The trials began Thursday of an upgraded version of the indigenous Arjun main battle tank (MBT) that is expected to form the backbone of the Indian Army's armoured fighting units from 2014, a defence ministry official said.
The trials come just a year after the government had accorded the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) the go ahead for developing the Mark-II version of the Arjun tank, a project that has taken the country over three decades to complete.
"The trials of the Arjun Mark-II tanks have begun at the Pokhran ranges in Rajasthan from today. The development programme is right on track and on schedule," a senior defence ministry official told IANS. The Arjun Mark-II is also expected to go through its winter trials later this year.
The defence ministry had, last May, asked the DRDO to develop the Mark-II version of the Arjun tank during a review of the premier defence research agency's performance. "In 24 months from now or in early 2014, the Arjun Mark-II tanks will be ready for production," a DRDO official had said in February.
Among the upgrades, the Mark-II tank would feature an indigenous engine that would replace the German engines of the 58-tonne Arjun Mark-I.
The Arjun Mark-II will have about a dozen changes from the first lot, being armed with missile firing capability through a laser homing device.
Though this device had been tested on the Mark-I version of the tank about five years ago, it did not form part of the final design of the initial 124 delivered to the army, and nor will it be mounted on the second lot of 124.
The device would have a range of about eight km, within which it will be able to destroy enemy tanks after homing on to the target using a laser.
Other modifications include better explosive-reactive armour for the tank to protect it from enemy missiles and rockets, improving the sighting facility to provide it a wider view of the battlefield, night vision capability and an improved communication system.
The Arjun Mark-II will have over 90 percent indigenous systems on board, except for some hydraulic and electronic systems.
"Each of the dozen upgraded systems are being tested one after the other during the trials," the official said.
The army has ordered 248 Arjun Mark-I tanks for induction into its armoured regiments. The first lot of 124 tanks, for which the orders were placed on the Avadi-based Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF) in 2004 at a cost of Rs.170 million ($4 million) each, have been handed over to the army.
The army is now operating the 124 Arjuns as part of two regiments in the western sector and last May placed an order for an additional 124 tanks, primarily to keep the HVF production line running before the Mark-II version was ready for manufacturing.
The army gained confidence in operating the Arjun tanks, despite the initial hesitation, after the first two regiments were pitted against the Russian-built T-90 MBTs early last year in comparative trials in the desert terrain.
The Arjuns had outsmarted the T-90s in all the parameters set for the trials and had prompted the army top brass to agree to inducting two more regiments.