is made to look  as if it is inferior to the Al Khalid much as was done when the Patton tank was introduced to the Pakistan Army in the sixties.

Of course there are some very germaine differences between then and now when Al Khalid is the toast of the Muslim world because it is a product made at home albeit with a licence from China.

All concerned with its maintenance and operation are fully conversant with its intricacies unlike when the overly modern Patton was put in the hands of a largely rustic Pakistani Punjab dominated military.

The physical comparison tends to favor the Al Khalid given that it is just 48 tonnes in weight and with an engine that produces 1200 horsepower of energy the power to weight ratio is 26 hp per tonne.

Recent developments have added more ammunition within the Al Khalid – 49 rounds of a combination of armor-piercing fin-stabilized disposable sabot round for its 125-mm smoothbore gun which can also shoot high explosive anti-tank high-explosive squash head munitions along with through-the-barrel missiles in an automatic loader thus requiring only three crew members to operate the tank.

The Pakistani tank has all the sensors required for target acquisition in day and night battles and those that can tell when a laser has illuminated it so that it can deploy counter-measures and avoid being hit.

The Indian Arjun on the other hand has already been damned for its heavy weight which has forced the improvement of railway bridges and tracks and flatbed carriers to take the additional weight.

The fact that these changes have been made, therefore, does not detract from the need to carry it over long distances from bases in central India to the Pakistan frontline.

When it arrives on the battlefield it will of course be longer, broader but still two inches lower in height compared to the Al Khalid.

The more important point is that it is so engineered that in spite of its weight it is light on its feet – its tracks are such that the ground pressure it creates while operating cross-country is light enough not to make it sink into the desert sands of the Rajasthan-Bawahalpur salient where it is likely to be deployed to cut Pakistan into two if the need arises.

Its hydropneumatic suspension makes for easy riding for the crew of four which includes a loader to feed the munitions manually into the breach from a blast-proof container and yet be able to fire nine rounds per minute like the Al Khalid does.

Also, it does the same 72 kmph on the road and 25 kmph cross-country that the Khalid does in spite of its weight.

To its advantage is the hydropneumatic suspension that helps keep the gun stable than tanks using torsion-bar suspension like the Al Khalid does and thus ensure first round kill even while traveling over undulating sand-dunes in the desert.

The Khalid-Arjun comparison also suffers from a lack of appreciation of the methodology of their respective deployment.

India has changed its mechanized warfare doctrine to ensure “cold start” at short notice backed organically by air support from the IAF and an inbuilt helicopter brigade component which has been tested and validated during the recent Sudarshan Shakti exercises in the Rajasthan desert.

It is also based on the presumption that there will be Al Khalid versus Arjun slugfest as happened at the Basantar River in 1971. India has the T-90, the T-72 to complement the Arjun and between the three of them they complement the strengths and weaknesses of each other.

The only way Pakistan will find out who is better in the final analysis is when it tries the tricks it did in 1965 and 1971.

Unfortunately for the Khalid, Pakistan’s war doctrine depends more on the Islamic jihadi terrorist than on the strengths of its conventional arsenal which it knows will never be able to match that of India, hence, it wanted to go nuclear with single-minded determination.