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Don't block gun trials, Army chief urges Antony

July 20, 2009 13:16 IST

A worried army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, has protested to Defence Minister A K Antony about the derailing of vital defence purchases by allegations of corruption. On June 10, General Kapoor complained about the cancellation of army trials on the Pegasus ultra-light howitzer, after the manufacturer, Singapore Technologies Kinetics (STK), was suspended on suspicion of links with a discredited Ministry of Defence official.

The trials of the 155 mm Pegasus were to commence on June 22 at the Pokhran Ranges in Rajasthan. Any delay, General Kapoor warned Antony, would push back the hot-weather trials by a year.

The next day, the deputy chief, Lieutenant General MS Dadwal, fired off a letter to the Defence Secretary, Vijay Singh (Letter No 00048/Proc/DCOAS (P&S)/Sectt) reiterating that the Pegasus trials must continue, even while the Central Bureau of Investigation probes whether STK was connected in any way with Sudipta Ghosh -- the former chairman of the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) -- who was arrested for corruption on May 19. If STK was found guilty, the purchase could always be cancelled.

The army chief, an artilleryman himself, has emphasised on the crucial need for modern artillery; the last important purchase was more than 20 years ago: the 155mm Bofors FH-77B gun in the mid-1980s. Even that was restricted, by allegations of kickbacks, to the direct purchase of 400 guns.

The chance to manufacture thousands more in India, through transfer of technology (ToT) was thrown away, even though India paid for the technology. In 2005, amidst a push to buy towed and self-propelled artillery, South African gun manufacturer, Denel, was banned. Soon afterwards, Israeli artillery firm, Soltam Systems, found itself under the scanner.

General Kapoor's request to Antony has counted for little; the CBI and the CVC suggested to the MoD that the ban on STK continues. The MoD wrote back to Army HQ (Letter No 1(5)/2007/D(Proc) dated 7 July) saying that the trials stood cancelled until further orders.

Ironically, the army could benefit from this delay, which creates conditions for bringing another gun into contention: the combat-proven BAE Systems M777 ultra-light howitzer, which is currently doing battle in Afghanistan and Iraq. So far, Pegasus was the only gun in contention -- a monopoly situation explicitly discouraged in the MoD's Defence Procurement Policy of 2008 (DPP–2008). BAE Systems could not bid because the MoD refused to grant it several months for clearing Indian ammunition to be fired from M777 howitzers.

Major General AJS Sandhu, an Indian artillery expert, explains that -- since British Army M777 crews would fire Indian ammunition during the trials -- British regulations demanded that the ammunition first be 'classified', or cleared by safety experts, before the trials. And since India insisted on firing several types of ammunition during trials, classifying every one of them would take several months.

Asked to confirm, BAE Systems India President, Julian Scopes says, "In the tender for ultra-light howitzers, there were requirements in the [tender] that made it difficult for us respond in the time available. But we remain hopeful that M777 can be considered and continue to point out to the MoD that the BAE Systems M777 is the lightest 155mm howitzer in the world, in service with the US Army, US Marine Corp and Canadian Army, and the only one that is combat proven."

Defence experts are unanimous that India's artillery has deteriorated worryingly from poor procurement. In a hurry to acquire ultra-light howitzers, the MoD opted for a single vendor (STK), which offered a gun that has never seen battle. Now, with STK blacklisted, a yearlong delay seems inevitable; but that period, says General Sandhu, could allow the MoD to bring in BAE Systems, generating wider choice and competitive bidding.

The MoD has tendered for three types of guns: self-propelled guns for the mechanised forces; towed guns for divisions deployed in the plains; and ultra-light howitzers for mountainous areas. Two new mountain divisions, being raised for offensive operations on the China border, will be equipped with these guns. Constructed largely from titanium, their low weight provides tactical mobility, or the ability to quickly move around the battlefield on mountain roads and dirt tracks where heavier guns would get bogged down. Ultra-light guns can even be airlifted into inaccessible firing positions by helicopter.

Ajai Shukla in New Delhi
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