May - 2013 ISSUE

Force Magazine
Obsolete Technology - May 2012
The dismal gun acquisition saga has now reached critical levels
By Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)

The Bofor’s bogey continues to haunt the modernisation plans of the Indian artillery especially the acquisition of 155mm howitzers now for almost a quarter of century. Unfortunately, the ghost of Bofors has resurfaced once again which is likely to further delay the acquisition process.

The modernisation process continues to stagnate for various other reasons as well, some beyond the control of the army. This is largely attributable to different scandals continuing to stymie the long delayed acquisition of the 155mm howitzers, despite the lessons learnt during the Kargil conflict of 1999, where artillery fire power had undeniably paved the way for victory. The blacklisting of some of the major players in the defence market who are producing state-of-the-art modern artillery gun systems has further set back this process. The last major acquisition of guns was that of 400 pieces of 155mm/39 calibre FH 77B, howitzers from Bofors of Sweden with a range of 30 km in the mid-Eighties.

Today, most of the guns held in the inventory of artillery are either obsolescent 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 revelation of the director general, Ordinance Factory Board (OFB) that blue prints of the Bofors gun are available with them, the defence ministry asked the OFB to manufacture approximately 100 guns within a stipulated period of 18 months, keeping in mind the criticality of the situation. However, there are serious misgivings amongst armament experts about the feasibility of this project with technology having moved on almost two and a half decades and Bofors as a company no longer existing, having been taken over by BAE Systems, thus denying the benefit of technical support from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

The only silver lining in this dismal gun acquisition saga is the upgrade of 180 pieces of 130 mm/39 calibre M46 Russian guns to 155mm/45 calibre with the ordinance 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 and upgrading them to 155mm as an interim option. In this case, the private industry has been approached to undertake this project in collaboration with a foreign vendor right from providing the required ordinance and accessories to upgunning. Companies like TATA, L&T and Bharat Forge are some of the private vendors involved in this project.

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 in this transformation process is the inclusion of the mounted gun system and wheeled self propelled artillery platforms. The mounted gun system provides high level of autonomy and shoot and scoot capability and has a distinct advantage in the mountains due to its shorter turning radius compared to the towed gun.

The wheeled self-propelled gun is ideally suited for the plains and semi desert terrain vis-a-vis the tracked version providing better speed and mobility. While the modernisation related to rocket artillery (Smerch & Pinaka), Missiles (Prithvi, Agni and BrahMos) and the surveillance equipment (UAVs) is progressing satisfactorily, the main concern and problem area remains the stagnation in the induction of roughly 2,820 guns/ howitzers of all types. There has been progress with regards to the Ultra Light Howitzer (ULH) and wheeled self propelled guns as trials in both cases have been successfully concluded. The ULH is being acquired under the direct foreign military sales route from USA. Despite the delay due to the leaked trial report pointing to some shortcomings, the ULH is expected to be inducted soon. A total of 145 ULH are planned for induction for deployment in areas not easily accessible and for out of area contingencies.

In the case of the wheeled SP guns, in fray are Germany’s Rheinmetall and Slovakia’s Konstrukta. The induction of the selected gun is expected to commence this year provided no other scandal emerges. However, no progress has been made with regards to the towed, self-propelled track and mounted gun systems. The main culprit has been the back-listing policy of the government. In fact, in the case of towed guns (the mainstay of the army) almost all major firms have been blacklisted, most of them for issues not even related to guns. This has created a situation where two or three firms are left in the fray offering gun systems which are neither tested nor in service especially in case of towed guns, the BAE Systems being the only exception. However, they opted out of the bid for towed guns citing muddled up procurement process, whimsical banning and blacklisting of firms and dilution of GSQR to accommodate lesser players.

The situation therefore has now reached critical levels. In the back drop of the recently leaked letter of the army chief to the Prime Minister on the state of preparedness of army, the parliamentary committee on defence in its recent meetings has expressed anguish over the manner in which artillery modernisation has suffered leading to the present critical situation.

Upgunning of additional 130mm guns or tasking OFB with the manufacture of a 100-odd old technology Bofors guns are only stop gap measures and not modernisation. These steps are akin to finding desperate solutions to desperate situations. There is 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 other major defence importing countries. This will ensure that the acquisition of major/ critical weapon systems and the modernisation process will not suffer. It is learnt that the Naresh Chandra-led committee on defence reforms is seriously examining this issue. Time for decision is now and this cannot brook any further delay.

(The writer is a former commandant of School of Artillery, Devlali)


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