India’s effort to push indigenisation in defence has been fairly successful when it comes to artillery guns. But, of late, India’s artillery modernisation program hasn’t been making much progress. It appears to have hit a roadblock
The creation of an artillery ecosystem that can design and produce a 155 mm howitzer is perhaps the best example of success in India’s efforts to promote the adoption of indigenous weapons systems by its armed forces, so much so that the Defence Ministry has banned the imports of 155 mm guns after December 2021 as part of its defence indigenisation drive.
Over the last few years, private sector players like Larsen & Toubro (L&T), Tata Advanced Systems, Mahindra Defence and Bharat Forge have set up gun production lines to compete with state-owned ordnance factories.
L&T has built and delivered 100 155 mm K9 Vajra guns with technology transfer from South Korean defence major Hanwha Defence, and plans are afloat to place orders for more. Mahindra Defence is building 120 BAE Systems’ M777 light-weight howitzers in India, and three regiments of the gun have been deployed in Ladakh. Bharat Forge has developed towed and truck mounted guns such as Bharat 52 and MSG 155.
Multiple other indigenous artillery guns have also been developed for the Indian Army, some of which are undergoing trials.
As Sandeep Unnithan of India Today put it recently, the army, “for the first time in independent India’s history… is spoilt for choice.”
But, of late, India’s artillery modernisation program hasn’t been making much progress. It appears to have hit a roadblock — or many. Two of India’s indigenous artillery gun projects — 155mm/45-calibre Dhanush and 155mm/52-calibre Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) — have suffered a series of major setbacks.
Dhanush was developed by the Ordnance Factory after going through over 12,000 design and technology documents supplied by Bofors as part of the infamous deal signed by the Rajiv Gandhi government with the Swedish company (now owned by Britain’s BAE System) in the late 1980s for Haubits FH77B howitzers. The gun has a range of 36 km (demonstrated range of 38 km with specialised ammunition).
The Ordnance Factory Board received a bulk production clearance from the army and the Defence Ministry for production of 114 Dhanush guns in 2019. At the time, reports said the first regiment of the guns would be in place by March 2020, and all the 114 guns will be delivered by 2022.
However, by June 2021, only 12 of these guns had been delivered to the army, not enough even for the first regiment of 18 guns. While the army’s induction schedule has been disturbed by the delays caused due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it has also flagged multiple concerns regarding the production quality of the guns.
Dhanush is manufactured by the Gun Carriage Factory (GCF) of the Ordnance Factory Board (dissolved by the government) in Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur and costs about Rs 14.5 crore a piece.
At the press conference on 27 September, ahead of the Gunners’ Day, Lieutenant general T K Chawla, Director General Artillery, said there are a few teething issues with the Dhanush guns.
“Very recently, I had a fruitful and constructive engagement with the production-level officials. There are a few teething issues which they need to iron out. It is good work in progress,” he was quoted as saying.
Lt Gen Chawla said GCF Jabalpur will carry out “confidence firing” soon.
“As long as they are able to iron out those issues, we can go down to show some confidence firing that is what has been agreed to with OFB,” he said, adding, “we as a user are looking forward to it”.
This isn’t the first quality-related issue with the Dhanush. In 2017, the Central Bureau of Investigation found that cheap Chinese parts passed off as ‘Made in Germany’ had been used in the gun. Moreover, ordnance factories have an abysmal record when it comes to the quality of the products they manufacture.
In a recent internal report to the Ministry of Defence, the Indian Army has claimed that the fund it spent on faulty ammunition (Rs 960 crore) supplied by the OFB in six years between 2014 and 2020 would have been enough to purchase 100 155mm medium artillery guns.
The poor quality of ammunition supplied by the OFB results in at least one accident per week on average, the army said, adding that 403 such cases related to faulty ammunition had been reported since 2014. It reported that 27 troops and others had been killed in accidents due to faulty ammunition since 2014, and 159 were seriously injured, including disabilities such as loss of limbs.
With Covid-19 induced restrictions mostly reversed, the quality-related issues with Dhanush are holding back the program.
Unlike the Dhanush, the ATAGS has been designed from scratch by the Defence Research and Development Organisation jointly with two private players, Bharat Forge of the Kalyani Group and TATA Advanced Systems.
The gun had performed exceptionally well during initial trials, setting a new world record in range in its category by hitting targets at a distance of 48 km. High altitude trials of the gun in January 2018 at the 12,000-foot-high Menla Firing Range in Sikkim were successful.
In August 2018, the Defence Ministry had approved an in-principle purchase of 150 of these guns for the Indian Army.
However, the program suffered a major setback in 2020, when the barrel of one of the guns undergoing trials burst during test fires at Pokhran firing range in Rajasthan. This pushed back the program as the gun had to undergo changes before being ready to fire again.
The army had also flagged its concerns regarding the weight of the gun, which could affect its mobility, particularly in high-altitude areas. The gun weighs 18 tonnes, more than its 15-tonne competitor, Israel’s 155 mm ATHOS (or Autonomous Towed Howitzer Ordnance System) gun.
Moreover, the cost of the gun, at Rs 22 crore per piece, is much higher than that of ATHOS, which costs Rs 9 crore per piece.
However, at the summer trials in Pokhran this year, the gun appears to have suffered another major setback. At the press conference on Monday (27 September), Lt Gen Chawla reportedly revealed that the gun had failed to achieve certain parameters and would undergo further modification.
“We did try them (ATAGS) out in the summer in Pokhran. There are a few issues. We have informed the DRDO and they have agreed to work on it. We are looking at a robust gun, reliable gun which can fire accurately and reliably,” Director General Artillery said at the presser.
“There were some parameters which have been achieved and there are some parameters which need improvement, both in firing and non-firing parameters,” the officer was quoted as saying.
Given that the army plans to meet the requirement of the 1,180 guns through the ATAGS, this development is likely to set back the artillery modernisation program of the Indian Army significantly.
But Lt Gen Chawla said he remains “very optimistic”.
“A lot of handholding has been done by the army, both for ATAGS and Dhanush. I had a detailed discussion last week with the OFB (Ordnance Factory Board) and ARDE (Armament Research and Development Establishment of DRDO),” Lt Gen Chawala said, adding, “we have mutually come to agree on where the requirement is.”
“We want them to succeed, we are part of their success. There are advantages in going indigenous and technology being developed within the country,” the officer was quoted as saying.