By Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)
Despite the lessons learnt during the Kargil operations of 1999 about the battle-winning role of firepower in modern warfare, the modernisation plans of Indian artillery continue to stagnate for various reasons, some beyond the control of the army. This is largely attributable to different scandals that continue to stymie the long delayed acquisition of the 155mm howitzers, resulting in the blacklisting of some of the major players in the defence market who are producing state-of-art modern artillery gun systems. The last major acquisition of guns was in the mid-Eighties, when we bought 400 pieces of 155mm/39 calibre FH 77B howitzers from Bofors of Sweden with a range of 30km.
The only silver lining in this dismal gun acquisition stalemate is the upgrade of 180 pieces of 130mm/39 calibre M-46 Russian guns to 155mm/45 calibre with the ordnance and kits supplied by Soltam of Israel. Despite its initial teething problems, this has been a successful venture giving an enhanced range of 39km from its original 26km though not the ideal solution. However, to meet the inescapable operational requirements of additional artillery deployment especially on our northern and eastern borders with China, the army is acquiring additional 130mm guns from erstwhile Soviet Republics, some of whom are stated to have surplus stocks of these guns. Upgrading them to 155mm is only an interim option. In this case, private industry has been approached to undertake the project in collaboration with a foreign vendor right from providing the required ordnance and accessories to eventual upgunning. Companies like Tata, L&T and Bharat Forge are some of the private vendors involved in this venture.
Today, most of the guns held in the inventory of artillery are either obsolete or reaching obsolescence. While the Russian origin 122mm D30 towed howitzer mainly deployed in the plains is already obsolete, the 105mm Indian Field Gun (1FG), the mainstay of the artillery and in service for the last three decades is nearing obsolescence. Furthermore, its limited range of 17km is almost irrelevant in the present and future battlefield environment where guns with 30-40 km range would be the need of the hour. Most of the armies in the world are today even looking at mortars with enhanced ranges of 12-14 km. The availability of the FH 77B (Bofors) guns bought in 1986 are almost down to approximately half the numbers due to non-availability of spares and cannibalisation.
Some time back, based on the assertion of director general, Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) that blueprints of the Bofors gun design are available with them, defence ministry asked the OFB to manufacture approximately 114 guns within a stipulated period of 18 months, keeping in mind the criticality of the situation. Basically, this is an upgunned version (45 calibre) of the existing gun and is likely to have a range of approximately 40km. Trials in this regard have already commenced with the firing of the prototype taking place recently in Pokharan ranges. It is understood that the army is conducting the trials on a fast track so that the manufacturing can commence at the earliest. If successful, orders for more numbers will be placed with the OFB. It is also learnt that BAE Systems (which has acquired Bofors) has offered to provide all help and assistance to OFB in this venture. The defence ministry has appointed a monitoring committee to oversee the smooth and speedy progress of this project. While this is a welcome development to tide over the current dismal situation, it is only an interim measure as technology in development of guns/ howitzers has moved to an altogether different level, way beyond what it was in the Eighties.
Leap of Technology
The advancement and development of technology in the last couple of decades has made firepower more devastating in its application and has led to the most dramatic enhancement in the capabilities of artillery. This has extended the effective reach (range and lethality) of the land forces to almost limitless levels.
Sophisticated surveillance systems now permit the exploitation of extended reach of artillery platforms, and advanced communications allow the application over the widest possible envelop almost instantaneously. Technologically, artillery guns have stabilised at 155mm. This is believed to be the optimum barrel bore for the best mix of range, lethality and platform mobility. In terms of barrel length, 45-52 calibres are the trend though it appears that 52 calibre is what most gun manufacturers will eventually offer. This gun is becoming the mainstay of most modern armies. A few variants to the standard towed and self-propelled/tracked have also emerged in the last decade and a half, in the form of the mounted gun system and self propelled/wheeled which offer specific terrain-related advantages.
The rocket artillery in the last three decades has also evolved into a spectacular weapon platform. The calibre has gone to 300mm, with its range close to 120km and with advanced smart ammunition, its accuracy and lethality has multiplied manifold. Rocket artillery has become highly lethal as also extremely versatile with capability to fire both rockets and missiles. The weapon of the artillery is ammunition; enormous advancements have taken place in the accuracy and lethality of artillery ammunition. The scope for ammunition is to reach a maximum range, greater variety and a higher degree of precision (smart ammunition).
The Indian Army’s decision to go in for the 155mm gun was taken in this background, while also keeping in mind the threat perceptions and the terrain on our borders especially in the high altitude. The aim was to achieve enhanced ranges, equipment standardisation and most importantly the commonality of ammunition thereby reducing the colossal logistics problem of ammunition handling.
Presently, the Indian artillery operates six different calibre guns with different requirements of ammunition and spares. The artillery’s modernisation programme includes purchase and manufacture of towed, mounted and ultra-light howitzers as well as self-propelled artillery both tracked and wheeled, multi-barrel rocket launchers, missiles, surveillance and counter bombardment equipment and most important of all — the ammunition and communication equipment. The main highlight is the inclusion of the mounted gun system and wheeled self-propelled artillery platforms. The mounted gun system provides a high level of autonomy in addition to shoot and scoot capability and has a distinct advantage in the mountains due to its shorter turn radius compared to the towed gun. The wheeled self-propelled gun is ideally suited for the plains and the semi-desert terrain vis-a-vis the tracked version providing better speed and mobility.
While modernisation related to rocket artillery (Smerch and Pinaka), missiles (Prithvi, Agni and Brah Mos) and surveillance equipment (UAVs and weapon locating radar) is progressing satisfactorily, the main concern and problem area remains the stagnation in the induction of roughly 2,820 guns/ howitzers of all types. Here’s a rough breakdown:
Towed Gun: The Rs 8,000 crore project to buy 400 155mm/52 calibre towed guns followed by the indigenous manufacture of another 1,180 guns remains mired in controversy. The BAE Systems’ refusal to respond to the request for proposal (RFP) citing dilution of the earlier GSQR parameters to accommodate lesser capable guns is a further setback to the process. With other contenders like Denel (South Africa), Rheinmetall (Germany), Soltam (Israel) and Singapore Technologies being banned/ blacklisted, the competitive field itself has been weakened. The trials are yet to commence.
Mounted Gun Systems: This project involves off-the-shelf purchase of 200 155mm/52 calibre guns, followed by indigenous manufacture of another 614 mounted gun systems. As per the reports, the RFP is likely to be issued shortly. Available in the world market are Swedish Archer, French Caesar, Bosnian Unis Promex NORA Gun System and South Africa’s Denel (presently blacklisted). MGS has inherent advantages over the towed guns in mountainous terrain.
Self Propelled (SP) Guns (Tracked & Wheeled): This is the weakest link in the artillery inventory today. There is no worthwhile equipment held in this category. The earlier trials for the tracked 155mm/52 calibre SP guns also came to a naught due to the blacklisting of Denel (South Africa). Fresh tenders have been issued but trials are yet to commence. There is a requirement for 100 155mm/52 calibre tracked SP guns. According to reports, the trials for wheeled SP guns (155m/52 calibre) have been completed. The plan is to induct 180 wheeled SP guns for plains and semi-desert terrain. In the fray are Germany’s Rheinmetall Defence and Slovakia’s Konstrukta Defence. If all goes well the selected gun should commence induction by end of this year, though the future of Rheinmetall Defence remains uncertain.
Ultra Light Howitzer (ULH): The requirement is to buy 145 light weight 155 mm/39 calibre howitzers for deployment in areas which are not easily accessible as well as out of area contingencies in the neighbourhood. While the bore was kept to 155mm for commonality with other 155mm guns being acquired, the calibre selected was 39 to keep the gun light enabling transportation by heavy lift helicopters as well as transport aircraft. Initially, in fray were the Singapore Technology’s Pegasus light weight howitzer and BAE Systems’ M777 light weight howitzer. But the blacklisting of Singapore Technology by the Indian government in July 2009 left the field open to BAE’s M777. The same is now being acquired under the foreign military sales (FMS) route. The recent leak of the field trial’s report listing some shortcomings of the gun is again a setback. However, the M777 is a proven gun and the FMS route should ensure its timely induction. In fact, the process for acquisition of heavy lift helicopters (American Chinook and Russian Mi-26) for transportation of these guns is already underway with the air force.
It is therefore clear that the Indian artillery modernisation programme is stagnating. The main project of replacing the existing 122mm and 105mm guns by the towed 155mm/52 calibre howitzers is nowhere in sight. Even if the trials commence this year, it will easily take another four to five years before induction can commence.
The induction of Smerch MBRL (two regiments) with a range of 90km and Pinaka MBRL (indigenous production) with 40km range as well as BrahMos tactical cruise missile will certainly provide a major boost to artillery’s capability for depth battle, but they can in no way replace the requirement of guns/howitzers which are essential for fighting the close and contact battle. The situation has now reached critical levels prompting the parliamentary committee on defence in its recent report to express its anguish over the manner in which artillery modernisation has suffered leading to the present criticalities. Upgunning of additional 130mm guns or tasking OFB with manufacture of 114-odd old technology Bofors guns are only stopgap measures and not modernisation.
The Way Ahead
There is also an urgent need for a relook at the blacklisting policy of the government. In numerous cases, a company or a firm (Indian or foreign) is banned/blacklisted for dealings not at all linked with the ongoing trials of major equipment. In such cases, it may be appropriate to impose a severe financial penalty on the company concerned with no effect on the ongoing trials, as is the practice in a number of countries. This will ensure that the acquisition of major/ critical weapon systems and the modernisation process does not suffer. This is a serious issue and needs examination at the earliest.
As per reports, the DRDO has embarked on a project to design and develop a 155mm/ 52 calibre howitzer in partnership with a private sector company; Bharat Forge has shown an interest in the indigenous design and development of modern artillery gun systems. Though this venture will take some time to fructify it is a step in the right direction.
With regards to ammunition, the OFB at Nalanda is already developing critical components needed for artillery shells and also looking at the feasibility of developing the Bi-Modular Charge Systems (BMCS) required for firing of artillery shells for heavy calibre guns. Technology for the same is being provided by DRDO High Energy Materials Research Laboratory at Nainital. However, there is a need to open this field to the private sector despite the security concerns, as suitable safeguards can be built in to ensure that no proliferation takes place. This will result in greater competition and improvement in quality of ammunition being produced.
While the indigenous efforts by the state owned industry (public sector undertakings) needs to be encouraged, the time has also come to open up the defence sector to private industry. This will help in establishing a more capable, stronger and wider defence industrial base and reduce our heavy dependence on foreign defence companies in the coming decades. A small step in this direction has already been taken but much more needs to be done. Time to Act is Now.
(The writer is former director general, Indian artillery)