Shots on target, finally

DefExpo stars: Dhanush by Ordnance Factory Board, and M777 by BAE Systems

58-dhanush-gun More power: Dhanush gun displayed with Arjun tank at DefExpo 2018, in Chennai | Arvind Jain

Artillery modernisation projects of the Indian Army never had a smooth ride all these years. The corruption allegations over the procurement of Bofors guns, from 1986, continue to pop up in political discourse. But, finally, things seem to be back on track.

Two ultralight M777 howitzers (short guns which fire shells on high trajectories) from the US are already in India. The indigenously designed and developed Dhanush from the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), and the Advance Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) jointly developed by DRDO and two private players—Bharat Forge and Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division—have completed their field trials. Also, the Army recently concluded its contract to buy one hundred K-9 Vajra self-propelled 155mm howitzer-mounted tanks from South Korea’s Hanwha Techwin. The Vajras will be manufactured in India by Larsen & Toubro under the Make In India initiative. Delivery will start later this year, and will be completed over 42 months. The deal is worth Rs 4,600 crore.

Immediately after the Kargil war, the Army’s Field Artillery Rationalisation Programme was cleared by the Union government, with a budget of Rs 50,000 crore. The target was to equip 169 artillery regiments with over 3,000 advanced-technology 155mm guns by 2020. However, hiccups in artillery programmes have given an upper hand to Pakistan, which has 394 guns of 155mm calibre; India has 380.

But, in the past two years, India’s artillery programme has taken a major push to self-reliance, said Lt General Anjan Mukherjee, former director general of artillery, who is now working for OFB. “The projects were started by the previous government. The present government has been able to remove obstacles,” he said.

But, even then, all these artillery projects have gone through rough phases. The barrel of one of the M777s, from the US subsidiary of BAE Systems, burst during trials at the Pokhran firing range last September. A joint investigation committee—comprising officials from OFB, BAE Systems, and from the US and Indian governments—is still probing the matter.

“Though last year’s accident was a setback for us, we are hopeful that it will not affect the delivery schedule of the guns.” said Paul West, India campaign director of BAE Systems. “M777 is a proven artillery gun system across the globe, and surely will come out clean from the ongoing inquiry committee investigating the mishap. Presently, two guns are undergoing range table firing trials, which will conclude in the next three months. Soon after, the induction of the artillery gun [would] start with the Army.”

West added that, they are committed to deliver 145 M777s before the end of 2021, at a rate of five guns per month, starting from June 2019. Among these, 25 will be imported from the US over the next two years, and the remaining will be manufactured in India in collaboration with Mahindra Defence.

The deal to procure the M777s, for deployment on mountainous terrain in the northern and eastern borders, was signed in November 2016. It was the first such induction of artillery guns, since the Swedish Bofors guns.

Just like M777, Dhanush also suffered mishaps during the trials. Its barrel burst during field trials in Rajasthan, two years ago. “[That] accident had happened due to some faulty ammunition,” said Alok Prasad, deputy director general of OFB, who was in charge of the development of the gun. “But now, everything has been sorted out. From deserts to Siachen glaciers, [this] 155mm gun has fired over 5,000 rounds without fail. Its trials have proven successful, and will be inducted in the next four to five months.”

Mukherjee claimed that Dhanush is 81 per cent Indian, and has a range of up to 38km, compared with the M777’s 30km. “Dhanush is primarily for desert warfare, and, the M777 is for high-altitude deployment,” he said. Mukherjee pointed out that, unlike in the past, the Army’s artillery wing was consulted while developing the gun. “Such collaboration never happened in the past,” he said. Mukherjee added that the Army will buy 114 Dhanushs initially, and then 414 more at a cost of Rs 4,500 crore.

In September 2012, the Union government had approved the ATAGS project to develop two prototypes of towed artillery guns. The ATAGS proved itself during winter trials this January, in Sikkim, close to the Chinese border. During trials in Rajasthan, in September 2017, ATAGS set a record by firing shells at a range of 48km, against the expected 40km.

Enthralled with its performance during trials, the defence ministry has decided to procure the first lot of 40 guns for the Indian Army. But, the Army wants the weight of the gun to be reduced to 13 tonnes from 19 tonnes, along with improvements in auto-loading.