India’s Artillery: Call for Urgent Upgrade

As India’s external security environment continues to be unstable and inimical neighbours lose no opportunity to exploit internal instabilities, future conventional war on land, though improbable, cannot be ruled out. Such a war is likely to be a point on a continuum that encompasses the present stand-off along the Line of Control (LoC) and the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) with Pakistan, combined with Pakistan’s ongoing proxy war, and a possible “border war” along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China that may spin out of the unresolved territorial and boundary dispute. 

Due to the nuclear shadow over the Indian Sub-continent, future wars that India’s armed forces will be called upon to fight will be limited wars. These will have to be conducted as joint AirLand campaigns. It will not be possible for the army to conduct a successful land campaign without overwhelming and sustained support from the Indian Air Force (IAF) by way of air to ground strikes in the contact, intermediate and deep battlespace. The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have conclusively proved that only a skillfully integrated and coordinated joint AirLand campaign can possibly achieve desired military objectives in a war that is limited in political and military objectives and, consequently, force levels, duration and space. 

In future, large components of infantry and mechanised forces will be employed to act primarily as deterrent forces and will be ordered to seize and hold ground only after the massive employment of all available fire delivery means, including artillery and air power, has completely pulverised the enemy position and rendered it incapable of any further resistance. It will become an inescapable necessity to achieve such fire supremacy in the battlefield that the enemy becomes incapable of utilising his own firepower means to cause serious damage to friendly forces. In limited war, governed by various time and space and application of force levels limitations, manoeuvre will be rendered difficult and it will be even more necessary to rely on the destructive potential of massed firepower.

Despite the lessons learnt during the Kargil conflict, where artillery firepower paved the way for victory, modernisation of the artillery continues to lag behind. Just when a contract for 120 tracked and 180 wheeled self-propelled (SP) guns was about to be concluded after years of repeated 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). New tenders were floated, setting the programme back at least three to four years. Meanwhile, the mechanised forces continue to remain without SP artillery support. 

The last major acquisition of towed gun-howitzers was that of about 400 pieces of 39-calibre 155 mm FH-77B howitzers form Bofors of Sweden in the mid-1980s. Since then, the indigenously designed and manufactured 105 mm Indian Field Gun (IFG) and its lighter version, the Light Field Gun (LFG), have joined the 75/24 Indian Mountain Gun, the 100 mm Russian field gun and the 122 mm Russian howitzer on the obsolescence list and need to be replaced urgently. However, despite several rounds of trials and the issue of RFPs, there has been no worthwhile progress on the acquisition of 45- or 52-calibre 155 mm medium guns. This is a major slippage and must be corrected as early as possible. 

Approximately 180 pieces of 130 mm M46 Russian medium guns have been successfully “up-gunned” to 155 mm calibre. The new barrel length of 45 calibres is expected to enhance the range of the gun to about 40 km with extended range ammunition. This success was achieved despite initial teething problems with the 155 mm upgrade kits imported from Soltam of Israel. Such irregularities have seriously plagued the modernisation plans of the Indian Army. 

A contract for the acquisition of two regiments of the 12-tube, 300 mm Smerch multi-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL) system with 90 km range is reported to have been signed with Russia’s Rosoboronexport in early-2006. This will be a major boost for the long-range firepower capabilities of the army. Meanwhile, 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 Rs 5,000 crore contract 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 artillery is still to conceptualise a requirement for a light-weight towed howitzer of 155 mm calibre for employment in the mountains. Quite obviously neither the present Bofors howitzer nor its replacement will be capable of operations in the mountains. A light-weight 45-calibre 155 mm howitzer weighing less than 5,000 kg, with a light but adequately powered prime mover, would be 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. Also, it will sometimes be necessary to deploy the guns of a battery on the road itself. This should be possible without major engineering effort by way of cutting into the mountainside. The two British 45-calibre 155 mm 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) – could be considered for licensed production with transfer of technology. Any further loss of time on this issue would be detrimental to national security as the probability of the next conventional war breaking out in the mountains is far higher than a war in the plains.

The fundamental challenge during limited war in the 21st century will be to generate favourable asymmetries on the battlefield while facing unpredictable threats, including actions by irregular forces. The basic engine of attrition will be the synergised and integrated application of artillery, missile and aerial firepower. The primary agents of firepower will be the guns, mortars, multi-barrel rocket launchers and surface-to-surface missiles of the artillery. Neglecting the modernisation of artillery will be extremely detrimental to national security.