India wants more vendors to supply howitzers, guns

By Rahul Bedi


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New Delhi : The Indian defence ministry has issued two requests for proposal (RfP) to overseas vendors for 180 155mm/52 caliber wheeled howitzers and 100 tracked self-propelled (SP) guns respectively as part of a long-delayed attempt at standardizing the army's artillery inventory.

Defence sources said the RfP, or an initial inquiry, for the wheeled howitzers was dispatched four weeks ago to 27 vendors while the one for tracked howitzers was issued last week to 17 manufacturers from Sweden, Singapore, France, Spain, Austria, Finland, Israel and Italy.

The eventual contract is to include transfer of technology to locally build the howitzers.

Under the Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan, the army plans by 2020-25 on acquiring a mix of around 3,600 155mm/52 cal towed, wheeled and tracked guns for some 180 of some 220 artillery regiments that could cost $5-7 billion. The army's remaining 40-odd artillery regiments are equipped with light guns and missiles.

Trials of the two 155mm systems are expected to take place next summer. They are also likely to include trials for towed 155mm howitzers, the RfP for which is imminent, official sources said.

Presently, the army operates around 14 different caliber guns but has long wanted to configure its artillery force levels predominantly around 155mm/52 caliber howitzers to enhance battlefield effectiveness.

Its most modern platform is the FH 77B 155mm/39 cal Bofors howitzer, 410 of which were acquired in the 1980s to equip around 20 regiments and have since become outdated.

Of the original 410 Bofors howitzers, around 370 remain serviceable, the remainder having been cannibalised to keep the remaining guns operational. But all the Bofors guns suffer from lack of spares and badly require upgrading to 155mm/52cal. The higher the caliber, the longer the howitzers range.

The corruption scandal surrounding the Bofors guns, still under investigation, has however proscribed awarding the upgrade contract to the Swedish company even though it has been sold and is now known as SWS Defence.

The army's and the defence ministry's attempts at involving Tata's, Israel's Elbit and BaE Systems (which now owns Bofors) in upgrading the FH 77B's have so far proven ineffective.

"The army's continuing attempts at acquiring howitzers are confusing to say the least, plagued by bureaucratic and military vacillation that reveal a complete lack of equipment planning and force structure," a retired two-star artillery officer lamented. He did not wish to be named.

He said the artillery modernisation programme had been delayed by nearly a decade raising serious operational implications and warned that if acquisitions were not decided upon soon, the army could easily face a situation in the coming years where it simply has no long-range firepower.

Last year, the army conducted an unprecedented fourth round of summer trials of the Bofors Defence and Israel's Soltam Systems TIG-2002 of towed guns to re-evaluate their performance.

This followed an inconclusive outcome after the third round of trials in November 2004 in which the latter was unable to participate due to 'technical problems'.

The first three rounds of towed howitzer trials that began in 2001, however, also featured South Africa's Denel Ordnance gun alongside its Swedish and Israeli competitors.

But the Congress party-led federal coalition suspended all dealings with Denel two years ago after ordering an investigation into allegations that the South African arms manufacturer had resorted to 'unfair commercial practices' in signing a 400 anti-materiel rifle contract under the previous administration.

This not only frustrated the army's trial evaluation reports but also led the defence ministry to terminate the limited series production of Bhim as the 155mm/52-cal tracked SP howitzers was called, production facilities for which had been set up at great cost.

Bhim was to be built by the state-owned Bharat Earth Movers Ltd in Bangalore by mating the Denel/LIW T 6 155mm/52-cal turret with the chassis of the locally designed, Arjun main battle tank.