India’s artillery modernisation programme picks up pace with new acquisitions and inductions
The Indian Army’s Artillery Modernisation programme, which was stalled for nearly two decades, has finally gained pace. This programme aims at inclusion of diverse and specialised artillery equipment for the army to be used in different terrains and specialised areas of operations. Among howitzers, the programme aims at inclusion of towed, mounted and ultra-light howitzers; tracked and wheeled self-propelled artillery; missiles, multi-barrel rocket launchers, UAVs and ammunition among others.
As it is known, artilleries had played a pivotal role in bringing victory to India in the Kargil war against Pakistan. However, even three decades after the war, no procurements were made in this area. The modernisation was stalled because of the setbacks in procurements. After the procurement of nearly 400 pieces of 155 mm/39 calibre FH-77B howitzers in mid-Eighties, manufactured by the Swedish arms manufacturer Bofors, India inducted the US-origin M777 A2 Ultra-Light Howitzers (ULH) and K9 Vajra Self-Propelled of the Indian-South Korean make in 2018.
Artillery modernisation is important for India because it promises the inclusion of different types of artillery based on the terrain. While howitzers can function well in mountainous regions, self-propelled guns are meant for the plains.
This programme of acquiring Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan (FARP) first introduced in 1999, under which the Regiment of Artillery decided to acquire 2800-3000 155 mm/52 calibre guns of all kinds and 155 mm/39 calibre lightweight howitzers by 2027. As per reports, the acquisitions would include 814 truck-mounted guns, 1580 towed guns, 100 tracked self-propelled guns, 180 wheeled self-propelled guns and 145 ultra-light howitzers. Two other guns include the 155 mm pool of towed artillery.
Even as the Manmohan Singh-led central government had floated a number of Request for Proposals (RFPs) for procurement of different howitzers, there arose various technical issues with the vendors, and the deals had to be scrapped. In 2008, the government of India issued a number of global tenders, none of which culminated into the final stages of acquisition. The tender floated for M777 Howitzers was one such example. Although the deal started in 2008 and trials were on, the deal was sealed only in 2016.
The ministry of defence (MoD) had in 2008 floated a RFP towards the procurement of 145 pieces of ultra-light 155 mm/39-calibre towed gun-howitzers. The cost of the deal amounted to Rs 3,000 crore. BAE Systems and Singapore Technologies were the two companies shortlisted for this deal. However, in 2009, Singapore Technologies came to be blacklisted. As the BAE Systems was the only contender left, the Indian government initiated a government-to-government deal for 145 M777 howitzers.
This deal between India and the US was finally signed under NDA government in 2016 with a ‘Make in India’ component in a government-to-government deal. The deal is worth USD737 million and consists of a 30 per cent offset clause worth USD200 million. Of the total 145 M777 pieces, 120 will be made within the country and the remaining 25 will come in a flyaway condition from the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), the BAE Systems. The US-based company has tied up with Mahindra Defence to complete the manufacturing of these guns. Reports have stated that by the end of 2021, the acquisition of M777 will be completed. It’s not known how many M777s have been inducted into the army till now. However, by March 2020, the delivery of 25 pieces of these guns were completed and it was reported that by the end of 2020, 70 more would be delivered.
Amidst the border challenge with China, India has deployed these M777 Howitzers in Eastern Ladakh. This gun has a range of 30 km. This artillery can be easily airlifted and carried by the Chinook helicopters, which will give the army an edge in the mountains.
The K9 Vajra-T is a Self-Propelled Artillery jointly manufactured by Indian defence firm Larsen & Toubro (L&T) and South Korea’s Hanwha Techwin. The army has so far inducted 51 pieces of this artillery. Hundred pieces K9 Vajra, a 155mm/52 calibre howitzer were ordered by the Indian Army in 2017 at a cost of USD583 million.
It is a tracked and self-propelled artillery originally developed by Samsung for the South Korean military. It was earlier known as ‘K9 Thunder’. Hanwha Defense had supplied the first batch of 10 guns to the Indian Army in November 2019 and the rest of the 41 had been manufactured and provided three months ahead of the schedule. L&T, the India partner to complete the order, was given the responsibility of manufacturing 90 guns.
K9 Vajra weighs 50 tonnes. It can fire 47 kg bombs at 43-km distant targets. It has the ‘shoot and scoot’ capability. The acquisition of 1580 155mm/52 calibre guns is the largest artillery acquisition that will be stretched over a period of 12-15 years.
Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), a 155 mm/ 52 calibre gun, is being jointly developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in partnership with Bharat and Tata power Strategic Engineering Division (SED). These guns are in their trial phase. The army will put them to test in Sikkim in January-February for the winter-use trials. They are yet to undergo ‘mobility’ and summer trials. These guns had suffered a setback in September 2020 when a barrel of one of the ATAGS pieces undergoing trials burst at Pokhran.
Up until now, there have been cases of barrel explosion in different artilleries. It happened with ATAGS, the Dhanush and also with M777 A2 procured from the US. However, it has been blamed on faulty ammunition.
ATAGS have been designed by Armament Research Development Establishment (ARDE) of the DRDO. While the guns have been made by both Bharat Forge and Tata Power SED, the barrel has been solely made by Bharat Forge. The range of these guns is 48 km. It fires five round bursts. These artilleries are said to consist of 95 per cent indigenous content.
ATAGS operate on an all-electric drive. The gun controls, ammunition handling, opening and closing the breech and ramming the round into the chamber are all done electrically, which makes it faster than its competitors. The deal to procure 150 of these guns was signed in 2018.
To meet a requirement of 1580 guns in this category, the MoD has shortlisted Elbit Systems after floating a tender to procure these. Elbit Systems’ (Autonomous Towed Howitzer Ordnance System) ATHOS 2025 from Israel won against the French gunmaker Nexter’s TRAJAN in the tender to supply the Indian Army with 1580 artillery guns due to its comparatively low pricing.
As per a report in the Business Standard, Elbit Systems has written to the MoD that they would offer 70 per cent weapon-building in India, which is significantly more than the required 50 per cent under India’s ‘Make in India’ programme. The MoD requires Elbit Systems to supply first 400 pieces of ATHOS 155 mm/52-calibre towed artillery guns in ‘fully built or knocked-down condition’. The Indian partner of Elbit Systems is Bharat Forge. The cost of the deal is estimated to be USD1.2 billion. These guns have a firing range of above 40 km.
The Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) in February handed over the first 130 mm M-46 artillery gun upgraded to 155 mm to the Indian Army at the DefExpo that took place in February 2020. The gun is a vintage Soviet-origin towed artillery.
In 2013, the army had issued an RFP for the OFB as well as the private sector companies. In competitive bidding, the OFB won the bid. In 2018, the army awarded a contract to upgrade 300 of these guns to the OFB. Sharang is a 130 mm artillery gun which was ‘up-gunned’ to 155 mm/45 calibre. The up-gunning has brought an advanced range to this artillery with a boost in firepower. The gun now has a range of 36 km from earlier 27 km. The delivery for these guns will be completed by the end of 2022.
Like Sharang, Dhanush towed artillery gun will also be produced by the OFB. It is the first indigenously-built long-range artillery gun with a range of 38 km and has 155 mm/45 calibre. Six piece of the Dhanush artillery guns had been handed over to the army in April 2019.
The total pieces of this guns to be delivered by the OFB stand at 114. It has a strike range of 38 km. The automated technology allows three to six guns to be fired simultaneously at a single target, with each gun holding the capability to fire 42 hours per round. The features of this gun include inertial navigation-based sighting system, auto-laying facility, on-board ballistic computation and an advanced day and night direct firing system. Self-propulsion allows the gun to negotiate and deploy itself.
The OFB had gained the Transfer of Technology from Bofors to produce indigenously in the Eighties. However, it had not been utilised. The design of this artillery is based on that of the Bofors gun. The second batch of these guns was to be delivered by OFB early this year, however, that did not happen in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mounted Gun Systems
Another project that will prove to be significant for the Indian Army is the inclusion of Mounted Gun Systems (MGS). This project made some noise, however, there are no major developments seen. Ashok Leyland Defence Systems had formed a consortium agreement with L&T and Nexter Systems for its CAESAR artillery system with 6×6 Super Stallion chassis from Ashok Leyland. The OFB also had fielded an MGS-based on a Dhanush gun mounted on 8×8 Tatra truck produced by BEML. The latter was first unveiled in Chennai’s DefExpo and was reported to have undergone a firing test the same year in November. However, no latest developments have taken place.
Undoubtedly, this programme promises benefits to the Indian Army. The force, which was in dire need of capacity building, has finally received the much-needed push. Today, as India faces heightened tensions with its neighbours, it is mandatory for the country to keep its forces well-equipped. India has deployed its Artillery formations on its eastern as well as the western border. Experts believe, the newly procured and advanced artilleries will help them fight not just wars but also counter insurgencies prevalent on the western border with Pakistan and in the Northeast.