The Indian army is set to acquire its first howitzers in three decades and restart a long-delayed artillery modernisation programme

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⏩ Giving credit where its due, Sandeep Unnithan in this article proposes that the revival of Indian artillery- Dhanush, K-9, M-777 is all thanks to Manohar Parrikar and a series of fine DG Artys like Lt General Pale Purshankar. Reup of 2016 story tracking the revival, roadmap and key decisions.

🔵Once on October 28, terrorists struck at the Indian army in the Machchal sector in Kupwara district. They beheaded a soldier, carrying his head across into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The Indian army vowed an “appropriate response”. Retaliation came but not like the September 29 surgical strike carried out by Para-SF operators on multiple terrorist camps across the LoC. The following day, the army moved seven FH-77B Bofors howitzers near the LoC. The guns were fired in pistol mode or in a flat trajectory at the targets nearly two kilometres across the border. Seventeen Pakistani bunkers were destroyed in the fire assault which the army claims killed 20 Pakistani soldiers. Artillery had once again proved its lethality. It sent a message without crossing the LoC.

On November 15, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) chaired by PM Narendra Modi cleared the army’s proposal to import 140 M777 howitzers from the US. The $700 million contract is likely to be signed soon, most likely during an upcoming visit of US defence secretary Ashton Carter. It will be India’s first purchase of artillery in 30 years since the Union ministry of defence (MoD) signed a $1.4 billion contract for buying 410 howitzers from AB Bofors of Sweden in 1986.

The three-decade gap is the longest for the induction of any vital equipment in the Indian armed forces. “We now have three different types of artillery guns under acquisition,” defence minister Manohar Parrikar told an audience at a book launch in New Delhi on November 10.

 

In June, the MoD approved production of 114 ‘Dhanush’ howitzers built by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) using FH-77B technology. The first six of these howitzers have been inducted and are now deployed in Siachen and Rajasthan. Their inertial navigation systems, muzzle velocity radars, automatic gun sighting systems and auto-laying systems make them the most modern howitzers in the army.

This year, close to 80 per cent of the army’s Rs 21,535 crore capital budget, set aside for the purchase of new weapons and equipment, is likely to go to funding artillery programmes. Over the next decade, an influx of new howitzers, Brahmos missiles, radars, tow trucks and rocket systems worth over Rs 50,000 crore, will transform the army’s ability to influence conflict outcomes. Each of these 155 mm guns will be able to lob a 40 kg high explosive shell to distances between 30 and 38 km to devastate tanks, bunkers and troop concentrations.

“The modernisation will make it a major determinant of our comprehensive national power and conventional deterrent capability,” says Lt General P. Ravi Shankar, former director-general, artillery. “Artillery, with its enhanced reach, lethality and mobility will constitute a significant portion of the army’s combat power and will straddle the operational and strategic spaces seamlessly, especially along our mountainous northern borders with Pakistan and China.”

Army brass say the new artillery which will equip its 235 artillery regiments (each has 18 guns) gives them tremendous flexibility. In the 2013 Depsang Valley incursion, for instance, where a platoon of Chinese troops camped for 20 days in Ladakh, the Indian army did not have artillery it could rapidly deploy to 16,000 feet, in case the situation worsened. This could rapidly change with the induction of the M777 howitzers in the next two years. Partly made of titanium and, hence, ‘ultra light’ weighing only 4.2 tonnes (a Bofors howitzer weighs 13 tonnes), it can be slung under the Chinook transport helicopters being imported from the US. Waiting for Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approval is a $750 million deal to import 100 K9 ‘Vajra’ self-propelled 155/52 mm howitzers from South Korea’s Samsung-Techwin as well

The MoD has also approved a Rs 4,800 crore order for acquiring two indigenously built Pinaka MLRS systems. The upgrade of 300 regiments of 130 mm Russian-built guns to the 155 mm calibre has begun. The first two DRDO-built ‘Swati’ weapon-locating radars-which can track the location of enemy artillery-were deployed along the border in October. They are part of a Rs 3,000 crore project to acquire 30 such radars. An order for the army’s fourth Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, comprising 100 missiles, was placed this year. Two more regiments are in the pipeline.

⏩A GHOST’S TOLL

When Parrikar demits office in 2019, he can take credit for accomplishing what none of his predecessors could not: breaking the Bofors jinx that has hung spectre – like over artillery acquisition programmes.

The Bofors bribery scandal in 1987 toppled the Rajiv Gandhi government in just two years. Swedish arms firm AB Bofors was accused of paying Indian middlemen Rs 64 crore to swing the howitzer contract. The scandal also broke the back of the artillery upgrade plan, conceived by army chief General K. Sundarji in the mid-1980s, which envisaged upgunning India’s diverse array of guns into the 155 mm calibre. The Bofors contract was one of India’s largest, most complex defence deals. Apart from the 410 guns, ammunition worth Rs 1,700 crore and accessories bought off the shelf, blueprints and knowhow to the Indian ordnance factories were to make India self-sufficient in 155 mm howitzer technology. The Bofors blacklist which paralysed artillery acquisition continued for a decade. The ban was lifted only after the decisive role played by artillery in the 1999 Kargil war.

The post-Kargil artillery modernisation programme envisaged the induction of multiple systems, wheeled, towed and tracked. Corruption, however, relentlessly stalked the plans. Four more gun makers – South Africa’s Denel, Singapore’s ST Kinetics, Israel’s IMI and Germany’s Rheinmetall – were blacklisted in 2006 in separate bribery scandals. The blacklist killed the indigenous ‘Bhim’ self-propelled howitzer, a Denel G-6 howitzer mounted on an Arjun chassis, and scuppered a factory to make propellant charges for 155 mm ammunition that IMI was to set up in Nalanda. The spate of blacklists even led some senior army officials to wonder if there was an invisible international conspiracy afoot. But artillery upgrade plans kept pace with the focus on mountain warfare. “There is a need because in the event of a war with Pakistan or China, it will remain confined to the mountains. This is where manoeuvre is restricted and firepower will be decisive,” says Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retired).

⏩MAKE IN INDIA SOLUTION

The army’s artillery plan was rebooted in 2007. The ‘revised modernisation plan 2017′ called for inducting 2,700 new howitzers for Rs 22,000 crore. Five different types-wheeled, tracked, ultra-light, mounted gun systems and towed-were to be bought. But there was a catch. All the guns were to come off the shelf. It might seem ironical that a country self-sufficient in a restricted technology like ballistic missiles should be dependent on imported artillery. But a modern artillery gun is as complicated as a missile system. A key design challenge is to strike a balance between range and mobility. But by 2009, even these imports had failed to materialise. Military planners then turned to the indigenous route. The OFB was asked to make Indian versions of the Bofors guns. The Dhanush was born. In 2010, the DRDO kickstarted its Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), a 155/52 mm howitzer which should eventually replace the FH-77B Bofors over the next decade.

A majority of the artillery modernisation is being done through the Make in India programme. Assembly, integration and testing of the M777 will be done by BAE Systems’ India partner Mahindra Defence Systems. L&T is prime contractor for the 155 mm self-propelled gun system. “Nearly 50 per cent of the gun system will be made in our Talegaon factory,” says J.D. Patil, senior V-P and head of defence and aerospace in L&T.

Last July, the DRDO test-fired its first ATAGS barrel, which has a 40 km range. The first indigenously developed howitzer, designed from scratch at the DRDO’s Armament Research and Development Establishment, Pune, ATAGS is slated for its first field trials next year. It will be ready for induction beginning 2019.

The artillery boost comes at a time when the army’s two other fighting arms, the infantry and the armoured corps, are in the midst of a modernisation crisis with a massive backlog, from rifles to bulletproof jackets and helmets to tanks and night-fighting capability. So what did the artillery do right? A senior OFB official has the answer. “At least five successive artillery chiefs held the course steering key projects,” he says. There was none of the constant changing of specifications which have dogged infantry acquisitions. But with these rapidfire artillery inductions comes a problem of plenty. There are at least eight different howitzers being inducted, clearly harking back to a time when the army pushed all of them in the hope that at least a few would get past the procurement process. Each will come with different barrels, spares and components, bringing with it problems of maintenance and support. (The US army, in contrast, has just two types of 155 mm howitzers, one towed and one tracked).

Army officials admit the challenge will now be to rationalise the gun types. Deals like the import of 400 155/52 mm towed howitzers, a contract where France’s Nexter and Israel’s Elbit are contenders, makes no sense as the OFB has already developed the Dhanush. “We only need to get technology to upgrade it to the 155/52 calibre,” an army official says. Hopefully, it won’t be as hard as managing a 30-year howitzer drought.

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