If it were not for the tragic nature of the situation in which the Ordnance Factories Board and by extension the Artillery Regiment of the Indian Army find themselves it would be comic.
After the Bofors scam brought artillery to a near standstill in the country the immaturity of the political classes in India held the nation to ransom for the better part of a quarter century till the fine performance of the weapon during the Kargil war in 1999 released political pressures on successive governments and allowed the Bofors-bugged Congress led UPA to dust out the designs of the Bofors 155 mm howitzer and try and reconstruct a weapon that nearly shot this nation through its heart.
With the dusting out of the Bofors drawings the Indian nation-state had finally come full circle to the point where it should have rejected a General’s pernicious advice to scrap the deal because the Company had refused to divulge to whom it had paid kickbacks for helping it to win the contract.
The decision was taken a couple of years ago and the Gun Carriage Factory in Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh was asked to produce two prototypes based on the drawings for which India had made full payment when the first lot of 155mm x 39 calibre howitzers were delivered to India.
The calibre of a weapon is measured by the diameter of the barrel multiplied by the number of times that figure fitted the barrel. It explains the dynamics of the barrel, the range the weapon can reach which is based on the length of the barrel. In this case a shell measuring 155 mm at the base can be fired to a distance of 25 km.
This calibre was chosen with the intention of creating a commonality among various artillery weapons so as to facilitate ammunition acquisition and reduce logistical problems by ensuring that several guns use one type of munition. That was one of the reasons why the purchase team did not opt directly for the 155mm x52 calibre weapon that Bofors had already created in the 80s. India is currently looking to acquire the 52 calibre guns and howitzers for the sake of commonality.
Even in the midst of the Bofors contretemps the Ministry of Defence had made arrangements with Soltam of Israel to upgrade the Russian 130mm medium field gun to 155x52 calibre so as to get a better range. About 180 guns were upgraded before Soltam fell foul of the Government of India for violating contractual obligations. It was banned and India was left with only about half the contract fulfilled. It is this process of blacklisting firms that has left India bereft of modern artillery.
In hindsight, India’s current desire for a 52 calibre howitzer (a weapon that fires at high angles of attack to be able to avoid mountain crests and hit the enemy hiding behind it) could have been satisfied in the 80s itself. The Bofors company which was then Swedish had already produced the larger caliber weapon with all the amenities like shoot and scoot required by the Indian Army but for some reason that was not done.
Meanwhile efforts to resurrect the Bofors 155 mmx45 calibre howitzer by the Ordnance Factories Board at Jabalpur met with misfortune when the barrel of the first prototype developed a bulge during firing trials. This happened about an year ago and during the Defexpo 2014 where the new howitzer was displayed the OFB Chief said that the problem had been resolved by better heat treatment.
With the concept of Public-Private Partnership hanging in the air it is possible that the Indian version of the Bofors howitzer will be productionised by one of several private companies with expertise in metallurgy. Tatas’ have long had experience with steels and Bharat Forge has shown great interest in defence projects in recent times. Tata also has had experience of producing gun carriages as well as transporter-erector-launchers for the Indian space projects. It also has the expertise to be able to mount the Indian howitzer on one of its trucks for road and cross-country mobility.
Indian attempts to get the ultralight mountain howitzer through the Foreign Military Sales route in the US appear to have floundered because the production line has shut down. India has thus made up its mind to resurrect the 105 mm caliber Indian Field Gun which has a range of between 17 and 21 km to equip the new Mountain Corps that are being raised for deployment in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.
The gun was indigenously created by the Gun Development Team based in Jabalpur Ordnance Factory. It was expected that this team would be involved in converting the Bofors blueprints into prototypes but the long wait slowly eroded the team. Its members retired and team was disbanded instead of being utilized to possibly create an improved version of the 105 mm caliber light Indian Field Gun or venture into the 155 mm design capabilities because India was convinced that future artillery would have to be of this caliber .
This Ministry of Defence decision to build the original Bofors weapon is very fortuitous. In one of its earlier editions STRATEGIC AFFAIRS had suggested that since India was having trouble securing contracts with foreign firms for the ultralight 155 mm howitzer it should try to create its own “airmobile artillery” that would be free from the constraints of land warfare.
It was suggested that India borrow the expertise employed in one of the earlier versions of the Hercules aircraft to fit the 105mm Indian Field Gun in its fleet of Ilyushin -76 transport aircraft.
Of particular interest to India for helping the indigenization process is recoil equipment. That is what is required to deal with the recoil of the gun when it is fired from an aircraft.
Some representatives of armed forces think tanks in India have been trying to make out that the aircraft would shatter if a 105 mm caliber weapon is fired from inside the aircraft when it is airborne. There has not been even one incident of an aircraft exploding or being damaged by being used as a platform for the firing of 105mm caliber guns for ground attack. There are still in existence four different versions of the AC-130 those uses the 105 mm weapon on board in war situations.
India is lucky to have an indigenous gun at its disposal. We have aircraft that we have learned to use well. We have a problem with trying to use helicopters to carry the gun from one point of combat to another in the high Himalayas. A fixed wing platform with a weapon on board is largely autonomous and can be called in where it is most needed without much loss of time. It can cross the Himalayas at even its highest point and arrive at the battleground as an element of surprise. Many airmobile aircraft can be used in unison to saturate the battlefield with gunfire more accurate in the first shot.
It may not be the most modern but we have become acutely aware of all the tricks foreign arms and weapons platforms suppliers use to secure foreign contracts. We have suffered the political consequences. If we can use what we have created by our own genius we can improve on the technology as we go along. We will at least have something in hand in sufficient numbers to deal with China and Pakistan.