With artillery having killed more soldiers during the last century than any other battlefield weapon, the decade-plus delay in equipping the Indian Army with modern artillery guns is widely considered a major procurement lapse.
The stop-start-stop process of buying 1,580 towed guns for the Indian Army will effectively restart on Monday when a C-130 Hercules aircraft lands in New Delhi, carrying a 155-millimetre artillery gun for trials this summer.
This gun, the Indian Field Howitzer-2000 (IFH-2000), developed by Singapore Technologies Kinetics, or STK, is competing for the Indian tender with British company BAE Systems' FH-77B-05, a derivative of the controversial and respected Bofors gun. The lower-profile IFH-2000 is the world's first 155mm 52-calibre howitzer, which the Singapore Armed Forces have used for over a decade.
A 52-calibre howitzer fires heavier shells than older, 39-calibre and 45-calibre guns, inflicting greater punishment on the target. The Indian tender for towed guns specifies that only 52-calibre guns will be evaluated.
Trials for procuring 155 mm, 52-calibre towed guns began in summer 2002, when the Ministry of Defence began evaluating three guns from BAE Systems; Israeli firm, Soltam; and South African company, Denel. Five rounds of trials, conducted in 2002; 2003; 2004; and 2006; reached no conclusion. Denel was blacklisted for corruption in September 2005; the other two guns did not meet the army's standards.
The trials remain dogged by controversy even after a fresh tender was issued in 2008. Last year, one of the two contenders, STK, was unofficially blacklisted for corruption after the arrest of former Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) chief Sudipta Ghosh. But CBI investigations have made no apparent headway in the past year; not even a charge-sheet has been filed against Sudipta Ghosh. Now, STK has been asked to field its gun for trials.
STK plans to start preparing for the impending trials by practising firing at the Pokhran ranges using Indian ammunition and a crack gun crew of seven former Indian Army artillerymen, recruited by STK's Indian partner, Punj Lloyd Ltd.
The BAE Systems gun, too, is in India, having been brought for the Defence Expo in February and for trials scheduled immediately after that. But those trials were postponed when the IFH-2000 was damaged in Singapore while being loaded into an aircraft for despatch to India.
"Punj Lloyd is STK's Indian partner for the 155 mm gun," explains Patrick Choy, STK's international marketing chief. "STK will rely on them for logistics and engineering support during the trials; and if STK is awarded the contract, we will manufacture a substantial part of the gun at Punj Lloyd's facilities near Gwalior."
STK's rival in this tender, BAE Systems, has a similar arrangement with its Indian partner, Mahindra & Mahindra. These two companies have formed an Indian joint venture, Defence Land Systems, with Rs 100 crore equity held on a 74-26 per cent basis between Mahindra & Mahindra and BAE Systems.
At stake in the forthcoming trials is an order, worth $1.8 billion (about Rs 8,000 crore), for the outright supply of 400 towed guns; and the licensed production in India of another 1,180 guns. If the MoD imposes even the minimum offset requirement of 30 per cent, that would translate into $540 million (about Rs 2,400 crore) worth of manufacture within India.
STK and BAE Systems are also vying for a $700-million (over Rs 3,100 crore) contract for 140 ultralight howitzers (ULHs) for Indian mountain divisions.
Two more artillery purchases are simultaneously in the works: A $800 million (Rs 3,500 crore) order for 100 medium guns, mounted in tracked vehicles, for self-propelled (SP) medium regiments that go into battle with India's strike corps. Another $900 million (Rs 4,000 crore) will buy 180 vehicle-mounted guns for more SP regiments.
The stakes are high for everyone involved. For BAE Systems, this is an opportunity to bury the stigma of the Bofors scandal; for STK, this is a golden opening into the lucrative Indian market; and for the Indian Army, desperately short of artillery firepower, this is a chance to fill a gaping operational void.