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Ray of hope
Slow progress of artillery modernization program

The artillery modernization program is moving at a snail’s pace even after 25 years. Though in the last one decade, other artillery equipment like the Pinaka Rocket System, Smerch Rocket System and the Brahmos Missile System have been inducted, the 155 mm Howitzers have been the most affected.

The Army has prepared an Artillery Profile 2027 for procuring new generation artillery with a mix of 155mm/39 caliber, 155mm45 caliber and 155mm / 52 caliber gun systems.

Unfortunately, the army has not been able to induct new lot of 155mm guns since 1988. Though the process has picked up in last one year, the army officials are not sure if the MoD bureaucracy can fast track the acquisition.

To meet the requirements of the Indian Army Field Artillery Rationalization Plan, the MoD had in 2012 okayed the acquisition plans for the 1580 towed 155mm/52 caliber guns, 100 tracked 155 mm / 52 caliber guns, 180 wheeled and self propelled guns of 155m/52 caliber and 145 ultra light howitzers of 155mm /39 caliber gun. Presently, the Indian Army has only a stock of 200 Bofors Howitzers out of 400 acquired from Sweden in the late eighties.

Firepower

The Army is looking for precision guided and extended range munitions along with Forward Observer, ISTAR and C4I capability which can accurately direct the artillery fire. The Army aims to improve artillery command and control systems for which the Army has launched the Shakti project. Since artillery is considered to be one of the main constituents of firepower, its role will be crucial in deciding the result of any conflict.  

Hence the delay in providing the Army with requisite artillery will prove very costly to the nation, as we have seen during the Kargil conflict.

The last artillery consignment of Bofors Howitzers were received by the Indian Army in 1988 and since then the artillery acquisition program of the Indian Army has remained embroiled in scandals and  controversies.

Many Governments have changed since then but all of them have either indulged in mudslinging or failed to muster enough courage to tell the nation of the need to urgently acquire new lot of modern Howitzers, the absence of which was felt strongly during the Kargil conflict. And today this has created a huge gap in the combat capability and the military preparedness of the Indian Army.

The army urgently requires three versions of Howitzers to be deployed on the borders as soon as possible. However the army is still in trial and negotiation stage to acquire such Howitzers.

As informed by the Defence Minister A K Antony on 6th May, 2013 to the Parliament the army is planning to acquire 100 self propelled artillery howitzers and three Indian vendors including two private companies have been invited to show the capabilities of their artillery. Antony informed that a case for procurement of 100 tracked guns of 155mm/52 caliber (Self Propelled) is in progress wherein three Indian vendors including two private sector companies have been selected for the trial of their equipment.

Though the Indian Ordnance Factory Board has succeeded in developing the Indian version of the Bofors Guns and negotiations for acquiring the 145 M777 Ultra Light Howitzers have progressed to the last stage, the Ministry of Defence is still in the process of making a final decision on the US$ 660 million deal.

This will be purchased through the Foreign Military Sales program of the US Department of Defence which will add teeth to the ageing inventory of the Army. The 155 mm 39 caliber gun will be lighter in weight; hence can be lifted by a helicopter for deployment on the mountains, especially on the China border. Plans to position two new mountain divisions on the China border would require these Ultra Light Guns.

As far as the indigenous version of Bofors guns are concerned the MoD may give early clearance, but the US made Ultra Light Howitzers will have to wait till the next government is in power after the Parliamentary elections to be held early next year. The UPA government has sat over many other over billion dollar deals for the Indian armed forces for long; hence the M777 Howitzers will also have to wait.

Though the army has shown utmost urgency for this category of the Ultra Light Howitzers for deployment on the China borders, the MoD has not yet been able to seek approval of the finance ministry.

In February this year a senior delegation of the Indian Army called the Maintainability Evaluation Team, had visited the US for the M777 inspection and it has been reported that the MoD has prepared the Acceptance Letter for the M777 Ultra Light Howitzers, but is waiting for the final nod from the finance ministry and the CCS to issue the letter to the US Company.

New requirements

Besides the Ultra Light Howitzer, the MoD is about to issue a global tender for 814 mounted guns, estimated to be worth US$ 3 billion, for which the Indian private sector will also be allowed to participate. This will include the Larsen & Toubro, Bharat Forge and Tata Power SED.

Among the foreign bidders will be the Russian Rosoboronexport, French Nexter, Israeli Aerospace Industries, British BAE systems and the American General Dynamics. Tata Power SED has claimed that it will set up requisite facility with a foreign partner in Bangalore if awarded the contract. A representative of Tata Power SED had claimed last year that it had developed a 152 mm/52 caliber mounted gun with more than half indigenous content. According to the Company official the 48 percent overseas content will have imported technologies for the barrel, breech and the muzzle break.

According to an official from L&T arrangements will be made with Samsung for the wheeled artillery guns and with Nexter for mounted and towed artillery guns in India.

For the towed guns the Indian Army plans to acquire 400 guns of 155mm/52 caliber through direct acquisition, and additional 1180 guns will be produced domestically.

The Swedish Bofors had supplied the design also to the OFB but due to severance of all contacts, the MoD allowed the OFB to sit over the design to domestically manufacture them. If the OFB had then decided to go ahead with the utilization of technology transfer clause the OFB would have manufactured 400 guns domestically and would have further worked on the design to manufacture better capable gun indigenously. However OFB has now produced two prototypes of 155mm/39 caliber guns and army is reported to be satisfied with the gun’s performance.

Besides the howitzers, the army’s proposal for upgunning 300 more 130mm M-46 field guns to 155 gun system has also been approved by the Defence Acquisition Council in last April.

The RFP for the upgunning contract will also be issued to the Indian private companies in level playing field with the Indian Ordnance Factory Board. Earlier the OFB used to get automatic selection because of its status as Ministry owned company. Though private companies like the Tatas and L&T have been given opportunity to manufacture the Pinaka multi barrel launcher developed  by the DRDO, this will be first time that the Indian private companies will be given a level playing field for the Field Guns and the Howitzers.

Earlier the Israeli Soltam was awarded the contract for the upgunning, but by the time it completed the first lot of 180 guns, the Company was blacklisted, so the rest of the 300 guns were left for which the DAC has approved the retendering and Indian private firms will be given an opportunity. The Israeli company has enhanced the firepower of the gun from the 26 kms to 39 kms.

This tender is being seen as a test case for the private sector, which if successful, will encourage the army to award the 155 gun deal also to the Indian Private Sector. Since the Defence Minister A K Antony has said that buying globally would be the last option, Indian private companies have a very good chance to grab the deal.