NATIONAL

India keen on buying S. African artillery

NEW DELHI NOV. 13. A high-level defence procurement team left for South Africa last night in an attempt to meet a critical gap in the country's land-based forces. Headed by the Defence Secretary, Subir Datta, the six-member team would hold talks on purchase of artillery guns from a South African company.

India is keen on acquiring the latest 155 mm guns in order to counter Pakistan's inventory of modern American M-109 A 2 self-propelled guns. The need for acquiring 155 mm guns of both the towed and self-propelled variety was felt more vital after the Kargil War as the weapon helped both sides inflict heavy casualties.

Not only will the guns meet Indian defence requirements but a successful transfer of technology agreement would also help realise the Defence Minister, George Fernandes' promise of gifting an ordnance factory to his Parliamentary constituency, Nalanda.

The South African company, Denel, is being seen as the front-runner among six aspirants on the strength of signing an agreement to set up the factory at Nalanda. The South African Defence Minister had visited the country earlier this year to ink the pack and lobby for the company's howitzers. From the beginning the South Africans have shown no hesitation in agreeing on a transfer of technology agreement.

However, if the quest for Advanced Jet Trainers (AJTs) is any indication, the road to firm orders is still long for Denel. Although the British aerospace's Hawk AJT has found favour with the Defence Ministry, the final Government approval is still pending. Two years ago the then air chief had said that the deal would be finalised by year-end. The current IAF chief also holds a similar view.

Denel's competitors are also offering joint ventures and liberal transfer of technology terms. The fact that it would be a 15-year deal that may cost the Indian Government at least $ 2 billions makes it a fiercely contested race. India's quest for howitzers has been well documented.

In view of the Indian sensibilities on this issue, the South African Defence Minister, Mosiuoa Lekota, has said there were no middlemen in the deal.

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