Saturday, 18 July 2009

Army Chief to Antony: don’t block gun trials

(A series on defence procurement bottlenecks)

(Photo: A 155 mm M777 ultralight howitzer, manufactured by BAE Systems, firing in support of coalition forces in Afghanistan)

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 18th July 09

A worried army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, has protested to Defence Minister AK Antony about the derailing of vital defence purchases by allegations of corruption. On 10th June 09, General Kapoor complained about the cancellation of army trials on the Pegasus ultra-light howitzer, after the manufacturer, Singapore Technologies Kinetics (STK) was suspended on suspicion of links with a discredited MoD official.

The trials of the 155 mm Pegasus were to commence on 22nd June at the Pokhran Ranges in Rajasthan. Any delay, General Kapoor warned Mr Antony, would push back the hot-weather trials by a year.

The next day, the deputy chief, Lt Gen MS Dadwal, fired off a letter to the Defence Secretary, Mr Vijay Singh (Letter No 00048/Proc/DCOAS (P&S)/Sectt) reiterating that the Pegasus trials must continue, even while the Central Bureau of Investigation probes whether STK was connected in any way with Sudipta Ghosh --- the former chairman of the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) --- who was arrested for corruption on 19th May 09. If STK was found guilty, the purchase could always be cancelled.

The army chief, an artilleryman himself, has emphasised on the crucial need for modern artillery; the last important purchase was more than 20 years ago: the 155mm Bofors FH-77B gun in the mid-1980s. Even that was restricted, by allegations of kickbacks, to the direct purchase of 400 guns. The chance to manufacture thousands more in India, through transfer of technology (ToT) was thrown away, even though India paid for the technology. In 2005, amidst a push to buy towed and self-propelled artillery, South African gun manufacturer, Denel, was banned. Soon afterwards, Israeli artillery firm, Soltam Systems, found itself under the scanner.

General Kapoor’s request to Mr Antony has counted for little; the CBI and the CVC suggested to the MoD that the ban on STK continues. The MoD wrote back to Army HQ (Letter No 1(5)/2007/D(Proc) dated 7th July 09) saying that the trials stood cancelled until further orders.

Ironically, the army could benefit from this delay, which creates conditions for bringing another gun into contention: the combat-proven BAE Systems M777 ultra-light howitzer, which is currently doing battle in Afghanistan and Iraq. So far, Pegasus was the only gun in contention --- a monopoly situation explicitly discouraged in the MoD’s Defence Procurement Policy of 2008 (DPP–2008). BAE Systems could not bid because the MoD refused to grant it several months for clearing Indian ammunition to be fired from M777 howitzers.

Major General AJS Sandhu, an Indian artillery expert, explains that --- since British Army M777 crews would fire Indian ammunition during the trials --- British regulations demanded that the ammunition first be “classified”, or cleared by safety experts, before the trials. And since India insisted on firing several types of ammunition during trials, classifying every one of them would take several months.

Asked to confirm, BAE Systems India President, Julian Scopes told Business Standard by email, "In the tender for ultra-light howitzers, there were requirements in the [tender] that made it difficult for us respond in the time available. But we remain hopeful that M777 can be considered and continue to point out to the MoD that the BAE Systems M777 is the lightest 155mm howitzer in the world, in service with the US Army, US Marine Corp and Canadian Army, and the only one that is combat proven."

Defence experts are unanimous that India’s artillery has deteriorated worryingly from poor procurement. In a hurry to acquire ultra-light howitzers, the MoD opted for a single vendor (STK), which offered a gun that has never seen battle. Now, with STK blacklisted, a yearlong delay seems inevitable; but that period, says General Sandhu, could allow the MoD to bring in BAE Systems, generating wider choice and competitive bidding.

The MoD has tendered for three types of guns: self-propelled guns for the mechanised forces; towed guns for divisions deployed in the plains; and ultra-light howitzers for mountainous areas. Two new mountain divisions, being raised for offensive operations on the China border, will be equipped with these guns. Constructed largely from titanium, their low weight provides tactical mobility, or the ability to quickly move around the battlefield on mountain roads and dirt tracks where heavier guns would get bogged down. Ultra-light guns can even be airlifted into inaccessible firing positions by helicopter.

(Part II: Upgrading the Bofors: A tale of two follies)


Anonymous said...

Whats teh use doing the story at a time when teh Government has alread decided to review the blacklisting of firms and the delays caused by it.

fighterclass said...

ajai, excellent article as usual !

could you answer a query of mine ? why would an army go for the heavier 155 varieties if it can have the ultra light ones ?

cost ? or do the ultra-lights pay any performance penalties for the low weight ?

Ajai said...

Fighterclass, while there are differences in crew (ultralight uses 2-4 less crewmen than the regular towed gun), life of the gun, etc, the big difference is that the ultralight is a 39 calibre gun.

The 52 calibre towed guns, therefore, fire heavier rounds and can suppress a target more effectively.


AK said...

Why should the Congress care? It is the BJP's war you stupid.

fighterclass said...

thanks !

fighterclass said...

obvious once you say it ! :D should have paid more attention.

ArjunTankFan said...

Ajai, CAn you also update us on the Arjun Tank trials (what manoeuvers tactics are to used etc) and what enhancements are being planned for Arjun Mk II (and also the timeline).

Anonymous said...

Our babus know no concept of urgency. I fear some day we might loose a war while CBI is doing its relentless investigations.

Bell said...

The advantage of the heavier guns is also a higher rate of fire, making it more effective before the enemy takes cover. The advantage of the lighter gun is also not as big as it seems. The weight of the ammo needed for a serious attack dwarfs the weight of the guns anyway.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ajai, Your article has some untruths. Was it a "single bid"? I understand that BAE was also invited to submit its bid. Why did it not? Ammunition compatibility problems and time required to test/qualify is the only reason? Why should we buy a gun which is not ready to fire our ammunition?

Your article would have been more valuable if you had done an analysis of both the guns, the M777and the PEGASUS. That comparison and analysis would have been a patriotic article, for India's good.

Gen Sandhu, and you agree with him, that the DPP time schedules can be violated. The DPP stipulates 3 months to respond, I think the MoD gave more, and gave all the allowances that it was able to give within the bounds of the DPP. Right, Sandhu ji? So if one ompany could respond in time why not the other? Come on Shukla, your analysis should investigate further, it cannot be just ammunition.

Your article indirectly implies that a BAE single vendor situation is OK. I have great admiration in your articles, cos you quote your source references clearly - excellent. But lack of a detail analysis and one-sided reporting makes them unworthy.

Anonymous said...

हम चाहते है॔ कि केवल अ॑ग्रेज्ञी एम७७७ और स्वीडन

की एफ एच ७७ ही जीते

Anonymous said...

मनमोहन जी तो अमरीकी तारीफ करते थकते नही,वो भी क्या करे सोनिया जी से तन्ख्वाह जो लेनी है घर चलाने के लिऐ.