New Delhi: India’s much-delayed project for indigenous artillery seems to be finally reaching its conclusion, with the towed howitzer, Dhanush, clearing firing trials and the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) set to begin its last round of testing this month.
The Army had, in 2018, placed an initial order for 114 of the 155mm x 45mm Dhanush, manufactured by the Ordnance Factory Board’s Gun Carriage Factory (GCF) in Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur — now known as Advanced Weapons and Equipment India (AWE) Limited. However, the delivery was hit by production quality issues flagged by the force and hence needed fresh firing trials before being deployed fully.
Sources in the defence and security establishment said two Dhanush guns, which have a strike range of 38 km, fired 90 rounds each “flawlessly” as part of the second line of firing in Zone 6 at the Pokhran firing range Tuesday. This meant that all decks have been cleared for its induction.
Second line of firing means the firing of guns through ammunition replenishment of 45 rounds each continuously, while zone 6 refers to the highest charge, which makes the gun fire at it its maximum range.
During this process, the barrel gets very hot and may burst and hence the successful firing showed that the gun is now ready for active deployment, sources said.
Meanwhile, the ATAGS, being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) along with private firms Bharat Forge and TATA Power SED, will possibly undergo its last round of test firing.
If successful, it will pave the way for orders to be placed by the Army, which is in dire need of artillery guns.
Sources told ThePrint that there was “inconsistency” in the overall performance of the gun when firing was conducted in June last year.
The gun, which has cleared the mobility trials, faced issues with the auto ammunition loading bridge opening operation, sources said.
They added that if the new trials, which will begin this month, are cleared, then it would pave the way for the Army placing orders.
Dhanush, a significant step towards ‘atmanirbharta’
“Dhanush clearing the second line of firing is a huge development. This is a very significant step towards our dream of atmanirbharta (self-sufficiency),” Lt Gen. P. Ravi Shankar (Retd), former director general, artillery, told ThePrint.
The officer, who was instrumental in fast-tracking indigenous artillery programmes during his tenure, added, “This is the first time in India’s history where we have a fully automated gun which has been designed, developed and manufactured in the country.”
As reported by ThePrint last year, since April 2019, when the induction of these guns started, only 12 had been delivered — below the 18 guns required to make a full regiment.
While the Army is satisfied with the gun in terms of firepower and mobility, it had flagged multiple concerns regarding the production quality.
Lt Gen. Shankar said that with Dhanush and ATAGS, India does not need to be dependent on foreign artillery power in future, except where only a few pieces of lightweight howitzers are needed, like the M-777.
The ATAGS has unmatched range, with Extended Range Sub-Bore Boat Tail (ERFB BT) ammunition capable of hitting targets at 35 km and with ERFB BB (Base Bleed) ammunition with a 45 km range. The ATAGS actually fired at a range of 47 km in 2017.
It is said that when the ATAGS will finally be ordered, both the private firms, Bharat Forge and TATA Power SED, will get orders, but the lowest bidder would get the largest share — 60 per cent or more.
Both ATAGS guns developed by the respective firms have the same performance parameters and the final contract will be awarded based on the cost cited.
India’s artillery programme
In September last year, Lt Gen. T.K. Chawla, Director General, Artillery, said that “a lot of handholding” has been done by the Army, both for ATAGS and Dhanush.
He also confirmed the issues faced by India’s Field Artillery Rationalisation Programme (FARP), finalised in 1999, under which the Army is supposed to have, by 2025-27, a mix of around 3,000-3,600 155mm but different calibre types of towed, mounted, self-propelled (tracked and wheeled) howitzers.
Lt Gen. Chawla had said the Army would undertake some “confidence firing” of the Dhanush soon.
Under FARP, delivery of 100 Vajra tracked howitzers has been completed and induction of the M-777 lightweight howitzers from the US is on.
There is now a line of thought within the Army to go for more Vajras, not just for the mountains, but also to replace wheeled howitzers. However, a final decision is yet to be taken.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)