After about 28 years of misbegotten abstention in acquisition of new artillery guns for the Indian Army there is a glimmer of hope that an indigenous Bofors gun could emerge from a dusty drawer in the Gun Carriage Factory in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.
Before being swept out of power the Congress-led UPA government rectified a grave error of judgment by initiating inhouse conversion of the drawings supplied by the original equipment manufacturer Bofors AB of Sweden as per the contract signed in the early 80s.
The indigenous prototype named Dhanush was displayed at the Defexpo 2014 with Ordnance Factories Board officials exuding confidence that the barrel-burst incident of one of the two prototypes has been put behind them with rectification of the metallurgy and heat treatment process.
With the resurrection of the Bofors howitzer and initial orders for 144 guns placed with the OFB and the possibility of 400 more being ordered in the near future a replenishment process has begun. However, by itself it cannot be counted as “modernization” of the artillery because the requirement of reach far outstrips what the Bofors 155/39 calibre can deliver-just about 30 km.
Upgraded versions of the same howitzer (155/45 cals) have a range of about 35 km while the 155/52 cal which India is seeking has a reach of about 42 km. Nonetheless, an indigenous weapon is free from the consequences of embargos that the governments of original equipment manufacturers frequently impose for whatever reason they want.
In the particular case of the Bofors weapon a perfectly good weapon became the cynosure of an international game of accusations of kickbacks which the opposition parties milked to the full for political advantage to bring down the Congress government. In turn the Congress government was afflicted with palsy by any references to the Bofors issue so much so that it unthinkingly took the advice of a Chief of Army Staff who had his own agenda and cancelled the contract.
Worse, it did not implement the make in India clause even though the Bofors had handed over the drawings and detailed specifications along with the 410 guns that were delivered. The numbers that remain operational at the moment is about half; the rest have been cannabalised to keep the others capable of deployment on the battlefield.
The Kargil war of 1999 showed that India was not totally bereft of military wherewithal to defend itself from frontal or clandestine warfare. While there are shortages in ammunition, India still has the capability to deliver telling blows on any enemy that may seek to test it. India has the indigenous Pinaka multi barrel rocket launcher which has a range of up to 40 km and it is upgrading these to reach 60 km. This is supplemented by the Russian Smerch 12-barrel 300 mm rocket with a range of up to 90km and the indigenous surface-to-surface Prithvi missile that can hit targets of upto 150 km. So there are overlapping capabilities available to the Indian armed forces (all three Services use variants of one missile).
True modernization of artillery would be in the acquisition of howitzers with longer barrels and hence longer ranges. That is why India is looking for a howitzer with a barrel length of 52 calibres (the length of barrel is the product of the base diameter of the shell multiplied by 52). This length is seen by gunners to be ideal in that anything beyond could aggravate the condition known as “barrel droop” which renders the weapon useless after a lesser rate of fire.
India had been indulging in upgradation over the years of the existing arsenal and was in the process of improving the 130 mm field artillery to 155 mm as part of a policy of creating a commonality of calibres so as to reduce the number of types of ammunition required to be delivered to frontline regiments (remember how a whole convoy of trucks carrying artillery shells blew up during transit during Operation Parakram that was launched after the terrorist attack on Parliament?).
A contract was given to the Israeli firm Soltam to upgrade 400 of the 130 mm/39 calibre field guns to 155/45 calibre weapons. About 180 upgradations were completed before the Israeli firm caught the virus of using corrupt means to acquire contracts in India and was blacklisted. The same gun has also been mounted on the chassis of the T-72 tanks that are part of the Indian armored regiments thus giving it greater cross country capability than its towed and wheeled variant. It has been renamed Catapult -2 and is a follow-on to the 130 mm gun on a Vijayanta tank which is now no longer in use in the Indian Army.
A symbol of so-called modernization of the artillery that has been held aloft as an example is the craving for the ultra-light 155 mm howitzer for mountain warfare in the Himalayas. How modern the weapon was can be seen from the fact that the factory has been shut down and the Indian order was intended to keep it alive and the workforce be kept employed.
It was being proffered under the Foreign Military Sales channel which is a single vendor situation that has brought India to the current pass. Moreover, if the deal was actually done there is no guarantee that technology would be transferred or there would be no intrusive inspections to see how the gun was being used. This was a panacea for a new kind of East India Company.
No other options are being explored and suggestions for an air mobile artillery system based on an existing transport aircraft with a 105 mm Indian field gun has been sought to be shot down by Indian military officers who insist that the plane would blow up because of the recoil. They do not seem to know that such airborne artillery has been in existence since the Vietnam War and not one aircraft has exploded when the gun was fired. No wonder qualitative staff requirements are so shoddily enunciated!
Modernization of artillery and its relevance to the future battlefield lies in the precision of the delivery of the warhead on target. A circular error probable (CEP) of ten meters (33 ft) around the target is no longer considered to be cost effective. A meter at most, is the name of the game. How to get the warhead, be it a shell or a missile, as close as possible to the target is the current requirement. Precision guidance and new types of fuses are in the process of evolution.
As far as India is concerned having, finally, woken from a 28-year Rip Van Winkle act it should not allow the Gun Carriage Factory at Jabalpur to lapse into inertia once the Dhanush is productionised. The Ministry of Defence must reconstitute the Gun Development Team inclusive of those who have produced the Dhanush howitzer from Swedish designs and experts in metallurgy and motor vehicle technology and make it the nodal point for a public-private participation exercise in development of all the kinds of guns required for the Indian armed forces.
Productionisation should be a parallel exercise. The current buzzword is “skill development”, the sustainability of which can only be ensured by retaining and building upon expertise that has been acquired over the years.