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SOURCE: ET

An indigenously developed artillery gun which suffered a barrel burst in field trials earlier this month injuring four army personnel may need to go back to the drawing board, officials told ET. The malfunction of the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), a 155 mm/52 calibre gun system designed and developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), occurred during internal developmental firing at the Pokhran (Rajasthan) firing ranges on September 12.

The incident is being viewed as a setback to defence modernization efforts, especially since the army had put on the backburner a proposal last year to procure 400 artillery guns of the same type from Israeli defence manufacturer Elbit Systems, as the homemade one was still under development. The remaining 1,180 guns were to be produced by the Ordnance Factory Board. The proposal was put on hold as the DRDO project was heading towards completion.

The mishap has also come at a time when the gun system had successfully completed trials and production of the first 40 was to begin shortly. The gun barrel, manufactured by Bharat Forge Ltd, exploded right after a firing test that was being supervised by DRDO officials, sources said. When contacted, a DRDO spokesperson said an inquiry committee has been set up to look into the cause of the accident. “As soon as the report comes, we can share details. Cause is not very clear at present,” the spokesperson added.

While the cause of the accident would be revealed after a detailed inquiry, officials said that it could have occurred due to the inferior quality of metallurgy or the barrel not meeting prescribed standards. An official told ET that design parameters will have to be brought back to the drawing board to ensure that the gun has reliable technology that is safe for users. The accident comes at a particularly difficult time, given the border standoff with China and the neighbouring country’s continued collusion with Pakistan on its support for cross-border terrorism.

It also marks a further delay in the ATAGS project that was started in 2013, with production scheduled to begin in 2019. The project was delayed earlier during the development cycle, with issues cropping up in the gun system’s recoil systems as well as delays in the manufacture of sub systems. DRDO’s Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE) had partnered with private players, including Bharat Forge and Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division for the project, with the understanding that orders would be divided between the two companies after successful trials.

Officials said the accident will impact the induction of an urgently required modern gun system into the Indian Army. The army has a Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan, drawn in 1999, to acquire 2,800-3,000 155 mm/52-calibre guns of all kinds and 155 mm/39-calibre lightweight howitzers by 2027. These include 814 truck-mounted guns, 1,580 towed guns and 180 wheeled self-propelled guns.