By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 9th Feb 14
While inaugurating the ongoing Defence Exposition 2014 in New Delhi on Thursday, defence minister AK Antony bluntly stated that “there is no money left” for big foreign buys like the Rafale fighter. That statement holds good also for the army’s biggest equipment gap --- a Rs 10,000 crore shortfall of 1580 towed artillery guns, the battlefield’s most lethal killer for over a century.
What planning and strategic vision could not do for defence indigenisation is being enforced by a shortfall of funds. Three major Indian gun programmes are on show at the DefExpo, with two of them at an advanced stage of procurement.
The most immediate of these is the development of a 155 millimetre (mm), 45 calibre, gun by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), which is based on the design and manufacturing technology provided by Swedish gun maker, Bofors AG in the late 1980s, as part of the controversial procurement of 410 FH-77B Bofors guns.
After being ignored by the army for two decades, this technology has been used as a springboard by the OFB for upgrading the original 39 calibre Bofors gun into a far more powerful and versatile 45 calibre gun (a higher calibre denotes a longer barrel) that hits targets more than 38 kilometres away, compared to the 27 kilometre range of the original Bofors gun.
More, the OFB gun, called the Dhanush, has an electronic sighting and laying system for aiming the gun at the target, an important improvement over the Bofors’ manual system.
Says Tushar Tripathi, Director Weapons for OFB: “Winter trials for the Dhanush are on-going in Sikkim, which will finish by February. Those will be followed by summer trials in the desert and, if all goes well, we will build 114 guns for the army.”
The OFB says Gun Carriage Factory, Jabalpur, is establishing production for 18 guns per year in 2015 and doubling that capacity in 2016.
Defence ministry sources say the initial order for 114 guns could be enhanced to 414 guns if the gun realizes the promise it is currently showing.
Meanwhile, the Defence R&D Organisation is spearheading the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun (ATAG) project, to build an even more powerful 155 millimetre, 52 calibre gun. This gun will range out to 60 kilometres, with a weight of just 12 tonnes, making it ideal for the narrow, twisting roads along which it would have to be transported along Indian’s Himalayan frontiers.
[Meanwhile, the army continues to pursue a long-delayed purchase of 145 BAE Systems M777 ultralight howitzers for equipping its mountain divisions. These will cost between $647 million (the maximum price notified to the US Congress in Jan 2010) and $885 million (the revised maximum price notified to the US Congress in Aug 2013).]
According to S Sundaresh, the DRDO’s chief controller of armaments, the gun’s specifications have already been firmed and its basic design finalized by the Armament R&D Establishment (ARDE) in Pune. He says the gun will be developed as 7 work packages, with each of these sub-systems being developed and manufactured by Indian vendors, including the private sector. The DRDO has already co-opted Bharat Forge, L&T and Tata Power (SED).
“We will place orders on the vendors by mid-2014 and components will start coming in after a year. By 2016, we will begin in-house trials and offer the gun to the army for user trials by early 2017,” says Sundaresh.
So far, the army has assured the DRDO of an order for 114 guns, but that order would go up significantly if the gun proves successful and the on-going international tender for towed guns fails to result in a contract, as all such artillery gun tenders have done over fifteen years.
Besides the OFB and DRDO guns, Bharat Forge has built its own 155 mm/52 calibre gun, the Bharat-52, displayed at the DefExpo. The company imported an entire gun, the GHN-45 to absorb technology; while simultaneously buying and importing an entire production line from RUAG of Switzerland. While the MoD has not displayed an interest in this gun, Bharat Forge has been invited to play an important role in the ATAG project.