INDIA’S most controversial defence deal has also been one of its most successful ones. The 155 mm .39 calibre Haubits Falthaubits 77B (Swedish for Field Howitzer 77B), or simply the Bofors artillery gun, has proved to be a versatile and potent weapons system since its induction into the Indian Artillery Regiment in 1986-87.
With its high rate of fire and accuracy, it became the toast of the Army and the nation during the Kargil conflict with Pakistan (1999) when it had extraordinary success at high altitude. But the acquisition of 410 artillery guns worth $1.4 billion from AB Bofors has been mired in controversy chiefly because of the kickbacks amounting to Rs.64 crore allegedly paid to conclude the deal. An upgrade to Bofors, the 155 mm .45 calibre Dhanush (meaning bow), designed and developed by the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB), threatens to be just as controversial.
Dhanush, which is the flagship indigenous artillery gun, appears to be doomed even before its induction and deployment in the artillery. There have been reports of “cheap” and “fake” Chinese parts (bearings) being used in Dhanush, which the Central Bureau of Investigation is looking into.
There appears to be a move to sabotage the development of Dhanush as arms lobbies are nudging the Army to opt for an East European or Israeli gun. There are serious issues over the quality of the manufacture of the weapons system. The Army has been insisting on a six-gun battery user exploitation trial. There are design deficiencies in the gun, including a faulty loading system. There have been repeated failures: three of the eight guns undergoing user trials have suffered mishaps, including muzzle brake damage.
Defence experts say Dhanush is a wonderful platform. A former Director General of the Artillery Regiment said it had “the range, accuracy, consistency and firepower”, but serious issues concerning the quality of the manufacturing process needed to be addressed. Alok Prasad, Deputy Director General (Weapons), OFB, said: “Issues of quality have occurred mainly because of three categories of items: fasteners, rubber springs and seals. It is difficult to find a source in India that can match the quality levels that we are looking for in these items. It is a problem that exists in Indian industry. If we want the kind of quality we need, we have to look overseas. But our procurement process [with contracts necessarily going to the lowest bidder] currently does not allow that. In order to address this lacuna, the OFB is in the process of tweaking the procurement process.”
But should the quality of category C items hold up the manufacture of Dhanush? Lamented another senior official from the OFB: “The Army has been changing the goal posts. The methodology of trials have been changed. We conceived Dhanush as accepted by the Army, but as in the case of the Arjun tank, since there were no written-down qualitative requirements, the Army kept changing them. In Dhanush, there is a GSQR [General Staff Qualitative Requirements], but it is hardly a few pages and there is plenty of room to read between the lines. Not only do we have to incorporate what senior planners at the Army headquarters perceive the gun should have, but we also have to cater to the preferences of officers in the trial teams. The Army had two trial teams and each of them had different requirements. One wanted the seat of the gun to be high, the other wanted it low. And officers either get posted out or retire, so there is no continuity in thought. Foreign vendors never go beyond the GSQR. They will not follow any changes, and they take you to court.”
The OFB is piqued over the Army’s decision to use a different process of qualification, vis-a-vis foreign manufactured artillery guns, with additional trials (termed as user exploitation) being introduced for the first time in the case of Dhanush. They draw a comparison with the 155 mm .52 calibre tracked self-propelled K-9 Vajra (Thunder) gun system from Korea that was accepted by the Army after just 200 to 250 rounds, a number which, according to OFB officials, is “too low to evaluate a gun system”. Under extensive three-phase user exploitation trials, three Dhanush guns were fired under desert conditions (around 450 rounds at Pokhran, Rajasthan, and Babina in Uttar Pradesh), three guns were fired at high altitude (around 400 rounds in Siachen) and finally they were fired as a battery of six guns. According to officials from the OFB, “over 1,200 rounds have been fired as part of the user exploitation trials”. And over 3,700 rounds have been fired so far in the present campaign to have the gun cleared. But, according to Army sources, the gun is still some way from acceptance and “has not met all the parameters to enable it [OFB] to go ahead with the order for 12 guns [besides the six that are in the user exploitation trials]”.
Said a senior official from the OFB: “The Army’s philosophy is simple: the OFB is to identify all the problems and address them so that there are no issues post induction. The Army is asking for a perfect gun. But, this is unduly prolonging the trial process. Since we are not producing the gun, our [OFB] facilities are lying idle and our suppliers are frustrated with no orders. It would be better if the Army ordered a few guns on the basis of the trials, exploited and evaluated them, devised a maintenance philosophy by using them, and allowed the product to mature. Perfection in stages. Have an Mk1, then an Mk2, Mk3, and so on. Dhanush is a major system development, and we at the OFB are learning a whole new philosophy in artillery gun development. Under user exploitation, you have to maintain and put more guns on a trial, thereby exponentially multiplying the chances of something going wrong. When foreign guns are not put through this, why should Dhanush be?”
The genesis of Dhanush, called the “desi” Bofors, dates back to 2005-06 when the OFB, with help from agencies such as the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which readied the firing range tables, first developed the gun and fired over 800 rounds in a bid to qualify it. But the Army evinced no interest. The up-gunning of Bofors was revived in 2010 when the OFB once again approached the Army and chiefly suggested a .45 mm (up from .39 mm) calibre barrel, a change in the electronics component of the gun and an increased range. After initial apprehensions, the Army, in 2011, provided the OFB with two Bofors guns from its war reserves, and a detachment of officers and men was placed at the OFB’s disposal at its Jabalpur unit. Aided by technical documents that had been procured from AB Bofors, the OFB stripped the gun, studied it and started manufacturing, one part at a time. It mechanically up-gunned the barrel to .45mm calibre, roped in the Israeli firm Elbit for the electronics suite and included the inertial navigation systems from France’s Sagem.
The Defence Acquisition Council even envisaged a production order of 114 guns. By 2012, the upgraded guns were ready for trials by the Army. But a barrel burst (caused mostly by faulty ammunition) on the very first day of trials soured the programme. Said an Army officer who was at the initial trials: “Among the many shortcomings, the loading system was faulty, and the OFB was not able to give us a gun with fault-free firing. And despite trial officers helping the OFB by even cooking up test figures, it was a lost cause.”
Lt Gen. P.R. Shankar, who retired in October 2016 as the Director General of Artillery and has been closely associated with the Dhanush programme, explained: “There were a number of shortcomings caused primarily by shoddy manufacturing processes such as misalignments, poor finishing and even the poor quality of simple nuts. Importantly, the ammunition was not loading as required, the firing rate was slow due to too many stoppages, and so on. The Army realised that it would be impossible for the OFB to clear user trials in time with the defects involved. The programme would have been stuck in a loop. That is why the Army approached the then Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, and requested that the OFB produce six guns, which would be sent to artillery units for user exploitation. This way, issues which come up could be resolved and the production process could commence simultaneously. User exploitation was specially facilitated to help the OFB. This is the only way they could have been given an order.”
Lt Gen. Shankar added: “The Army is more than willing to accept the gun but not a substandard gun. It is an upgrade of the time-tested Bofors, the range is better, performance is largely satisfactory, the indigenous content is around 80 per cent. Most importantly, for the first time in our history, we have a modern gun which is Indian. It is a matter of pride to have an indigenous system as your main artillery gun rather than relying on imported systems. But there can be no bulk order or clearance until the gun performs well. In war you need a gun that can fire three rounds in 15 seconds, 50 rounds in an hour. Presently, that is not possible.”
Many in the Army question the OFB’s qualifications to undertake artillery gun design and development (since it is primarily a manufacturing entity) . The OFB maintained that it had 110 highly qualified personnel in gun design, ammunition and military technologies. Recently, it won the deal to upgrade the Army’s 130 mm M-46 gun. The existing 130 mm barrel, muzzle brake and breech block would be replaced/modified to make a 155 mm .45 calibre gun capable of firing the entire family of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] ammunition. Said an official: “We won the 300-gun contract against Bharat Forge which had partnered with Elbit and Punj Lloyd, which had a Yugoslav collaborator.”
Accidents during trials, said the OFB official, could happen to any gun. Why single out accidents in the Dhanush trial, he asked. OFB officials were quick to point out the incident in September when, during a routine field firing drill at the Pokhran range, the barrel of the American M777 lightweight howitzer was partly damaged, with the 155 mm artillery shell misfiring and exploding in it and the OFB-manufactured ammunition allegedly “exiting the barrel in multiple pieces”. Said an OFB official: “It was said that OFB-manufactured ammunition caused the problem. This is both unfair and premature.”
Although the investigating team consisting of personnel from the OFB; the Army, the Directorate General of Quality Assurance (DGQA); the United States government; BAE Systems, Sweden; and the United Kingdom is yet to come out conclusively with the reasons for the incident, informed sources told Frontline that there were no indications of any deficiencies in the ammunition. On the contrary, a member of the investigating team explained, the “reasons for the accident could range from deficiencies in the quality of the barrel or the armament, design deficiencies, compatibility between the gun and the ammunition, maintenance issues, firing/maintenance drills not being followed, pre-existing issues, or the barrel not being properly cleaned”. He said that “the most likely cause could be that the BAE Systems crew, who were firing the gun, faced an unfamiliar ammunition system and failed to tweak the gun/ammunition system to achieve compatibility”.
Another artillery gun India plans to induct into the Army is the Korean K-9 Vajra, a self-propelled howitzer, which is to be manufactured by Larsen & Toubro in collaboration with South Korea’s Hanwha Techwin. Two Korean soldiers were killed in an explosion during an artillery training session in Gangwon province in South Korea, raising doubts about the reliability of the gun.
Senior OFB officials are confident that Dhanush will clear user trials. They said many of the problems reported in the user exploitation phase would be surmounted by “a fine-tuning of the gun’s subsystems”. This, they hope, will be achieved during the next phase of the user exploitation trials scheduled for November. This will be followed by a final round of firing trials in 2018, by which time it is hoped Dhanush will meet the Army’s standards for an indigenous 155 mm artillery gun that can replace the Bofors gun. Military experts suggest that a Dhanush Integration Centre, staffed with personnel drawn from the OFB, the Army, the DGQA and the DRDO, could be set up with the best technical and manufacturing expertise. Expertise from BAE Systems, which is selling India the M777, could also be utilised.
Said Lt Gen. Shankar: “The idea is to come up with a centre of excellence of world standards. Also, the entire gun-manufacturing base in the country, including that available in the private sector, could be utilised to enhance capacities. The present capacity of the OFB cannot produce guns in the kind of numbers with the desired quality which the Army needs.”