Govt to reopen talks with Bofors
for technology transfer
George Iype in New Delhi
The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government has decided to reopen negotiations with the controversial Swedish firm, A B Bofors, to ensure transfer of technology to the 410 field howitzers lying unused in the army's artillery units.
As a precursor to the move, Defence Minister George Fernandes has instituted a core committee of officials to re-examine the $ 1.3 billion Bofors gun deal signed by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1986.
Official sources said the re-examination would include the implications of re-opening the multi-million dollar Bofors bribery scandal and the feasibility of transferring technology for the indigenous manufacture of spare parts, fire-control equipment, and ammunitions for the Swedish guns.
Burdened with operational deficiencies, lack of spare parts and six types of ammunition, the 155 mm towed howitzers that the Congress government bought are on the verge of being phased out from the Indian Army.
The army's Directorate of Weapons and Equipment recently submitted a note to the defence minister, reminding him that these highly sophisticated guns are in a critical state as they have been inoperational for the last 12 years.
The DWE has also informed Fernandes that the 155 mm howitzer, with a 40 km range in the mountains, is the only long-range gun the Indian Army has to effectively combat Pakistani firing from across the Line of Control.
This has forced the defence minister to take up the issue with Prime Minister Vajpayee. Official sources said the government is in favour of re-opening negotiations with the Swedish firm as it involves only the transfer of technology.
According to the Bofors contract signed in 1986, the Swedish armaments company was to supply 410 field howitzers, spare parts, ammunition of six types, fire-control equipment, and technical literature to India.
Also included in the deal was a technology transfer clause that allowed import of spare parts from Bofors for 10 years after which India could go in for licensed indigenous production of spare parts.
But the technology transfer clause has not yet been implemented by the Swedish company as the allegations of kickbacks associated with the gun deal ripped apart the Congress and created a major political storm in India that has lasted 11 years now.
The Indian government imposed an embargo on Bofors after it was revealed that the Swedish company had paid $ 50 million in kickbacks to secure the 1986 howitzer deal.
The scandal also blocked the spare replacements and ammunition coming from Bofors and virtually killed the second part of the contract for the guns' production under licence.
Faced with these difficulties, the army in 1988 tried to resurrect the guns for operational use by marrying an indigenously built barrel with the howitzer's chassis. But the attempt failed as it was found that no reverse engineering could be done on the guns without semi or completely knocked down kits from the parent company.
The stock of ammunition that India received along with the 410 Bofors guns lasted two years. And when the army was planning to order more ammunition from Bofors in 1988, the scandal broke out, engulfing the then Congress government and resulting in the Swedish firm being blacklisted.
But key defence ministry officials are sceptical if the government's move to indigenously manufacture the spare parts and ammunition will help overcome the other handicaps of the guns.
They claim the quality of the guns was found to be below average when the first batch of Bofors weapons arrived in India in 1986.
For instance, one official pointed out, the barrels of these highly automated guns had to be replaced very often as they were found to be prone to heavy wear-and-tear in inhospitable terrain like the Siachen glacier.
But experts in the army believe the gun can still become a truly new-generation weapon system with burst-fire and high-angle-fire capabilities if the government lifts the ban on Bofors and re-negotiates the deal to take delivery of spare parts and ammunition from the Swedish firm.
As per the original Bofors contract, nearly 8.4 million kroners of the deal was meant for the purchase of spare parts and ammunition. The army's generals are in favour of immediately using this credit lying unused with the Swedish arms manufacturer.
Interestingly, the re-negotiation will have to take place with Celsiustech in Sweden and A B Celsius in Austria as the original firm, A B Bofors, no longer deals in armaments.
But many in the government fear that any move to re-negotiate the remainder of the deal could once again lead to a political storm within the country.
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