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SOURCE: THE PRINT

It was in 1999 that India finalised the Field Artillery Rationalisation Programme. It was to become the backbone of India’s fire assault in any future wars, especially in the mountains.

After all, the Bofors gun had proved its mettle in the 1999 Kargil conflict with its pinpointed pounding of enemy positions that enabled the infantry to launch daring attacks on Pakistani forces. Under FARP, the Army is supposed to have, by 2025-27, a mix of around 3,000-3,600 155mm but different caliber types of towed, mounted, self-propelled (tracked and wheeled) howitzers. This was to be achieved through a mix of direct imports, licensed manufacturing and indigenous systems.

After years of being in the rut, the artillery programme got a push post 2015 with successful completion of trials (which had begun around 2012), signing of contracts and various systems entering the last stages of decision making.

The artillery programme was then seen as a success story by everyone in the defence establishment.

Cut to 2021, the programme seems to be floundering.

In a way, it is similar to the highs and lows of India’s Covid vaccine management. Before the second wave hit us, our vaccine policy was the toast of the world. But as the pandemic raged and people started demanding vaccines, we realised how ill-equipped we were.

The Narendra Modi government then took decisions that are likely to come handy in the months to come. Since Covaxin is an Indian product, the government entered into agreements with three public sector undertakings that will get the technology from Bharat Biotech and manufacture the vaccines at their own facilities. The government has also welcomed private players.

A similar approach is needed for the artillery modernisation programme too, so that India can make the best use of skill and technology available to equip our forces in the quickest time possible.

Let us take a look at where our modernisation programme is and why it is floundering.

Bofors jinx was broken in 2016

It was in 2016 that the Army was finally able to break the “Bofors jinx”, as I had reported then, and inked the first agreement for artillery guns after the Bofors scandal came out in the 1980s. India had placed an order with the US, in what is a nearly Rs 5,000-crore-deal, for 145 M777 ultra-light howitzers, which is expected to be deployed near the LAC.

This was the first artillery deal in three decades and signalled the beginning of the realisation of a long-delayed artillery modernisation programme.

Then in 2017, private player Larsen & Toubro (L&T) won the contract to supply 100 K9 Vajra-T 155 mm/52 calibre tracked self-propelled gun systems. In 2018, an order was placed for 114 of the 155mm x 45mm Dhanush guns, a product of the Gun Carriage Factory (CGF) in Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur, which comes under the state-run Ordnance Factory Board (OFB). There was also a deal for Project Sharang with the OFB for upguning the 130mm M-46 artillery guns to 155mm.

Amid all this, a deal for a towed artillery gun system under the ‘Buy and Make’ category, a proposal which has been in the works for nearly two decades, was also on.

And then there was also the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), along with private firms Bharat Forge of the Kalyani Group and TATA Power SED.

Artillery does not mean just the guns. It also means rockets. In August 2020, the defence ministry inked a deal to procure the extended range Pinaka rocket launchers for six regiments at a cost of Rs 2,580 crore.

The contract has been signed with Tata Power Company Ltd (TPCL) and L&T while defence public sector undertaking Bharat Earth Movers Ltd (BEML) will also be part of the project as it will supply the vehicles on which the rocket launchers will be mounted.

The Army has also issued a Request for Information (RFI) for mounted artillery gun systems this year.

Where does the artillery programme stand?
Among all the projects mentioned above, the only completed one has been the Vajra. L&T this year finished the delivery of the 100th gun ordered in 2017 by the Army, much before the contracted delivery schedule.

As of 2 June 2021, the BAE Systems has delivered 59 of the 145 M777 ordered in 2016. The guns are being assembled, integrated and tested in India by Mahindra Defence Systems Limited.

The OFB has delivered an abysmally low number of 12 Dhanush guns out of the 114 ordered in 2018 to the Army, which has flagged key production quality concerns.

It was only last year that the OFB supplied the first Sharang gun, which is basically an upgrade of the existing 133mm guns to 155mm, which means adding new barrels.

The ATHOS guns of Israel’s Elbit Systems had emerged as the winner after years of Army trials in 2019 but a final decision is yet to be taken.

While the original plan was for direct supply of 400 guns and indigenous production of the remaining 1,180 guns by OFB, under a full Transfer of Technology (TOT) process, the Army has now decided to restrict it to just the direct import.

The Army is still pushing for this gun and the Israelis have offered faster delivery than what India had proposed, besides an indigenous content of over 70 per cent even for the 400 guns.

The Army plans to meet the requirement of the 1,180 guns through the ATAGS, a system which is still undergoing trials with the force raising certain concerns.

To add to the problem, the barrel of the ATAGS burst in September 2020 during firing. While there is no official word behind the reasons, a Business Standard report says “the gun has undergone changes” after the accident.

Spread out manufacturing of artillery guns

There is no doubt over the fact that the ATAGS and Dhanush are the guns that will be the backbone of India’s firepower for the next, at least, two decades. However, the DRDO, OFB, Kalyani Group and TATA can’t ignore the concerns raised by the Army with the systems. And neither can the OFB ignore the abysmal pace of manufacturing.

The ATAGS and Dhanush cannot be seen as just DRDO or OFB products. It is India’s just like Covaxin. And to scale up and address the concerns of the Army, more private firms need to be involved.

For example, in the case of Dhanush guns, the technology can be given to L&T and the Kalyani Group, and they can produce them and deliver along with the OFB. The Army can actually go in for higher numbers and the private firms can also look at an export variant.

In the case of ATAGS, expertise can be sought from other private firms to reduce weight, and a combined order can be given to them while covering the development cost of both Kalyani Group and TATA.

Rather than thinking in silos, the Army and the government need to think out of the box and look at the fastest way possible to realise the FARP designed in 1999, over two decades ago.

India currently has a case of three artillery programmes, including two indigenous (ATAGS, Dhanush) at the brink of success. When the three programmes, including the ATHOS was initiated, the hope was that at least one would succeed. But we now have a case where all the three towed guns are near fruition.

The defence establishment needs to step up and take control lest we again fall back on our modernisation plan.

Lt Gen P Ravi Shankar (Retd), former Director General (Artillery), the man who can be credited with taking the programme out of the rut, tells me that the need of the hour is a special purpose vehicle (SPV).

“The aim of the special purpose vehicle is to ensure that the scale and technology capability of various groups can be brought together for the ultimate benefit of the armed forces,” he said.