Arms deals in the making

Print edition : August 03, 2002

Arms manufacturers are vying with one another to sell India new weapon systems.

THREE howitzer manufacturers from Israel, South Africa and Sweden are currently competing in trials in the Pokhran desert to sell India their weapon systems in a contract worth Rs.10,000 crores to Rs.12,000 crores.

With an artillery gun along the Line of Control recently.-RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

Soltam of Israel, Denel Ordnance of South Africa and Bofors Defence (now owned by United Defense LP of the United States) of Sweden are putting their 155mm/52 calibre howitzers through rigorous testing. The Army plans to buy initially 200 pieces and eventually build an inventory of around 3,000-4,000 guns through licensed indigenous production in order to equip around 200 artillery regiments over the next two decades.

Army sources said that the FH 77B 155 mm/39 calibre Bofors guns, of which India had bought 410 pieces in 1987 in a controversial deal, played a crucial role during the 11-week-long Kargil war three summers ago, leading to a re-assessment in equipping policies centred around howitzers.

Under the Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan, the Army plans to replace the 12 to 14 different calibre it utilises, such as 25 Pounders and 75mm Pack Guns in service with its mountain regiments, with 155mm/52 calibre towed, wheeled and tracked howitzers in all its artillery regiments by 2025. The higher the calibre the longer the range of the howitzer.

The proposal aims at upgrading the artillery's firepower to augment armoured and mechanised formations in order to neutralise strategic targets in what planners predict will be a limited engagement influenced by the region's nuclear and missile capabilities. The proposal also seeks to standardise artillery ammunition.

The Army recently announced a second artillery division to ensure better deployment of this powerful support arm in the plains and in mountainous terrain. The new 41st Division will be armed with, besides howitzers, rockets and missiles, and it will have a surveillance and target acquisition regiment. The Army is currently raising the Strategic Rocket Command, its second missile regiment, in order to induct Agni-II, the indigenous 2,500-km range intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) that has gone into series production and is expected to be inducted later this year. The Army is also likely to be given the responsibility of handling the short-range Agni variant which was tested earlier this year to a range of 700 km. Indian military sources said that the Agni variant has been developed with the capability to strike "high-value" Pakistani targets inside the Baluchistan desert.

According to official sources, under the recent round of military restructuring the "logistically strong" and "manpower-intensive" Army has been given responsibility for handling, storing and deploying operationally Agni-II, a missile that could be fired from a mobile rail launcher. They said it would take 150 soldiers per mobile launcher to handle each IRBM, although details of the overall command and control structure of the Nuclear Command Authority are still being finalised.

The 333 Missile Group raised in the mid-1990s as part of the Artillery was India's first missile regiment. It handles the 150-km range surface-to-surface Prithvi I missiles that are reportedly based in Jammu and Jalandhar. Army officers said the Strategic Rocket Command would be the first to handle "genuine" nuclear missiles, such as SSM Prithvi-I, although it is a tactical battlefield missile because of its limited range.The new Artillery Division will be based at the Southern Army headquarters in Pune. The 40th Artillery Division, India's sole 'pure' artillery division, is deployed in the Northern Command and forms part of the 1 Strike Corps based in Ambala, 200 km north of Delhi. This new division will augment armoured and mechanised formations in the Rajasthan and Gujarat sectors and is meant to neutralise strategic targets. Besides missiles, the division will eventually be armed with the 155 mm/52 calibre howitzers.

MEANWHILE, in accordance with the deadline set by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), under the request for proposal (RFP) sent to 10 howitzer-makers Soltam, Denel and Bofors agreed to submit their TIG-2002, G-5/2000 and FH-77 BO5 L52 artillery systems respectively for trials. The Pokhran trials began in early June following an evaluation at the Artillery Centre and School at Deolali in Maharashtra.

The guns will also be subjected to high-altitude testing either in Jammu and Kashmir, where many of the guns will eventually be deployed, or in Sikkim before a final assessment is made and the sealed price bids, which have already been submitted, are opened. All military equipment trials are conducted on a "no cost, no commitment" basis and the cost of the operation is borne by the vendor.

Officials said that the RFP, delayed by over two years owing to internal squabbling and the Tehelka bribes-for-arms deals expose, also sent to ODE of Singapore, Patria Vamas of Finland, Marconi Marine, Land and Naval Systems and Royal Ordnance of Britain, Giat industries of France, Santa Barbara of Spain and South Korea.

A model of the South African company Denel's 155mm/52 calibre howitzer at a defence equipment exhibition in New Delhi in February this year.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The RFP for towed howitzers was issued after the Army mysteriously and for inexplicable reasons abandoned its earlier proposal to buy 300 to 400 completed 155mm/45 calibre truck-mounted howitzers from Bofors for around $1.5 million to $2 million each with the understanding that these would be upgraded to the 155mm/52 calibre requirement. When this proposal was under serious discussion until early 2001, France's Sofma with its Caeser weapon system was also a strong contender. But Sofma has opted not to enter the towed howitzer race.

Besides Bofors, India has close artillery links with Denel and Soltam. Three years ago the Army successfully tested Bhim, Denel's T-6 self-propelled (SP) 155mm/52 calibre turret system mounted on the chassis of the indigenously developed Arjun main battle tank (MBT).

Consequently, senior Army and MoD officers are, mistakenly, of the view that a towed howitzer of a similar calibre would ensure commonality, reducing production and maintenance costs. The Bhim project is awaiting Cabinet approval.

The MoD has cleared 124 Arjuns for series production, but military sources said that with the arrival of the Russian T-90s main battle tank, its chassis would now be "diverted" to Bhim. The Army wants to acquire around 100 to 120 SP 155mm weapon systems in completed condition or as kits and build indigenously the remaining 400 to 450 in order to arm around 30 mechanised infantry regiments. These systems are meant to counter some 150 American M109A2 SP guns with the Pakistan Army.

The Army, meanwhile, has rejected Arjun, which continues to face problems with its fire control system and gun accuracy at battle ranges and has poor operational mobility because of its weight and width. The manufacturers of its German MTU 838 Ka-510, 1,400 hp diesel engine have also raised their price, significantly adding to the MBT's overall cost of around Rs.15 crores to Rs.20 crores each. The 310 Russian T-90s tanks that India has bought and which it plans to build indigenously under licence at the Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi in Tamil Nadu are priced at around $1.02 million apiece.

South Africa, however, has a strong lobby in the MoD backed by senior as also retired artillery officers that is backing Denel. Denel will reportedly face near closure if the Indian howitzer contract does not materialise. This military-bureaucrat nexus nearly pushed through the lease of 40 towed Denel T-6 howitzers - currently undergoing trials - during panic buying by the Army during the Kargil conflict.

Military sources said that Lt.Gen. Shamsher S. Mehta, then Deputy Chief of Army Staff (Planning and Systems) in charge of procurements and now the Western Army Commander, had proposed leasing the T-6 howitzers in June 1999 with the eventual aim of acquiring them in large numbers once the border war ended. The proposal, which moved rapidly upwards in the MoD for approval in a system known for its unhurried approach to even crisis situations, stressed the "commonality" factor between the towed howitzer and Bhim.

The Army's presentation, backed by "persuasive" senior officers, now advisers to Denel, reasoned that inducting the leased South African howitzers could lead to further imports and local manufacture under licence in keeping with long overdue plans to enhance the force's artillery firepower. Gen. Mehta's proposal was considered favourably by a senior MoD officer - since promoted - but ultimately rejected by the Ministry's financial wing as being impractical and too costly. "Had the scheme gone through, India would have been a tied customer and South Africa could have charged astronomical sums for the two weapon systems," an officer said. South Africa, he declared, emphasised the factor of "commonality" between the two weapon systems and almost succeeded.

Entrenched in India, Soltam is involved in upgrading 180 130 M 46 field guns to 155/39 calibre and 155mm/45 calibre under a contract worth around $4.07 million. But according to the MoD spokesman, the retrofit is facing "quality problems". Senior artillery officers also admitted privately that Soltam's upgrade programme is not only "flawed" but "over-ambitious".

They said that the Army was under "heavy MoD pressure" not to withdraw from the upgrade deal signed in March 2000. The MoD, in turn, was under intense diplomatic and political pressure from Tel Aviv not to withdraw from the upgrade programme, the sources added.

Israel also exercises considerable influence in Indian defence circles, having become the country's second largest supplier of military equipment after Russia, only a decade since Tel Aviv and New Delhi established formal diplomatic ties in 1992. And, once the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition assumed office in 1998, they developed stronger intelligence, security and, reportedly, even nuclear links. Soltam, however, told Jane's Defence Weekly that any problems were minor and the programme was continuing to the satisfaction of the customer, a claim Army officials discount privately.

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