ARTILLERY Delays Plague Modernisation

Since January 2008, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has issued three global tenders to revive the long-delayed plans to modernise the Indian artillery. Tenders were issued for 155mm guns and howitzers for the mountains, the plains and self-propelled guns for the deserts. Summer and winter trials were expected to be held over the next one year and, expectations ran high that contracts for acquisition and local production would be awarded as early as in the first half of 2010. As none of the bidders have yet been invited to participate in summer trials in mid-2009, it appears that there will be further delay the procurement plans that will lead to the modernisation of a critically important of the Indian Army.

As future conventional wars on the Indian Sub-continent will be fought under the nuclear shadow, the deep manoeuvre battle will be extremely risky. This major restriction on military operations on land will lead to much greater emphasis having to be placed on firepower to achieve military aims and objectives. Hence, it is imperative that artillery modernisation is undertaken with alacrity so as to generate both qualitative and quantitative firepower asymmetries to achieve unassailable dominance on the future battlefield. 

Search for 155mm 52 cal guns
The last major acquisition of towed gun-howitzers was that of about 400 pieces of 39-calibre 155mm FH-77B howitzers with a range of 30 km from Bofors of Sweden in the mid-1980s. This gun had proved its mettle in the Kargil conflict. After two decades of neglect during which the 100mm and 122mm field guns of Russian origin and the indigenously developed and manufactured 75/24 Indian Mountain Gun joined the long list of equipment bordering on obsolescence but still in service with the army, tenders were floated and trials were held for a 52-calibre 155mm gun to replace all field and medium guns. Just when a contract for 120 tracked and 180 wheeled self-propelled (SP) 155mm guns was about to be concluded after years of protracted trials, South African arms manufacturer Denel, a leading contender for the contract, was alleged to have been involved in a corruption scam in an earlier deal for anti-material rifles (AMRs). The other two howitzers in contention, from Soltam of Israel and BAE (Bofors) of Sweden did not meet the laid down criteria and Army HQ recommended fresh trials, setting the programme back at least three to four years. Another bone of contention was that the howitzers that had been offered were technology demonstration models and not guns that were in actual service with the home country armies. 

Ideal for mountain operations: 155mm 45 cal howitzers
The artillery recently conceptualised a requirement for a light-weight towed howitzer of 155mm calibre for employment in the mountains. Neither the present Bofors howitzer nor its 52-calibre replacement will be capable of effective operations in the mountains. A light-weight 45-calibre 155mm howitzer weighing less than 5,000 kg, with a light but adequately powered prime mover, is ideal for the mountains. The gun-train should be capable of negotiating sharp road bends without the need to unhook the gun from the prime mover. The two British 45-calibre 155mm howitzers that competed for the US contract for a similar howitzer some years ago – the UFH (Ultra-lightweight Field Howitzer) and the LTH (Light-weight Towed Howitzer) – or others that have now been developed could be considered for licensed production with transfer of technology. 

In January 2008, the MoD floated a Request for Proposal (RfP) for 140 pieces of ultra-light 39-calibre 155mm towed howitzers for use by the Indian Army’s mountain formations. Presumably, these will also be employed by the army’s rapid reaction divisions – as and when these are raised – as these howitzers will be easy to transport by air. 140 howitzers will be adequate to equip seven medium artillery regiments and will cost approximately Rs 3,000 crore. The RfP has been reportedly issued to UK’s BAE Systems (which now owns Bofors), for the M777 howitzer claimed to be the lightest in the world at under 4,220 kg, and to Singapore Technologies for the Pegasus SLWH. 

RfP for 155mm towed and SP guns
The MoD has also floated a global tender for the purchase of 400 155mm towed artillery guns for the Army, to be followed by indigenous manufacture of another 1,100 howitzers, in a project worth a whopping Rs 8,000 crore. The RFP was issued to eight prospective bidders including BAE, General Dynamics, Nexter (France), Rhinemetall (Germany) and Samsung (South Korea). An RfP has also been issued for 180 wheeled self-propelled guns for around Rs 4,700 crore for employment by mechanised forces in the plains and semi-desert sectors.

Since the Bofors 155mm Howitzer was introduced into service, the indigenously designed and manufactured 105 mm Indian Field Gun (IFG) and its (not so) light version, the Light Field Gun (LFG), have also joined the list of guns and howitzers heading for obsolescence. Approximately 180 pieces of 130mm M46 Russian medium guns have been successfully “up-gunned” to 155mm calibre with ordnance supplied by Soltam of Israel. The new barrel length of 45-calibres has enhanced the range of the gun to about 40 km with extended range ammunition. 

Smerch MBRLs
There has been notable progress on the rocket artillery front. A contract for the acquisition of two regiments of the 12-tube, 300mm Smerch multi-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL) system with 90 km range was signed with Russia’s Rosoboronexport in early-2006. This weapon system is a major boost for the long-range firepower capabilities of the army. If this weapon system had been available during the Kargil conflict, Pakistan’s brigade HQ and forward airfield at Skardu and other targets deep inside POK could have been hit with impunity. Extended range (ER) rockets are being introduced for the 122 mm Grad MBRL that has been in service for over three decades. The ER rockets will enhance the weapon system’s range from 22 to about 40 km.  A contract worth Rs 5,000 crore has also been signed for the serial production of the Pinaka MBRL weapon system, another DRDO project plagued by time delays and completed with help from Larsen and Toubro and the Tatas. The Pinaka rockets will have an approximate range of 37 km.

Counter-bombardment (US term counter-fire) capability is also being upgraded, but at a slow pace. At least about 40 to 50 weapon locating radars (WLRs) are required for effective counter-bombardment, especially in the plains, but only a dozen have been procured so far. In addition to the 12 AN-TPQ 37 Firefinder WLRs acquired from Raytheon, USA, under a 2002 contract worth US $200 million, Bharat Electronics Limited is reported to be assembling 28 WLRs. These radars will be based on both indigenous and imported components and are likely to be approved for introduction into service after extensive trials that are ongoing. The radar is expected to match the capabilities of the Firefinder system and will have a detection range of about 40 km. The indigenous sound ranging system for locating the positions of enemy guns based on the sound of their firing does not appear to be making worthwhile progress and may be shelved in favour of an imported system. In fact, it needs to be considered whether this relic of the two World Wars, that is rather cumbersome to deploy and maintain, deserves a silent burial as gun and mortar locating radars now provide accurate locations of enemy guns and mortars.

Costs involved
The modernisation plans of tube artillery alone are likely to cost Rs 13,000 crore. The major acquisitions will be of initial lots of 400 towed howitzers of 155mm calibre, with a barrel length of 52-calibres, costing about Rs 4,000 crore, 140 ultra-light weight 155mm towed howitzers, with a barrel length of 45-calibres, costing Rs 3,000 crore and 180 SP 155mm howitzers costing Rs 5,000 crore. The “Shakti” project for a command and control systems for the artillery, earlier called Artillery Combat Command and Control System (ACCCS), has reached the stage of maturity and is now being fielded extensively in the plains. Gradually it will be fielded up to the corps level and the two artillery divisions will be equipped with it.

Efforts are also underway to add ballistic as well as cruise missiles to the artillery arsenal. The BrahMos supersonic cruise missile (Mach 2.8 to 3.0), with a precision strike capability, very high kill energy and range of 290 km, is being inducted into the army. A ceremonial induction function was held in July 2007. It is a versatile missile that can be launched from TATRA mobile launchers and silos on land, aircraft and ships and, perhaps in future, also from submarines. 50 BrahMos missiles are expected to be produced every year. Efforts are afoot to further increase its strike range. BrahMos Aerospace has orders worth Rs 3,500 crore from the army and the navy, which has opted for the anti-ship as well as the land attack cruise missile (LACM) versions. These terrain hugging missiles are virtually immune to counter measures due to their high speed and very low radar cross section and are far superior to sub-sonic cruise missiles like Pakistan’s Babur. Chile, Kuwait, Malaysia and South Africa have shown interest in acquiring this missile.

No matter how much emphasis is laid on the early resumption and successful conclusion of artillery modernisation plans, it will be inadequate as these plans are critical to the army’s performance in the next conventional war that India may have to fight. If there is any field of defence procurement in which the MoD must make haste, it is this one.

The writer is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.