The weather beaten face of the tank commander tells it all. He has spent the better part of his 23 years of active service cooped up with two other men inside the small cavity of a Russian-designed T 72 battle tank, one of which is on display at the two-day Army Mela scheduled to commence at Pangode Military Grounds here on December 8.
It is a sweltering 40 degree centigrade inside the iron belly of the 42-tonne tank even when its powerful multi-fuel engine is on idle.
At battle speeds, the cabin temperature rises even further. It shoots up to 60 C when the tank discharges its main gun, a 120-mm smooth bore cannon than can also fire missiles.
The seepage from the gun’s ejection system pervades the cabin with the acrid smell of burning gun powder. The radio helmets worn by the tank crew can barely keep the boom of the cannon from hurting their ears.
The tank commander, a 44-year-old junior commissioned officer, first rode the T 72 as a radio officer, then as a driver and later as commander. He has taken the armoured behemoth across various harsh terrains, including deserts, salt plains, dusty flat lands, shrub country and marshes.
He has forded rivers with the tank's periscope up, driven her up 30 degree inclines to come hurtling down on imagined enemies during battle drills and manoeuvred the tank through spaces and alleyways that can barely accommodate her girth.
The tank's driver rides upfront. The commander and gunner have to slide down through the hatches on the top of the tank to access their battle stations, which are adjacent to each other. The iron seats wielded to the tank's floor have thin synthetic cushions for comfort.
Three slow churning electric fans are perhaps the only other luxury the crew have inside the claustrophobia-inducing tank's hull. Instruments, indicators, toggles and switches peek out from all corners of the cabin.
Training and experience have surprisingly insulated the crew from the inherent discomforts of the battle tank, whose designers seem to have been more concerned about its fire power and lethalness in battle than the well being of the men who are tasked to man it.
Surviving on dry rations and water, the crew can operate the tank continuously for three days in battle conditions. The commander knows that he and his men will perhaps never be more than ‘tank crew’ in the Indian Army. But they are motivated and driven by the knowledge that they are counted among the best of their kind in the armies of the world.