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BOOM! BOOM! Army gets big boost

By Ajai Shukla
February 22, 2019 08:54 IST
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'After decades, there is movement on multiple fronts in artillery development. Now let us see how quickly we can get these guns into service.'
Ajai Shukla reports.

IMAGE: The K9 VAJRA-T, a tracked self-propelled howitzer, which has its roots in the K9 Thunder, the mainstay of the South Korean army, was displayed at this year's Republic Day parade. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

For the third year running, new artillery guns have featured in the Republic Day parade, signalling that the army's debilitating shortfall of modern artillery guns -- the most effective battlefield weapon since the American civil war -- could soon be alleviated.

The parade saw the debut of two new artillery guns.

One is the Korean-origin K-9 Thunder self-propelled gun, a 155 millimetre, 52-calibre gun that Larsen & Toubro is building under licence in its Talegaon plant, near Pune.

These guns are mounted on tracked vehicles to keep pace with fast-moving tanks of the strike corps, providing uninterrupted fire support even as armoured spearheads move deep into enemy territory.

Just 100 K-9 Thunder guns are on order, enough only for one Indian strike corps.

With three Indian strike corps awaiting modern self-propelled guns; the order to L&T could well be trebled.

Also making its Republic Day debut this year was the M777 ultralight howitzer -- a 155 mm, 39 calibre gun, built largely of titanium, that is light and manoeuvrable enough for the mountain borders.

BAE Systems has an order for 145 M777 guns, but, given the need to equip four recently raised mountain divisions, this order too could be doubled or more.

 

Meanwhile, the army's most crucial new gun -- the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System -- made its debut in the 2017 parade.

The army could eventually induct over 1,500 of these powerful, 155 mm, 52 calibre towed guns, to replace the old, lighter, shorter-range, less destructive 130 mm and 105 mm guns that has largely comprised the army's arsenal for several decades.

For now, however, the ministry of defence has ordered just 10 ATAGS howitzers, shared between the two firms developing the gun -- Kalyani Group and Tata Power SED.

The MoD has cleared an initial order for 150 guns, subject to successful trials.

The lowest bidder will get to build 107 guns, while the more expensive bidder will build the remaining 43.

Using this order as a springboard into artillery production, the Pune-based Kalyani group has invested Rs 500 crore to Rs 600 crore (Rs 5 billion to Rs 6 billion) into gun fabrication facilities.

Group Chairman Baba Kalyani, who had earlier bought and transported to Pune an entire factory from Austrian gun-manufacturer, RUAG, told this correspondent he has recently bought another facility from the UK.

"We have completed the acquisition of a BAE Systems facility in Barrow-in-Furness, UK, which is a submarine and artillery plant," says Kalyani.

Kalyani, who makes no secret of his ambition to be the Krupp of India, has tasked his engineers to build various guns in order to develop design and fabrication skills.

Besides the on-going ATAGS project, the Kalyani Group has already developed six other types of guns.

"These include two 155 mm guns -- called the Bharat-52 and Bharat-45. We have also mounted a lighter 105 mm gun on a truck. We have built three ultralight howitzers -- one of titanium, another called the Hawkeye ULH, and finally a 155 mm, 39 calibre, all-steel ULH," says Kalyani.

One of these came after Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat, on a visit to the Kalyani group, wondered whether it would be feasible to mount the all-steel ULH on a truck, for mobility in mountainous terrain.

Kalyani says he has met General Rawat's request by integrating a 6.8-tonne, all-steel ULH onto a 7.5-tonne Ashok Leyland carrier.

By March, it will be offered to the army and could go into testing.

The Kalyani group is also pitching in the ULH segment, having developed an all-titanium ULH that, at 4.8 tonnes, is only marginally heavier than the 4.5-tonne M777. Kalyani says this gun would become lighter as development proceeds.

Both the Kalyani group and Tata Power SED officials complain the Rs 15 crore (Rs 150 million) the MoD is paying for each ATAGS will not even cover manufacturing costs.

But they remain in the project in the expectation of large orders ahead.

Meanwhile, the MoD is paying the OFB more generously -- Rs 14 crore (Rs 140 million) for each 155 mm, 45 calibre Dhanush howitzers it is manufacturing -- even though that gun is smaller and less complex than the ATAGS.

The OFB developed the Dhanush from the technology blueprints provided by Bofors in 1986, and is now building 114 guns for the Army.

"After decades, there is movement on multiple fronts in artillery development. Now let us see how quickly we can get these guns into service," says a senior army planner who deals with equipment induction.

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Ajai Shukla
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