Army awaits howitzer mishap report, hopes artillery upgrade plan stays on track

Hindustan Times | Dec 16, 2017

Russia gave India nuclear submarines on lease and provided assistance for the development of the cryogenic rocket engine for India's GSLV. During the December 2014 summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin, Russia had agreed to supply 12 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years. The Soviet Union sold hi-tech weapons and defence equipment to India at "Friendship prices" and on the basis of barter trade as India did not have sufficient foreign exchange reserves.

The Army hopes that an accident involving its new M777 ultra-light howitzer in September will not delay the scheduled induction of the guns from next year, allowing the force to keep its artillery-modernisation programme on track.

The gun was partly damaged when a 155mm artillery round misfired and exploded in its barrel during a drill at Rajasthan’s Pokhran firing ranges. The weapon, manufactured by BAE Systems, was one of the two howitzers that arrived in New Delhi this May as part of a Rs 5,000-crore contract signed with the United States in November 2016. It is a key component of the Army’s field artillery rationalisation plan (FARP), cleared in 1999.

India has ordered 145 howitzers to raise seven new regiments.

“The US army is leading the investigation into what went wrong. There are indications that the mishap occurred due to faulty ammunition,” a source said. The guns are still an asset of the US army, and their formal transfer to its Indian counterpart is yet to take place.

The M777 order is the first contract for artillery guns in nearly 30 years that followed the Bofors scandal in the late 1980s. The deal is part of the Army’s Rs 50,000-crore FARP, which seeks to equip 169 artillery regiments with a mix of nearly 3,000 guns over the next decade.

The indigenously developed 155mm 45-calibre Dhanush towed artillery gun also suffered mishaps during the trials. Here, 155mm denotes the diameter of the shell and calibre relates to the barrel length. The Army plans to buy 114 guns in the first phase and eventually induct 414 systems at a cost of over Rs 4,500 crore.

“Artillery modernisation is very much on course, despite a few glitches in firing the M777 and Dhanush. While this will lead to delays, some outreach has been done for specialised agencies to identify the problems and rectify them for further trials,” said former Army vice-chief Lieutenant General AS Lamba, who was commissioned into the artillery.

The two M777s are the first of the 25 readymade weapons that will be supplied by the US over the next two years. The remaining 120 howitzers will be manufactured in the country under the government’s Make in India plan, in collaboration with Mahindra Defence.

The 155mm 39-calibre howitzers are being inducted to increase the Army’s capabilities in high altitudes, and will be deployed in the country’s northern and eastern sectors.

The proposed induction of the M777 howitzers has turned the spotlight on the Army’s expensive artillery upgrade plan, which has been moving at a slow pace. It lays the roadmap for inducting new 155mm weaponry, including tracked self-propelled guns, truck-mounted gun systems, towed artillery pieces and wheeled self-propelled guns.

“FARP has been put into place to a significant degree, and co-opted with the Army’s overall modernisation plans,” said Lamba.

Besides this, private sector defence major Larsen & Toubro (L&T) and South Korean firm Hanwha Techwin are in the process of executing a Rs 5,000-crore contract for supplying 100 K9 VAJRA-T tracked self-propelled guns to the force. The contract was signed on April 21.

To be produced at Talegaon near Pune, the 155mm 52-calibre guns are likely to be delivered by 2021. The K9 has a range of 40 km.

The Army also plans to induct 1,580 towed artillery guns at a cost of Rs 12,460 crore. A 155mm 52-calibre towed system jointly developed by L&T and French firm Nexter Systems is pitted against a gun developed by Bharat Forge and Israeli company Elbit for the order.

A senior army officer said the project was being scrutinised by an expert committee, and a fresh set of comparative trials was on the anvil.

“This programme needs to be put in place at the earliest because the timeframe for the production of Dhanush guns may be longer than anticipated,” Lamba said.

Truck-mounted guns are another key requirement.

However, the project has made little progress despite the defence ministry granting its ‘acceptance of necessity’ (AoN) to a Rs 15,750-crore plan for buying 814 systems of the kind in November 2014. The AoN for weapons is the first step towards making the proposed procurements. The AoN for the truck-mounted gun systems has expired and a fresh file will need to be moved to restart the process, said another officer tracking the project.

“Artillery modernisation continues to stagnate despite sustained efforts by the Army and defence ministry,” said Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd), a military affairs expert and artillery veteran. “Since firepower will influence future battles in a more significant manner than ever before, fast-tracking it is critical.”

Kanwal said truck-mounted gun systems were vital for supporting offensive operations in semi-desert terrains.

The Army is also looking at inducting the indigenous 155mm 52-calibre Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), jointly developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation and the private sector. The ATAGS is currently undergoing trials.

“Dhanush and ATAGS represent a significant leap in indigenisation, and will address the Army’s requirements for towed guns,” Kanwal said.

Upgrading existing weapons is as important as buying new ones. Three entities are also competing for a Rs 720-crore order to upgrade the Army’s vintage 130mm M-46 artillery guns to the 155mm standard.

This ‘up-gunning’ move will increase the gun’s range and ability to deliver heavier explosives.

A bunch of past projects were hit by single-vendor situations, which is a strict no-no under India’s arms purchase policy, and suppliers being banned for wrongdoings. “The Army is offering full support to the ATAGS and Dhanush projects to achieve self reliance in critical artillery systems,” said another senior officer.