By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (Retd)
Much water has flown under the bridge since the 1999 Kargil Conflict when artillery was forced to cannibalise 400 Bofors guns imported from Sweden in the 1980s to make 100 of them functional, though all the water flowing under the bridge is ‘not clean’. According to media reports of September 29, 2020, an internal report by the Army to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) revealed the loss of Rs 960 crores in period 2014-2019 due to faulty ammunition supplied by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB).
Twenty seven Army soldiers died in accidents because of faulty ammunition and this amount of Rs 960 crores could have procured 100 x 155mm medium artillery guns. Naturally, no heads would role since OFB is state owned and directly under MoD while soldiers’ lives are expendable. On September 12, 2020, a barrel burst while firing 155mm/52mm calibre Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) caused severe injuries to four army soldiers – another case of faulty ammunition?
The ‘clean water’ flowing denotes that modernisation of artillery is finally happening through purchases, ‘Make in India’ and up gunning. The Army’s Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan (FARP) drawn in 1999 was to procure 2,800-3,000 x 155mm/52-calibre guns of all kinds and 155mm/39-calibre lightweight howitzers by 2027. These include 814 truck-mounted guns, 1,580 towed guns and 180 wheeled self-propelled guns. The basic aim is modernise, rationalise and standardise the artillery gun systems to 155mm calibre for achieving commonality of ammunition and greater ranges.
As per available information, induction of about 2820 x guns or howitzers of all type is underway, and government approval has been accorded for induction of six additional Pinaka Multi Barrel Rocket Launcher (MBRL) units and one additional Smerch MBRL unit. There is also an ongoing exercise to increase the range of the indigenous Pinaka MBRL System from 40 km to 75 km.
The M777 A2 Ultra Light Howitzer (ULH) and the K9 Vajra Tracked Self Propelled (SP) Gun System have been inducted into the Army and the indigenous 155mm 45 calibre Dhanush gun (upgraded version of Bofors) and ATAGS have tested well with ATAGS achieving range of plus 40 km. Dhanush with 38 km range has about 80 per cent indigenous content. MoD has placed order for 114 of these and further order of 300 is possible depending on its performance.
One regiment is operational and remaining others is to be inducted over four years. The K9 Vajra-T is to be produced in India by Larsen & Toubro (L&T) in collaboration with a Korean partner. This gun too was formally inducted into the Army on November 9, 2019. Presently there is a requirement of 100 x 155mm/52 calibre tracked SP guns – K9 Vajra-T and the numbers could go up. 10 x K9 Vajra-T guns will be imported from South Korea and remaining 90 would be manufactured at L&T’s strategic systems complex near Pune.
BAE Systems’ 145 x M777 Ultra Light Howitzers (ULH) are being procured under Foreign Military Sales (FMS) from the US. Extensive exploitation trials were conducted on the two howitzers imported and the howitzers were formally inducted into the Army on November 9, 2019. 25 ULH are to be procured fully built and 120 will be assembled in India. Mahindra Defence Systems is partnering BAE Systems for assembly, integration and testing of these howitzers in India.
Acquiring the Mounted Gun System (MGS) involves off-the-shelf purchase of 200 x 155mm/52 calibre guns, followed by indigenous manufacture of another 614. Tata Power SED, Bharat Forge and the OFB are interested parties. The OFB prototype is based on a Dhanush gun of 52mm calibre mounted on a 8×8 Tatra Truck produced by BEML. However the trials of the OFB MGS proved unsuccessful. The Request for Proposal (RFP) is likely to be issued in the near future.
As far as up gunning is concerned, MoD has accorded approval for up gunning of 300 additional M-46, 130 mm/39 calibre guns to 155mm/45 calibre with the participation of the private sector through tender, and private industry is expected to do so in collaboration with a foreign vendor. L&T, Tata and Bharat Forge are reportedly involved in this venture. In terms of Surveillance and Target Acquisition (SATA), the indigenous ‘Swati’ Weapon Locating Radar (WLR) has entered service, in addition to the US ANTPQ-37 WLR. Army reportedly plans to procure 28 x Swati WLRs. Currently, MALE UAVs, Searcher Mk 2 and Herons are being transferred from the Artillery to Army Aviation. The military is also looking at procuring Predator UAVs from the US.
The extended range BrahMos in addition to the above provides a credible capability to the Artillery. However, looking at the battlefield, there are few issues that should not be ignored any more. First, the quality of indigenous ammunition produced by the OFB is atrocious to say the least. Not addressing this serious flaw is no less than indirectly abetting the murder of soldiers – which is sacrilege. What is mentioned here is only part of the continuing story of unaccountability of the OFB. For example, hidden from media is the fact that OFB has recently handed over one crore (yes 10 million) rounds of ammunition of Tavor assault rifles (used by Special Forces and Parachute units of the Parachute Brigade) all of which are defective. As usual this too will be brushed under the carpet.
Second, the recent Chinese aggression witnessed the same mad rush for ammunition as was witnessed during the intrusions in Kargil during 1999. Our ammunition stock must always be maintained at levels at least to cater for limited war on dual front. Such ammunition should be of good quality and regularly turned over to ensure its life is not expired.
Third, the artillery needs to be fully geared for an environment of Network-Centric Warfare (NCW). The Artillery Command, Control and Communication System (ACCCS) is the only Operational Information System (OIS) that the Army has been able to field. Army’s quest for acquiring NCW capabilities were cut short in last three years, forced by shortage of funds to foreclose ongoing OIS systems like the Battlefield Management System (BMS) and the Command Information Decision Support System (CIDSS) – latter as nerve system of the NCW that would integrate all surveillance and monitoring sensors with the ACCCS. With sensible decision MoD would have focussed on Army’s NCW capabilities, as it appears beyond the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), who as Army Chief oversaw this degradation in NCW capabilities without a whimper.
Fourth, we need to closely examine the ongoing Armenia-Azerbaijan war especially the extensive use of swarm drones. How this will affect the Artillery in the future battlefield must be closely examined and necessary measures taken on priority. Neglecting this would be detrimental to our national security.
–The author is a veteran of Indian Army. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda