|By Lt Gen BS Pawar (Retd)||Published: January 2018|
Samsung Techwin K-9 Thunder (Indian name Vajra) self-propelled howitzer
After almost three decades of stagnation there is finally a significant forward movement in the Artillery modernisation and transformational plans, envisaging the induction of approximately 2,800 plus modern artillery howitzers. The success of the indigenously developed 155mm 45 calibre Dhanush gun (upgraded version of the Bofors gun), the induction of the first two 155mm 39 calibre M777 Ultra-Light Howitzers (ULH) out of the 145 contracted for and the signing of the contract for 100 self-propelled (SP) tracked 155mm 52 calibre howitzers are positive developments in Indian Artillery’s overall transformation plan.
Some setbacks with regards to barrel bursts during firing in case of Dhanush and M777 ULH last year are certainly a serious cause of concern. These hopefully are temporary glitches, which are expected to be overcome soon, especially when the initial probes have pointed towards the malfunctioning of the indigenously produced 155 mm ammunition used in the firing. It would be pertinent to mention here that 80 per cent of all such accidents are mainly due to faulty ammunition.
The journey to achieve total transformation and modernisation has just begun and the final target is still a long way off. The Governments thrust towards ‘Make in India’ and the big time involvement of the private sector in defence manufacturing, specially artillery projects should give the required impetus to this process – the show casing of the indigenously developed Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) during Republic Day parade this year is a befitting tribute to the above process. Recent reports of the ATAGS achieving 40 km plus ranges during firing in Pokhran Ranges and its likely winter trials in Sikkim soon are encouraging signs.
Despite the above positive developments, the main cause of concern and worry remains the sordid state of ammunition, the main weapon of the Artillery, both in quantity and quality – the same was highlighted in the CAG 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.
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-à-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 & 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 2,820 guns/howitzers of all types, even though significant movement forward has been made as brought out earlier. Six additional Pinaka and one Smerch unit have been approved for induction by the Government.
Current Status & Developments
The 155mm 45 calibre indigenised Dhanush gun system being produced by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) is undergoing user exploitation in the deserts and high altitudes. The occurrence of a number of failures/defects during this exploitation phase are being addressed by the OFB. As per reports indent has been placed on the OFB by the MOD for 114 Dhanush Howitzers 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).
Another important development is the culmination of the process for the acquisition of the 145 BAE Systems M777 Ultra Light Howitzers (ULH), being acquired through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route with the United States – two guns have already been inducted for exploitation and formulation of Range Tables. Doubts were expressed in some quarters after barrel burst in one of the guns last year, but as per reports it is a clear case of faulty ammunition.
BAE Systems has down selected Mahindra Defence Systems as its partner for the assembly, integration and testing of the 145 howitzers to be inducted. While 25 ULH will be received in fully built up condition, the balance 120 guns will be assembled in India. This is a priority army project, keeping in mind the raising of the new Mountain Strike Corps and the long outstanding inadequacy of artillery in the mountains on our Eastern and Northern borders.
The principal project to buy 400 x 155 mm/52 caliber towed guns followed by the indigenous manufacture of another 1,180 guns is currently stuck at the trial stage, though confirmatory trials have also been completed. In contention are the Elbit Systems (earlier Soltam) ATHOS 155/52 calibre and Nexter’s TRAJAN 155/52 Calibre Towed Gun Systems. The outstanding feature of these trials has been the involvement of Indian private sector defence companies who have tied up with the foreign vendors – Bharat Forge with Elbit and Larson & Toubro (L&T) with Nexter. This is a positive development and it is hoped that this venture does not go the way of the earlier two trials in this category.
Smerch multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS)
However, with the ATAGS project showing a lot of promise there seems to be hope for the future. Another important project is the Mounted Gun System (MGS) involving off-the-shelf purchase of 200 x 155mm/52 calibre guns, followed by indigenous manufacture of another 614 mounted gun systems. Available in the world market are Sweden’s Archer, French Caeser, Bosnia’s Nora Gun Systems and the latest Indian entry, the Tata Power SED gun system. This system has its inherent advantages over the towed guns in mountainous terrain and today is the mainstay equipment of many western nations. Both Caeser and Archer are combat proven gun systems having seen service in Afghanistan. While the RFP in this case is yet to be issued, a number of private players are already jockeying for this project.
– The writer is a former DG of the Army Aviation Corps.