Delay in artillery modernization process
A rapid deceleration in obsolescence in the Indian Army artillery arsenal appears to be possible by the simultaneous creation of two indigenous 155mm howitzers one in the Ordnance Factory, Jabalpur (MP), and the other in Tata’s stable of emerging defence-related equipment laboratories.
Having wasted three-and-a-half decades by prevaricating over converting the drawings of the Bofors howitzer, the Ministry of Defence two years back asked the Ordnance Factories Board to dust out the parchment and create indigenous prototypes on which production can be initiated. The Ordnance Factories Board used the facilities still available from the now defunct Gun Development Team which created the 105 mm Indian Field Gun to recreate the Bofors model 39 calibre weapon to 45 calibre (length of barrel being 155mm X 45 =6.97 meter) standard.
Trials are underway to test the range and sequence firing capabilities of the new weapon. By all expectations it should replicate what the original Bofors guns did in Kargil in 1999 and that, by itself, will ensure that the 36 year hiatus over acquisitions of 155 mm howitzers from foreign sources can be ended.
The acquisition of these artillery pieces has been bugged by successive scams of payment of kickbacks to middlemen and agents and deliberately leaked revelations to make it impossible for the government to take a decision.
Now that the indigenous gun is available it should be possible to initiate an accelerated program of serial production to meet the long wish list of the Indian Army. This public sector channel of acquisition of 155 mm calibre howitzers has since been bolstered by a separate and independent private sector channel with the unveiling of the 155 mm weapon produced by a Tata subsidiary.
The Tatas have produced a self-propelled weapon mounted on the chassis of a Tata truck. This dual-channel facility can help the Ministry of Defence to acquire at a fast rate both the 45 calibre as well as the longer-barrel 52 calibre weapons simultaneously. It would be even better if the Ordnance Factory Board is also able to create a longer-barrel version of the original Bofors gun by an indigenous lengthening of the barrel.
The Indian Army needs several different types of howitzers for operations in the plains, the desert as well as the mountain terrain that characterises the Indian periphery.
Last year the defence ministry floated tenders for the armed forces for 1,580 towed guns of 155mm/52 calibre, 100 tracked guns of 155mm/52 calibre, 180 wheeled and self-propelled guns of 155mm/52 calibre, and 145 ultra-light howitzers of 155mm/39 calibre to fulfil the demands of the Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan.
Given the new threat posed by the UN Arms Trade Treaty which has given producer nations a large latitude to impose restrictions in end-user deployment of weaponry supplied by them, India needs to improve its indigenous weapons creation facilities.
At least in artillery it is now possible to achieve self-reliance in the short term and self-sufficiency in the long term by rapidly creating ancillary industries to produce whatever is being imported by both the Ordnance Factory Board and the Tata Strategic Electronics Division in its Bangalore factory.
It is learned that the Tata 155mm 52 calibre weapon has an imported content of about 50 percent which would need to be reduced and rectified swiftly. The Ordnance Factory Board too will have to increase the indigenous content of its weapon as close to 100 per cent well before serial production begins. The management of the production train of both the public sector as well as the private sector products will be the key to how the indigenous military-industrial complex will develop in the future.
Currently it is dependent up to 60 per cent on imports of foreign systems and components. A third channel could be opened through the “Buy and Make (India)” category in the Defence Procurement Policy which would allowed joint venture projects similar to the extremely successful Indo-Russian project for the creation of the BrahMos supersonic missile.
Much of the difficulties that faced the nation in the acquisition of the 155 mm artillery has been self-inflicted by the desire to present a clean image in defence acquisitions-an affliction brought about by the Bofors experience.
There have been innumerable floating of tenders and refloating every time a scam is discovered, the latest being that within the Ordnance Factory Board in the acquisition of ultra-light 155 mm howitzers from a Singapore firm for the air-transportable weapon to deal with the combined threat from China and Pakistan.
Among the several attempts to acquire what the Indian Army needs was an arrangement with Denel of South Africa for marrying its 155 mm 52 calibre howitzer to an Indian Arjun tank chassis. This fell foul of the discovery that the South Africans had paid a bribe to Indians to secure the contract for long-range anti-material rifles and bullet-proof jackets. The other experiment to upgrade the 130 mm Russian field guns in the Indian arsenal to 155 mm calibre and mount them on indigenously produced TATRA trucks fared better and this specific requirement has been met through Indo-Israeli collaboration.
Yet, the main worry remained till the time the twin OFB/Tata prospect opened up. India’s stock of operational 155mm FH77 howitzers acquired from Bofors in the late 80s dwindled from the 410 guns originally acquired to around 200 because many of the rest were cannibalised to ensure that a sufficient number can be kept operational.
There has been a long-felt need that there should be a larger element of commonality and standardisation in artillery segment of the Indian Army. It had long been hoped but never fulfilled that the indigenous 105 mm Indian Field Gun would be upgraded in house by the Gun Development Team at the Jabalpur factory but the team was disbanded.
It happened soon after the Bofors guns arrived and no one even thought of resurrecting it during the whole course of the Bofors debacle over the past three decades. No political party even thought of it so engrossed was everybody on milking the scandal for all its political worth.
The employment of the Bofors howitzer in Kargil left its detractors with red faces and withdrew the political pressure that prevented the government from using the drawings in its possession to create the weapon indigenously. That hurdle has now been crossed.
Here is an opportunity to undo the three decades of neglect of the artillery wing of the Indian Army especially at a time when there are new converging dangers of a two front war with Pakistan and China and the possibility of suppliers’ denial regimes under the UN Arms Trade Treaty very much on the lines of how similar restrictive trade practices became enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Wassaanaar Arrangement for denial of dual use technology to those who do not conform to the suppliers’ demands.
India is on the threshold of ending a three decade old hiatus in artillery acquisition and it remains to be seen how well it manages its assets in the field. Defence Minister A K Antony has spoken eloquently about the need for greater indigenisation by the Defence Research and Development Organisation.
It remains to be seen what incentives the Ministry of Defence can lay out for both the public sector and the private sector so that both are able to exploit the emerging opportunities.