New Delhi: The Indian Army’s artillery modernisation plan — first drafted over two decades ago — is back in the spotlight following a report that the indigenously developed Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) is ready to fire again after an accident in September.
The Business Standard report has stated that the gun has undergone changes — after a barrel burst during trials in September — and is ready to fire again. The September incident was followed by a detailed probe conducted by a multi-agency Failure Investigation Committee and the changes have followed that.
India’s artillery acquisition had stalled for nearly two decades after the Swedish Bofors guns were acquired in the late 1980s. The deal was mired in corruption allegations and it led to a fear in the civil services, which, combined with political apathy, prevented India from buying heavy guns at least until 2010.
The Bofors guns proved their mettle during the 1999 Kargil conflict, particularly with their “shoot-and-scoot” technology — the ability to fire a shell and then move away from the location by up to three kilometres.
The Army subsequently in 1999 drafted a Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan to acquire around 3,000 pieces of 155 mm weaponry, including tracked self-propelled guns, truck-mounted gun systems, towed artillery pieces and wheeled self-propelled guns in over two decades.
The plan was to have 1,580 towed gun systems, 814 mounted gun systems, 100 self-propelled Howitzers and 145 M777 155mm/39 calibre lightweight Howitzers for the mountains.
This meant equipping 169 artillery regiments with medium artillery weapons or as defence experts put it, a “mediumisation” of artillery.
Army officers say that while the artillery modernisation plan progressed at a snail’s place until about 2010-2011, it has gained momentum in the last few years.
A senior officer from the artillery regiment told ThePrint that the modernisation plan has progressed rapidly in the last five years with faster orders and inductions of the M777 Ultra Lightweight Howitzers and the indigenously-built Dhanush guns.
“The modernisation plan is being taken forward keeping in mind the Make in India programme,” the officer said, adding that there is a push to manufacture indigenous ammunition.
Lt Gen P.R. Shankar (retd), former director general of artillery, said the latest artillery profile — or the artillery profile 2027 (an acquisition plan) — was drafted in 2008 and the modernisation plan was progressing in line with that.
“Among all arms and services, I would say the artillery modernisation has progressed according to plan,” he said.
Asked if the Army has the desired strength of guns, he said the force already had guns. “But they were old guns. The modern guns will have an advantage over them,” he added. “After 2000, there were several failed attempts at modernisation of artillery. Even the indigenous scene was not great.
“However after 2010, the whole scene changed. We had five major 155 mm gun programmes going, and all of them succeeded,” he said. “We could procure the M777 through the FMS route (the US’ foreign military sales route) and some are deployed in Eastern Ladakh. Induction of K9 Vajra is on schedule and will finish by March 2021.”
He added that Dhanush induction has commenced. “Production of upgunned Sharang has also started. ATAGS is on the verge of trials,” he said. “Our rocket and missile programs are also going on track. We are going to have one of the most fearsome artilleries in the world.”
With a number of developments in the sector, ThePrint looks at the progress of the major programmes of the Army’s artillery modernisation drive.
M777 Ultra Lightweight Howitzers (ULH)
The M777 Ultra Lightweight Howitzers — meant for mountainous terrains — weigh approximately 4,200 kg each.
Used by the US Marine Corps, a contract to procure 145 155mm/39 calibre ULHs was signed with the United States government in November 2016.
According to the contract, 25 fully assembled Howitzers were to be handed over by the US government and the remaining 120 Howitzers were to be assembled in India by BAE Systems in partnership with Mahindra Defence.
Reports say the Army is likely to get all the 145 Howitzers by the end of 2021 to equip the M777 regiments that it is planning to form.
Army sources told ThePrint that 42 M777 ULHs have already been inducted so far.
BAE systems had by March this year reportedly delivered 25 guns to the Army, while the Army was to receive another 70 by this year-end.
This is the first indigenously-built artillery gun with a range of 38 km; its automated technology allows three guns to be fired simultaneously at a rate of 42 rounds per hour.
The Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) was to produce 144 155mm/45 calibre Howitzers based on transfer of technology from Bofors in the 1980s.
Subsequently, the OFB also handed over six Dhanush guns to the Army in 2019, which was touted as a major success story of the Make in India initiative. The OFB was to deliver another six to eight guns, but could not because of a Covid-19 lockdown.
Sources, however, said the orders are progressing and the Army is looking at inducting 18 guns soon. According to reports, the OFB is now working on the next two versions of the Dhanush gun including a truck-mounted version.
155mm/52 calibre towed Howitzer
According to this report, the process of acquiring 1,580 towed Howitzers from a foreign supplier have progressed and are at the stage of cost negotiation.
The report states that there are plans to buy 400 ATHOS 2052 (Autonomous Towed Howitzer Ordnance System) guns from Elbit of Israel in a ready-to-use condition, while the remaining 1,180 are to be assembled in India in partnership with Bharat Forge.
The indigenous 155mm/52 calibre towed gun system is being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) along with two private-sector firms.
An all-electric drive, high mobility, advanced communications system and automated command and control system are some of the significant features of the ATAGS gun.
The defence ministry had approved a purchase of 150 of these guns at an approximate cost of Rs 3,365 crore.
ATAGS have been undergoing evaluation trials when an accident of barrel burst occurred in September.
L&T had in 2017 won the contract from the ministry to supply 100 K9 Vajra-T 155 mm/52 calibre tracked self-propelled gun systems in 42 months to the Indian Army.
The K9, called the Vajra in its customised Indian version, is a tracked and self-propelled piece of artillery originally developed by Samsung for the South Korean military.
The Rs 4,366 crore contract for the Vajra is meant to arm 18 regiments, and replace the 50-year-old 105-mm Abbott, which India inherited from the British in 1964.
According to the contract, L&T was to complete delivery of all 100 K9 Vajra-Ts to the Army by the end of 2020.
Sources in the Army said that 77 K9 Vajras have already been handed over to the Army.
Pinaka rocket system
The defence ministry had in August signed contracts to supply six Army regiments with Pinaka rocket launchers by 2024, at an approximate cost of Rs 2,580 crore.
The contract with the Bharat Earth Movers, Tata Power Company and Larsen & Toubro states that at least 70 per cent indigenous content will be used in the weapon systems.
Originally developed by the DRDO in the 1980s, this rocket system was extensively used during the Kargil conflict of 1999.
The initial version of the weapon system was called Mark I, which had a range of 40 km. The upgraded version or Pinaka Mark II has an extended range of 70 to 80 km. It can carry different types of warheads.
Earlier, this month, the DRDO successfully tested the enhanced Pinaka rocket from Chandipur off the coast of Odisha.