The gun battle inside South Block

By India Today

Over the past few months, the ministry of defence (MoD) and the Indian Army have been at loggerheads over the acquisition of 400 towed artillery guns for Rs 4,000 crore. The army’s proposal for acquiring 400 howitzers from Israel had reached the stage of approval by the director general (acquisitions) in September 2019, but was shelved after indigenous artillery programmes began showing promise. Earlier this year, as a nine-month standoff with China eased off in eastern Ladakh, the army revived the gun import proposal, citing an “urgent operational necessity” on the northern borders to justify the import of 20 regiments (each regiment has 20 guns). Adding to the army’s urgency is the fact that deliveries of the ‘Dhanush’, an indigenously-built version of the Swedish FH-77B Bofors gun, have slowed down. Once the DG (acquisitions) clears the proposal, it can be sent to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) for the final approval.

Defence ministry officials, however, want the army’s towed gun import to be scrapped, arguing that any off-the-shelf import of guns at this stage will seriously impact indigenous artillery development. The MoD’s Department of Defence Production (DoDP) is backing the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), designed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and produced indigenously by their industry partners in the private sector, Bharat Forge and Tata Advanced Systems Ltd. The DoDP considers the howitzer programme to be a test for the government’s Aatmanirbhar Bharat programme to achieve self-sufficiency in defence and is arguing for a larger number of ATAGS to be procured from the Indian industry, including from the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB).
The deadlock continues even as a December 31, 2021, deadline to stop imports of howitzers looms on the horizon. Howitzers of the 155/ 52 calibre are among the 101 items on the ‘negative list’ released by the MoD in August 2020. Now called the ‘positive indigenisation list’, it is meant to discourage imports in categories where local industry is self-sufficient. In 2007, when there were no indigenous programmes, the MoD had approved an army proposal to import and assemble 1,580 foreign howitzers for Rs 12,640 crore—400 howitzers were to be imported off the shelf and 1,180 were to be built within the country through technology transfers. Since then, three indigenous gun programmes have slowly started delivering guns to the army—the ‘Dhanush’, the ATAGS and the OFB’s kit that upgrades existing Soviet-built 130 mm guns to 155 mm ‘Sharang’.
Indian industry officials worry the 400-howitzer import will kill indigenous industry. “Such an order at a stage when Indian guns have matured will give a foreign gun maker a foot in the door,” says a developer who wished to not be named. “It will enable future localised production of foreign guns and kill indigenous industry and innovation.”
The industry is hopeful since earlier this year two ATAGS howitzers, one from each private developer, successfully completed winter trials in Sikkim. The two prototypes are headed to Rajasthan this month for summer trials. Successful completion of these trials will clear the acquisition of 150 ATAGS for Rs 3,365 crore. The order will be divided between the two private developers. The sudden move by China’s People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) motorised divisions in eastern Ladakh last May has made upgrading the army’s firepower more urgent. The ATAGS is still in development trials and the OFB is yet to deliver even the first complete regiment of Dhanush howitzers. The very real possibility of a border conflict has seen the army beefing up its force levels along the northern borders—‘rebalancing’, as the army calls it, by moving troops and materiel away from the Pakistan border in the west and towards the disputed northern frontier with China.
Howitzers are part of this rebalance. They can fire a 155 mm shell carrying over six kilograms of high explosive encased in more than 30 kg of steel. When they explode, they shower their targets with steel splinters travelling at supersonic speeds that can shred concrete and armour. Artillery is, hence, key to mountain warfare and is critical in offence and defence to support advancing infantry and armour through what is called ‘indirect fire’. During the 1999 Kargil War, Indian artillery shellfire accounted for the bulk of the casualties suffered by Pakistan’s army, destroying their supply lines and fortified bunkers. With its present commitments on two fronts, the Indian army doesn’t have enough guns for both. A former army commander mentions a critical shortfall of tube and rocket artillery as one of the most alarming gaps in army units along the 3,448 km northern frontiers. This is possibly why the army decided to revive the 2019 case for the howitzer import. (The Indian Army declined to comment for this story.) Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat is believed to have backed the army proposal to import the guns, but with the caveat that indigenous howitzer programmes are to also be given breathing space.
In April this year, top army officials told the MoD about the time, cost and operational advantages of Israel’s 155 mm ‘ATHOS’ (Autonomous Towed Howitzer Ordnance System). Under an accelerated delivery schedule, Israeli manufacturer Elbit has assured the army that the first 12 guns will be delivered within 14 months of signing the contract and all 400 guns will be delivered within 54 months. The Israeli gun’s 15-tonne weight offers it an advantage over the 18-tonne ATAGS, particularly in difficult terrain without properly developed road networks. Moreover, ATHOS costs Rs 9 crore per gun, while the ATAGS costs Rs 22 crore per gun. To sweeten the deal, the Israeli vendor has reportedly promised to source 70 per cent of the gun’s components from Indian industry to whom they will provide complete ToT (transfer of technology). ATHOS, the army told the MoD, is a one-time purchase to meet immediate operational requirements without impacting the indigenous programmes. But the ATHOS has problems of its own—it is not in service even in the Israeli army and had suffered structural failure during trials in India some years ago.
New offers from the Israeli vendor could open up a potential minefield for the MoD, for they could mean modifications in the original Acceptance of Necessity (AON) of 2007 and the Request for Proposal issued in 2011. These deviations would need either a fresh CCS approval or, as in the case of the MMRCA fighter deal in 2016, a scrapping of the tender and a direct government-to-government buy, as was done with the 36 Rafale jets.
MoD sources told india today that no final decision has been taken on the proposal yet. “The Ministry of Defence is holding consultations with all concerned on this issue, keeping in mind the requirement of achieving the objectives of Aatmanirbhar Bharat, as well as giving the necessary teeth to our Armed Forces. We have to work towards indigenous design, development and production of weapon systems to reduce dependence on arms imports and this has to be achieved without compromising the objectives of national security,” they say.
Meanwhile, the DRDO-designed ATAGS successfully completed 90 days of winter trials in Sikkim between January and March 2021, putting a September 2020 incident, when an ATAGS barrel burst during firing trials, behind them. The guns displayed their mobility across a total of 500 km in night conditions, at temperatures of 15 degrees Celsius below zero and at altitudes of over 15,000 feet, and fired 160 rounds without any failures. “The gun has successfully cleared its winter trials and, if the army wants, they can be immediately deployed in the northern borders,” says a developer who wished to not be named.
Developers say their indigenous guns negotiated all kinds of narrow- and low-load classification bridges in self-propelled mode and put to rest apprehensions about the ATAGS’ mobility in mountainous terrain. The Elbit gun, they noted was put through far less rigorous trials in field trials in 2017, when it had been tested for mobility in high altitude areas only during day time. It was towed to Lukrep, the northernmost point of North Sikkim on the Tibetan plateau, and was tested at night in the snow-covered Menla and Changu Lake to ascertain operational efficiency.
Developers say the rarefied mountain air theoretically makes it possible for the gun to achieve ranges of up to 60 km, which would allow the army to engage the enemy’s brigade headquarters, bridges and fuel dumps deep in its territory, giving them a tactical advantage from the beginning of a conflict.
Experts, however, believe that ATAGS needs time to mature and that the army needs to fix the problematic Dhanush programme rather than push for imports. The Dhanush was a gun the army’s artillery directorate pushed the OFB to produce nearly a decade ago. It was built from blueprints supplied by Bofors AB in the 1980s. “I don’t think ATAGS is the alternative for urgent operational requirements,” says Lt General P. Ravi Shankar, former DG, artillery, who was involved in the design and development of both indigenous guns. “Why is a combat-proven gun system like the Dhanush not being operationalised despite production orders being given over a year ago? The programme needs hard decisions. If the Dhanush has a problem, it needs to be fixed. Call the original Bofors designers if need be,” he says. OFB officials, however, deny the gun has an operational defect and say that the first 12 guns were delivered to the army in 2019. They believe the order for 20 guns can be completed by the end of this year. It remains to be seen how the government’s June 16 decision to break up the monolithic OFB into seven companies will impact the Dhanush programme. In the short term, at least, fixing the Dhanush could give the army the guns it so badly needs.