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Artillery Modernisation Plans: Pragmatic Analysis

The delay in acquisition of 155mm M777 howitzers from USA once again hampered the artillery modernisation programme and stalled the planned re-equipping of artillery regiments with modern weapon systems. The ambitious artillery modernisation programme worth rupees 35,000 crore has faced regular delays due to allegations of irregularities or bribery. The long drawn trials or subsequent blacklisting of a number of firms due to bribery claims has led to a situation where no worthwhile acquisition has been carried out since the purchase of Bofors guns in the mid-1980s. Hindrances in the acquisition process in the last decade coupled with dithering decision making matrix has led to a stage where the conventional edge of the armed forces may be in peril, unless immediate surgical steps are taken to acquire military equipment in time bound manner. In an effort to again kick-start the acquisition cycle, Indian Army issued a Request for Information (RFI) in 2013 for 155mm x 52 calibretowed guns to replace the obsolete 105 mm guns from its inventory. The proposed acquisition is under the buy from abroad and make at home through transfer of technology. The army is looking to buy 200 guns with an option to build 614 guns in India[i].  If the planned acquisition is successful, it may pave the way for overhauling almost the entire inventory of artillery guns.

An analysis of India’s security environment shows that India faces a unique two front war scenario with belligerent neighbours on its western and northern borders. Even though bulk of its force levels are poised towards India’s western borders, given the present internal turmoil in Pakistan, it can be presumed that Pakistan is not likely to pose a significant conventional military threat to India in the near future,although it has the capability to fester the sub-conventional threat. Pakistan is facing a complex internal security scenario and the writ of the state is being constantly challenged due to brazen attacks by TTP. Its social fabric has been damaged by vicious attacks on the Shia population and other minorities. The biggest stake holder, the Pakistan Army has for the first time acknowledged that the home grown terrorist organisations pose a greater security threat than India. India’s northern borders present a picture of tranquility which, at times is impeded by troop incursions based on self-perceived territorial claims. Though peace prevails presently on India’s northern borders, a potent long term conventional military threat exists from China. Re-equipment of artillery regiments and other entities would entail a higher priority as compared to those deployed along western borders. The improving strategic relations between both the nations maypreclude the possibility of any military conflict in the immediate future, but army units would be required to maintain their combat edge at all times.

Thus, for the first time in many decades, India is in a position to redefine the contours of its acquisition process due to changing security environment at its borders and reduce its dependence on import of military equipment. It is an ideal opportunity to take calculated risks and plan acquisition of indigenous equipment by harnessing the potential of home-grown private defence firms.

The Defence Expo at New Delhi in February 2014 showcased the efforts of private Indian firms to provide an alternative. Two major weapons systems on display, L&T’s Trajan 155 mm towed gun and Bharat Forge’s Bharat-52 155 mm towed gun showcased the prowess of private firms in producing an indigenous weapon system for Indian armed forces. L&T’s Trajan gun is a product of collaboration with Nexter of France whereas Bharat-52 is a totally indigenous manufacture. The Trajan gun completed summer firing trails in Rajasthan last year and is now undergoing winter trials in Sikkim as per L&T executives. Bharat-52 gun though is yet to be fire tested. The private firms have amply demonstrated their flair for absorbing new technology and shown particular appetite for ingesting and innovating transferred technology for complex designing and production engineering[ii]. The fabrication of Agni missile components or the hull of Arihant nuclear submarine showcases their capacity in maintaining a state of art production facility as well as the capability to manufacture high end components.

Defence PSUs on the other hand, have not endeavoured to amalgamate latest technology even though they have been manufacturing military equipment under the transfer of technology agreements. Their archaic manufacturing practices have resulted in mediocre equipment year after year while struggling to maintain basic quality control. The captive buyer in form of Indian security forces and patronage of Department of Defence Production has led to miniscule technology upgradation.The fact that blueprint plans[iii] of Bofors guns were available with OFB, Jabalpur since 1980s as part of technology transfer and have been gathering dust for almost two decades points towards their indifference towards the requirements of the armed forces. It is only recently that OFB has fieldedDhanush, a 45 calibre 155 mm towed gun. The PSU mindset of “Take what You Get” could be clearly ascertainedat the Defence Expo,as one of their officials admitted that even though most of the manufacturers world over were manufacturing 52 calibre guns as the accepted standard, the 45 calibreDhanush gun would be a cost effective alternative for Indian artillery.  The fact that Dhanush gun had suffered a barrel burst during the summer firing trials was dismissed as anunavoidable technical failure.

With India’s defence procurement expected to be around $100 billion in the coming decade, it is pertinent that the over-dependence on arms import is reduced and Indian private firms are associated with fabrication and supply of modern military equipment to meet the services requirements. Such a movecould help create a cost effective modern indigenous defence industrial base. It will prove to be a logical and beneficial step in the long run as Indian armed forces would have the benefit of having the best value for money equipment in their inventory.A strong defence industrial base will provide a platform for export of reasonably priced quality equipment to neighbouring countries. It can be used to counter Chinese domination in the neighbourhood and increase India’s footprint within South Asia.

The Ministry of Defence can and must provide a stimulus to growth of indigenous defence industry by kick starting the artillery modernisation programme with purchase of indigenously manufactured 155mm guns. An indigenously manufactured gun will be anaffordable product with cutting edge technology,available in an acceptable timeframe. It will also reduce the dependence on foreign firms, especially during the critical repair and upgradation phase. “Make Indian and Buy Indian” Mantra with active participation of private firms has the potential to transform Indian defence manufacturing capability by successful exploitation of twin benefits of Indian prowess in IT industry and lower manufacturing costs.

 

The author is a Senior Fellow at CLAWS. Views expressed are personal.

 

[i]Rahul Bedi, An Army in search of Artillery, The Hindu, 20 Dec 2013, available at http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/an-army-in-search-of-artillery/article5479256.ece

[ii] Bharat karnad, Fire up Defence Industry, 21 Feb 2014, available at http://bharatkarnad.com/2014/02/21/fire-up-defence-industry/

[iii] Indian Bofor’s Guns barrel Bursts during trials, New Indian express, 15 oct 2013, available at http://www.newindianexpress.com /nation/Indian-Bofors-guns-barrel-bursts-during- trials/2013/10/15/ article1837199.ece

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Ashwani Gupta
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