After years of delay, Indian Artillery modernisation programme gets underway
Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)
The Indian Army’s second largest arm, the regiment of artillery, will be celebrating its 191st Gunners Day on 28th September this year. After nearly two decades of stagnation in its modernisation and transformation plans, there is finally some light at the end of the tunnel and the prospects for the induction of approximately 2,800 plus modern artillery howitzers of the 155mm/52 calibre look bright.
The success of the indigenously developed 155mm 45 calibre Dhanush gun (upgraded version of the Bofors gun), the induction of the first six 155mm 39 calibre M777 Ultra-Light Howitzers (ULH) out of the 145 contracted for and the commencement of induction of first self-propelled (SP) tracked 155mm 52 calibre howitzers (K9 VAJRA-T) are certainly very positive developments in Indian Artillery’s overall transformation plan. What is more encouraging is that these state-of-the-art howitzers are being indigenously produced in India by our very own desi private companies in collaboration with Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs).
In fact, the government’s thrust towards ‘Make in India’ and the big-time involvement of the private sector in defence manufacturing, especially artillery projects should give the required impetus to this process. The showcasing of the indigenously developed Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) during Republic Day parade last year is a befitting tribute to the above process.
Recent reports of the ATAGS achieving 40km plus range during firing in Pokhran Ranges and its winter trials in Sikkim this year are indeed encouraging signs. There has been a significant progress in the artillery’s surveillance, target acquisition and retaliatory capabilities and tremendous strides are being made in the field of rockets and missiles. However, the journey to achieve total transformation and modernisation by the artillery has just begun and the final goal is still a long way off. A major cause of concern and worry remains the sordid state of ammunition, the main weapon of the artillery, both in quantity and quality. This aspect was amply highlighted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) in its report released last year. The recent decision of the government to open this sector to the private industry is a step in the right direction but needs to be pursued on priority.
The artillery’s modernisation plans include 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 including UAVs and most important of all, the ammunition and communication equipment. The main highlight in this transformational plan is the inclusion of the mounted gun system and wheeled self-propelled artillery platforms.
The mounted gun system provides a 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 the semi desert terrain vis-a-vis the tracked version, providing better speed and mobility at lesser costs — however, this project has now been shelved and is not expected to be revived in the future.
While the modernisation related to rocket artillery (Smerch and Pinaka), missiles (Prithvi, Agni and BrahMos) and surveillance equipment (UAVs and Weapon Locating Radar) is progressing satisfactorily, the main concern and problem area remains regarding the induction of roughly 2820 guns/ howitzers of all types, even though significant movement forward has been made as brought out earlier. Six additional Pinaka MBRL units and one Smerch MBRL have been approved for induction by the government.
Current Status and Developments
After decades of stagnation, setbacks and frustration, the artillery modernisation process is showing signs of some positive movement forward. The 155mm 45 calibre indigenised Dhanush gun system being produced by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) has undergone extensive user exploitation trials in the deserts and high altitudes and has successfully completed the same. Six guns were involved in this exercise including firing and a few defects/glitches noticed are being addressed by OFB.
As per reports indent has been placed on the OFB by the MoD for 114 Dhanush Howitzers in order to ensure it can start bulk production after user exploitation culmination — orders for more numbers (300) could follow based on the performance of the gun especially on issues related to the barrel and the failure of some smaller but essential Chinese-made parts — highest level of quality control needs to be ensured.
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