The Indian Army is making incremental, but confused, progress in upgrading its depreciated artillery profile that has languished gravely since the import of Bofors howitzers in the late 1980s. It recently completed trials for two 155mm/52 caliber howitzer systems and is readying its report on the try-outs in Rajasthan last summer and in Sikkim in February, for presentation to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) by the year end.Howitzer shortage
Depending on the trial reports of whether the howitzers have met the Army’s Qualitative Requirements (QRs), principally of reliably and consistently achieving a strike range of 42 kilometres, the vendors will be shortlisted or rejected. Ideally, thereafter the howitzer price bids submitted early last year ahead of field trials would be opened, cost negotiations launched and the procurement confirmed. But such a smooth and painless eventuality in India’s lugubrious MoD is still a long way off.
Competing for the 155mm/52 caliber towed gun system (TGS) are France’s Nexter, with its Trajan gun, specially modified for the Indian tender, and Israel’s Elbit fielding the ATHOS 2052 howitzer. India plans on acquiring 400 towed howitzers and building an additional 1,180 guns via a technology transfer to the state-run Ordnance Factory Board (OFB).
Vying alongside, in support of the Army’s initial requirement for 100 self-propelled tracked (SPT) howitzers are South Korean Samsung-Techwin’s K-9 Thunder and an upgraded version of Russia’s MSTA-S SP gun modified to 155mm/52cal standards and mounted on a T72 main battle tank chassis.
All four competitors have technical agreements with local companies that are expected to extend beyond providing backup during trials, if any of the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are shortlisted for acquisition. While Nexter and Samsung are collaborating with Larsen & Toubro (L&T), Elbit has an arrangement with the Kalyani Group in Pune. Expectedly, the Russians are in a tie-up with the OFB.
The TGS howitzer trials were the fifth since 2001, plagued as they have been by a bewildering round of bureaucratic delays and frequent issuance, withdrawal and re-issuance of tenders by the MoD. The Army has further compromised the artillery programme by its muddled and, at times, over ambitious QRs that would indeed be comical if the operational ramifications of the howitzer shortages were not dire.
The latest round of howitzer trials is a long-deferred response to the Army’s Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan (FARP) formulated in 1999 that aims to import, locally develop and licence-build a mix of around 2,800-3,000 assorted guns to equip around 190-200 artillery regiments.
The ambitious Plan, possibly the world’s largest involving artillery systems, is estimated to cost $8-10 billion and is scheduled for completion by the end of the 14th Five-Year Finance Plan in 2027. Unfortunately, this is a deadline the Army and the MoD will most certainly overshoot.
The FARP envisages inducting a perplexing mix of 1,580 TGS, 814 mounted platforms and the outright purchase of 145 BAE Systems M777 155 mm/39-caliber ultra-light howitzers; that too is mired in unnecessary red tape and confusion. Also included is the outright purchase of 100 SPT howitzers and 180 self-propelled wheeled howitzers with another 120 to be built locally under a technology transfer agreement.
The critical howitzer shortage and obsolescence of existing platforms is possibly the worst of the Army’s innumerable deficiencies. These astonishingly include basic infantry weapons like carbines and assault rifles, night-fighting devices for the bulk of the Army’s 59 armour regiments, air defence equipment, light utility, attack and heavy lift helicopters, body armour and assorted ordnance, missiles and ammunition, among much else.
At present, the Army principally employs Soviet-era 105mm OFB-built Indian Field Guns and D-30 122mm field pieces, both with limited ranges of around 17 km that can be offset by long-range mortars. These are supplemented by Bofors 155mm/39 cal howitzers, now reduced to less than half their original number of 410 due to cannibalisation. Soviet M46 130mm guns upgraded to 155mm/45 cal by Soltam in the late 1990’s complete the Army’s circumscribed artillery profile.
Military planners concur that these assets are woefully inadequate to sustain the Army’s revised ‘manoeuvre by fire’ offensive capabilities and the newly formulated war-fighting Cold Start doctrine. Simply put, this envisages holding or static formations along India’s borders with Pakistan going on the offensive in a limited war scenario to achieve negotiable military gains in a nuclearised environment. Efficient and effective artillery firepower is crucial to this battlefield scenario.
Additional howitzers, especially the transportable M777s, are desperately needed to equip the proposed fourth artillery division for deployment along the 4,057-km-long unresolved Chinese border to support the two recently created mountain divisions in the northeast in addition to the 17 Mountain Strike Corps currently under raising in the same region. Meanwhile, there is a putative, albeit questionable, embarrassment of artillery riches domestically.
The OFB is currently conducting its final round of trials involving Dhanush, the Bofors FH-77B 155mm/45 cal towed howitzer prototypes it has constructed using blueprints it obtained in 1987 along with the 410 guns, but never used after the purchase became controversial. The trials became necessary after the barrel of one of its two prototypes built by the Gun Carriage Factory (GCF) in Jabalpur burst last August during try-outs in Pokhran.Acquisition of Dhanushs
The MoD has approved the acquisition of 144 Dhanushs with the possibility of procuring another 400-odd depending on their performance.
The outcome of the Defect Identification Inquiry ordered by the MoD into this mishap is unknown, but it is widely believed in military and industry circles that it remains inconclusive. Senior artillery officers, however, believe that inducting Dhanush is at best an interim measure as it is an outdated gun, but in the short term the best option for the Army to make good shortages.
Alongside, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has successfully fabricated the Catapult MKII self-propelled artillery system by mating the 130mm gun with the Arjun tank chassis. The Army recently conducted Catapault MKII user trials following which series production of 40 platforms is expected to imminently begin at the OFB’s Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi near Chennai to equip two regiments. These 40 platforms will replace an equal number of DRDO-developed Catapult MKIs fashioned in the early 1980s by mounting the M46 gun onto the lengthened chassis of the locally licence-built Vijayanta tank.
Simultaneously, private defence contractors like the Tatas, L&T and Bharat Forge are involved in locally upgrading M46 guns provided by the Army to 155mm/45 cal in addition to developing their own 155mm/52 howitzers in collaboration with overseas OEMs. Some are also collaborating with the DRDO’s Armament Research and Development Establishment in Pune to design a 155 mm/52-caliber Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) with a 50-km strike range by 2016.
Proposals are also afoot to privatise ordnance manufacture to meet shortages. The Army faces a shortfall of some 50,000 155 mm precision-guided munitions rounds, more than 21,200 bi-modular charge systems, and around one million electronic fuses which the OFB is incapable of fulfilling.
(Rahul Bedi writes on defence and security issues.)