End of the MBT era – A mix of heavy and light medium tanks will be needed in the future wars

Subodh Sharma & Ritesh Kumar

The “three-category” theory of tanks for Indian Armoured formation

We discussed earlier how the advent of new tank ammo and ATGMS forced MBTs to add more armour to the point that most of them have become too problematic to transport and airlift. This problem is pronounced in the western style manual loading tanks like M1A2 Abrams and Leopard 2. One more crew member demands considerably larger space and thus more armour too for protection. Adding on more weight and size have also made them inoperable in mountainous and marshy areas although they can be excellent in deserts and urban settings. Therefore, Western countries are now in the process of developing new Light Tanks that can do those duties which their MBTs or rather the heavies can’t.

MBT T-90 Bhishma

On the other side of the spectrum are countries like Russia and India which already use highly capable medium MBTs like T90 .Their autoloader helps in keeping the weight in check and the higher mobility gained thereby helps them in operational and strategic mobility. The armour with APS and ERA is excellent for flanking manoeuvres but might create problems especially in urban settings. These types of tanks shine in hilly and jungle terrains. As a solution for urban, desert and frontal assaults, Russia came up with heavier but more protected tank. Still it is comparatively lighter than western tanks (due to autoloader and crewless turret), Armata. Arjun tank will fill a similar role in the Indian Army.

So, it is evident that no single design philosophy can satisfy the needs of a modern army in future wars especially the armies which must operate in diverse terrains and respond to varying threats. Neither Arjun nor T90 can replace each other. Nor were they ever meant to be, they are complementary to each other. 

Why is more tank armour needed in urban warfare

The question arises as to why more armour is needed for armoured vehicles in the urban setting. The biggest problem in urban settings is availability of cover to hostile forces in the form of both high-rise buildings/other constructions and civilian population. In this setting an MPATGM wielding enemy can wreak havoc on armoured units sitting atop the roof of a high-rise building and blending in the populace, as was the case in Grozny during the first Chechen War. Since the presence of civilians put the armour units on the defensive to avoid collateral damage, it also takes away the initiative advantage from them. Therefore, their armour must be strong enough to take hits from unpredictable directions, hence increasing the requirement for all round protection and thus increasing the weight in this process.

Need for tank mobility: Expeditionary and high-altitude warfare

Mobility is a big element in manoeuvre warfare. It can’t be stressed enough how vital strategic, operational, and tactical mobility is for military forces around the world. A medium tank, although somewhat lacking in the urban warfare setting (will still do the job but with more difficulty than a heavily armoured tank), excels here. Lower size and weight of medium tanks like T90 enable them to perform seamlessly in high altitude which is impossible for heavier tanks. They can even perform in marshy jungle terrains and in the deserts through flanking manoeuvres since they have higher speed. Their lower weight results in easy airlift and deployment in any terrain as we saw during the India-China standoff recently. Their agility and cross country prowess also makes them a perfect choice for operational reserves to rush in and exploit the breakthroughs in the enemy defences.

Three category theory of tanks

The three most important aspect of an armoured vehicle are Firepower, Protection and Mobility. However, the fourth criteria that is often ignored is transportability. The logistics and supply chain can be a deciding factor in any conflict. For a country like India the modes of transportation of armoured vehicle are also diverse. The Vehicles are often transported on train and then last mile connectivity is provided by the trailers. In case when the timeline is cramped, the tanks can be airlifted but again the last mile connectivity should be provided by the trailers.

The light tanks however offer an altogether new way where air dropping is a possibility, which isn’t the case with the existing fleet of the Indian army. The air-drop capability will allow Indian army to quickly deploy the tanks directly in the battlefield or in the proximity of the battlefield eliminating the need of trailer. This will cut short the deployment timeline significantly.

Arjun Mk1A

If I had to classify the tanks of Indian army after induction of much touted light tank than it will be

  1. Heavy: Arjun Mk1 and Arjun Mk1A
  2. Medium: T90 and T72
  3. Light: The future light tank
Arjun Class (Heavy)GoodGoodGoodBad
T90 Class (Medium)GoodAverageGoodAverage
Light Tank classGoodBadGoodGood


This appears to be the way forward considering the type of the terrain that India has. In a typical conflict that is in mountains. a light tank can spearhead it. The medium class tanks can complement it given the transportability. The heavier tanks usually will not be required in such operations.

In case of a conflict in plain and desert the operation can be spearheaded by the heavy armour and if needed it can be complimented by the medium category tanks. This three-category approach will give the Indian armed forces the flexibility to deploy the armour in quick time. They can then back it up with the medium category tanks in both the scenarios. The current approach of the Indian army is more aligned to this approach. However it is yet not clear how army will replace its large fleet of T72 tanks will that be a medium category tank or a heavy category.

To read more about light tanks, visit https://alphadefense.in/light-tanks-a-history-of-armour-evolution-and-armoured-warfare/

To read more about Arjun Mk1A, visit https://alphadefense.in/arjun-mk1a-is-all-set-to-rise/

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By Alpha Defense

Alpha Defense initially a solo venture but now a defense group by people from various demographics of India covering defense news and updates. We believe in unbiased analysis of every subject in hand. Our mission is to provide simplfiied defense information to the public.