New Delhi: Faced with a belligerent China on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Army is set to order 100 more K9 Vajra Tracked Self-Propelled Howitzer from private defence major Larsen and Toubro (L&T) for their deployment at the northern borders.
The Army is also trying to fast-track the remaining trials of the indigenous Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) 155mm/52 calibre howitzers, which were used for the ceremonial firing at the Red Fort on Independence Day.
The new order for 100 more 155mm/52 calibre Vajras will be a repeat for the South Korean guns that are manufactured indigenously by L&T at its facility in Gujarat.
In 2017, L&T won the Rs 4,500-crore contract to supply 100 units of K9 Vajra under the ‘Make in India’ initiative for which it signed a transfer of technology contract with South Korean company Hanwha Corporation.
According to L&T, K9 Vajra are delivered with more than 80 per cent indigenous work packages and above 50 per cent indigenisation (by value) at the programme level.
The company says it had started indigenisation, right from the inception of the programme, by replacing 14 critical systems in the Korean ‘K9 Thunder’ with indigenously developed and produced systems for the trial gun fielded for user evaluation trials.
L&T had delivered all the guns ahead of schedule with the last being handed over in February last year.
Plan is for 200 more Vajras
“We have got the clearance from the Ministry of Defence to order for 100 more Vajras. The Request for Proposal (RFP) will be issued to L&T soon after which the cost negotiations will be carried out. We will fast-track the process and hope to have the deliveries started soon,” a source in the defence and security establishment said.
ThePrint has learnt that there could be another order for 100 more Vajras after the new one is executed and that the Army’s plan is to eventually have 300 of these guns that were initially bought for the deserts.
But with the tensions breaking out at LAC in May 2020, the Army decided to deploy three of these tracked howitzers in Eastern Ladakh as a trial measure. These guns were fitted with winterisation kits that would enable the howitzers to work in sub-zero temperature even though they were designed to operate in deserts.
As reported by ThePrint, the gun system proved its mettle following which the Army deployed a full regiment (20 guns make one regiment) of these howitzers in Eastern Ladakh to add to its fire power.
“We have already bought winterisation kits for the existing 100 Vajras. The new ones are being bought for the mountains and will come with winterisation kits,” another source explained.
The winterisation kits consist of nine items including specialised oil, lubricants, heating systems and small changes to the gun’s fire and control system, besides others.
Vajras were originally meant for deserts
When the Army did the trials for Vajras before it placed the order in 2017, it was carried out in deserts and not in high-altitude areas where the howtizer’s systems work differently in rarefied atmosphere and extreme cold.
“When the Ladakh crisis started, we had to rethink our strategy. We put these guns in Ladakh for trials and they performed well surpassing our expectations. And hence, we have decided to go in for more,” a third source said.
Sources explained that the Army is looking for 200 more Vajras but could not have placed a repeat order higher than the original. They added the new order will be for 100 howitzers and a subsequent order could be placed at a later date once the second order is delivered.
Because these are powerful tracked howitzers, the Army can deploy them extensively in the mountains too giving it more firepower.
The Army has already bought 145 M777 lightweight howitzers from the US to be deployed exclusively in the mountains. These lightweight howitzers are easily transportable by the Chinook helicopters and can be moved from one valley to another with ease.
ATAGS being fast-tracked
Giving details of ATAGS, the sources said the Army is fast tracking the remaining trials for faster induction of the gun system, which is being developed jointly by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and private players Bharat Forge and TATA.
Sources said that the firing trials were complete and the gun has done very well.
It has also undergone maintainability trials and is currently undergoing environmental trials. During this phase, various parts of the howitzer are put through rigorous environmental tests like dust, cold, and heat to see how they perform in each condition.
“The two companies have recently given us more than one part of the same piece so that the trials can be expedited. After this, there is a process to follow for the acquisition which will include cost negotiations and others. Hopefully, the entire process will be completed sooner than later,” a source said.
(Edited by Tony Rai)