The Indian artillery modernization program has now become a subject of laughing stock in strategic circles. Observers often joke that the program seems to have been jinxed ever since the Prime Minister of Sweden Olaf Palme was killed , though may not be directly related to the Bofors bribery scandal, allegedly masterminded by the then Indian Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi in the mid eighties.
Three decades have passed after that most politically sensitive Bofors commission scandal and the Indian Army is yet to receive any fresh consignment of the Howitzer Gun, though the Army perspective plan has marked over Rs 20,000 crores for artillery acquisition. Now with the so called corruption averse and patriotic NDA government the country can hope to complete the missing links in a very transparent manner.
The Ordnance Factory Board could have come out with the Indian version of the Howitzer Guns, because of its transfer technology rights acquired with the Bofors AB but the OFB did not pursue the matter and neither allowed the Ordnance Factory Board to invest on research and development for improvising and domestic production of the Bofors Guns.
In the meantime the MoD has negotiated and tested many other Gun manufacturers and dwelled on scores of options, but one or other issue continued to bedevil the decision making process and the end result has been till now that the Indian Army still lacks a modern gun and the 410 guns purchased from Bofors in 1986 have been reduced to half. In fact Indian Army had then planned to induct 1500 such guns all over the Indian border with Pakistan and China.
The 200 surviving Bofors Guns are supplemented by Soviet era 130 mm artillery, 105 mm light guns. Later a contract with Soltam facilitated in upgrading some of these 130 mm howitzers to 155mm45 mm caliber weapons which raised gun’s range from 26 kms to 39 kms.
The need for such a Howitzer gun was felt heavily during the 1999 Kargil conflict. And when last year the Government gave the go ahead for raising the new Corps on the Line of Actual Control, Ultra Light Howitzer Guns formed a principal component of offensive strategy of the Indian Army. And the MoD on the recommendation of the Army started negotiations with the US based BAE systems for supply of 145 Ultra Light Howitzer Guns, but the deal is stuck on technical and commercial issues, which can now be resolved under the umbrella of Defence Trade and Technology Initiative. If the deal cannot move through, the US based BAE can be asked to engage in negotiations with the Indian private sector or the Indian OFB for the improved Ultra Light Howitzer incorporating some of the advancements achieved by the OFB also on their own technical strength.
The OFB and BAE can be asked to join hands to produce guns for India under the umbrella of DTTI. Though the OFB has developed six prototypes named Dhanush for the 155 mm Howitzer Guns and the Indian MoD seems to be impressed with the performance, though the Indian Army is yet to give clearance for the Gun. Yet, if the Indian OFB has come out with some version of the modern 155 mm gun, the MoD and Army should seriously look into it and proceed on domestic production of the Gun with foreign collaboration.
Further delay will result in compromise with the Indian strategic interests on the Line of Actual Control, especially on the Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh borders with China.
For the main towed artillery competition the BAE Systems Bofors had been competing against Israel’s Soltam and South African Denel, but both remains banned from the race because of allegations. The OFB had displayed its 15545 mm Dhanush towed howitzer at New Delhi Defexpo- 2014.
The OFB claimed that the 6 prototypes have been made and most recent ones include several advancements, which aims to improve range from 27 kms to 38 kms. It will have a modern computerized fire control system. Mechanical redesigns have also been achieved which included gun cradle, muzzle brake and higher caliber gun. OFB claims that the Army would sanction the Gun by the end of the year and they can achieve manufacturing capacity to 4 guns per month. According to OFB officials Cold Weather and Desert firing test has been successfully conducted.
India’s formal request of the M-777 Gun was made in early January 2010 when the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency announced Indian request, “India’s formal request to buy 145 M777 155mm Light-Weight Towed Howitzers with Laser Inertial Artillery Pointing Systems (LINAPS), warranties, spare and repair parts, support and test equipment, publications and technical documentation, maintenance, personnel training and training equipment, and US Government and contractor technical assistance and support.”
The initial order for the Ultra Light Howitzers have been informed to be 145 but BAE officials contend that considering the huge number of requirements the orders may be increased to over 1000 in years to come. The American Defence Security Cooperation Agency had originally proposed the cost of the deal at US$ 647 million but inordinate delay, in view of some issues raised by the Army Headquarters will cost the nation now about US$ 885 million, if India orders for the deal now. There are reports that MoD has asked the US company to stick to the previously quoted price.
The DSCA in August 2013 published an official follow up request from India for 145 M-777 guns , under fresh and renewed proposals after original January 2010. According to DSCA, “The Indian guns will use the same Laser Inertial Artillery Pointing Systems (LINAPS) equipment as Canada’s M-777s, and the estimated cost for the guns plus warranty, spare and repair parts, support and test equipment, publications and technical documentation, training, and other US government and contractor support has risen from $647-$885 million. The fresh Indian proposal also mentioned 30% industrial offsets contract, in conformance to India’s official Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). That has to be part of a negotiated contract, which can be signed within 30 days of this notice.”
The ST Engineering ’s Pegasus is also an ultra-light howitzer contender, though the firm is also under cloud, though nothing substantial has come out against the firm. Singapore’s ST Kinetics had long back offered to set up a manufacturing base in India,if the company grabs a few of the five contracts it had bid for. The tenders included Ultra Light and Towed Howitzers, a light strike vehicle for the army and 2 carbine rifle projects for security forces.
The BAE systems also is in race to sell its FH7705 towed Howitzer Guns and had proposed four years ago that the Gun could be manufactured in India in BAE’s joint venture with Mahindra and Mahindra ltd.
The Rheinmetall Defence, now blacklisted, was in race for its RTG-52 guns for Self-propelled Guns. After the CBI conveyed its recommendation to the MoD to blacklist 6 firms in July 2010 for alleged involvement in the Ordinary Factory Board bribery scandal, the Gun acquisition process was derailed and received an unrecoverable jolt to the self propelled howitzer acquisition program, as the one of the blacklisted Rheinmetall’s different division was one of the two finalists.
The Army had issued fresh tenders in January 2011 for over 400 towed artillery Howitzer Guns from foreign vendors and licensed production in India for over 1000 guns. But the Indian OFB claims of advances in indigenously producing the Guns called Dhanush has put fresh spanners and the MoD will wait for the clearance and utilization certificate from the Army.
The then Defence Minister A K Antony had responded in a question in March 2010 “The proposals presently being processed include production of towed guns by Ordnance Factory Board under transfer of technology from the selected vendor. The procurement proceeds as per the provisions of the Defence Procurement Procedure 2008. The induction of the equipment, as and when it takes place, will enhance the firepower of the Indian Artillery.”
For the Self Propelled tracked Howitzers the MoD gave a sanction for about US$ 800 million. The OFB developed BHIM could not move forward because the Denel G-6 gun on Arjun tank chassis was terminated in 2006, as Denel was prohibited from participation in Indian defence contracts. The MoD indicated last year the process could be set in motion again with three Indian firms willing to participate, but certainly they will need a foreign partner. With the reported lifting of ban on Denel, hopes have been generated once again.