New Delhi: With increasing tension along two fronts and the ongoing Sino-Indian border issue simmering in Eastern Ladakh for almost one and a half years despite several rounds of talks, the Army says it needs a robust and reliable artillery and the modernisation is indeed having hiccups.
“We are looking at mounted gun systems. Especially in mountain terrain, it will give advantage in getting in and out of action,” Director General of Artillery, Lt Gen T. K. Chawla told the media on the eve of Gunners’ Day, which marks the anniversary of the raising of the oldest Indian Mountain Battery (5th Bombay Mountain Battery).
On the challenges facing the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), and Dhanush, known as the ‘desi Bofors’, he emphasised the importance of indigenous defence manufacturing.
As mounted guns can be deployed in a variety of terrain — plains, mountains, high-altitude, desert and semi-desert regions, the Army had issued a Request for Information for more than 800 such guns earlier this year. India had also ordered 145 ultra-light M777 howitzer towed guns for nearly $750 million in 2016.
These guns would be part of seven regiments, and three of them are already operational. More than half of the ordered guns have been delivered, he said, adding that a fourth regiment is being raised. The 155-mm artillery piece is being deployed along the Line of Actual Control, Lt Gen Chawla said.
“They give that extra advantage of mobility due to their weight,” he said adding that “the training is going on in moving guns from one sector to another with the Chinook helicopters”.
However, there are still issues to be sorted as regards the DRDO developed Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) as also the 45 caliber Dhanush howitzer, being manufactured by the Ordnance Factory Board.
“There are few teething issues which they need to iron out. But it is good work in progress. As long as they are able to iron out those issues, we can go down to some confidence firing, that is what has been agreed to with OFB,” Lt Gen Chawla said. He asserted that, “very recently had a very fruitful and constructive” discussions with OFB and mentioned that “we as the user are looking forward to it fructifying sooner than later”.
On the ATAGS, Lt Gen Chawla said firing trials were carried out in July and August in Pokhran. While “some parameters were achieved, some needed further improvement”. DRDO is working with its development partners, he said, in order to achieve these firing and non-firing parameters.
“We have informed the DRDO and they have agreed to work on it. We are looking at a robust gun, reliable gun which can fire accurately, consistently and reliably. I am very optimistic in the case of ATAGS. The DRDO will work towards overcoming what could not be achieved at Pokhran,” he said.
In case of the artillery, the DG Artillery said “a lot of handholding has been done by the Army, both for ATAGS and Dhanush”. He said, “I had a detailed discussion last week with the OFB and ARDE (Armament Research and Development Establishment)” of the DRDO.
Speaking about another indigenously designed system, the Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launcher, Chawla said four regiments have already been operationalised, and six more have been ordered.
The problem of having an indigenous gun for Artillery continues even twenty-two years after the Army finalised the Field Artillery Rationalisation Programme (FARP), under which a mix of around 3,000-3,600 howitzers were to be procured by 2025-27 with both major indigenous programmes having failed to fire off fully.
The more important of the two projects is ATAGS, being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) along with private firms Bharat Forge and TATA Power SED.
“A lot of handholding has been done by the Army, both for ATAGS and Dhanush. I had a detailed discussion last week with the OFB (Ordnance Factory Board) and ARDE (Armament Research and Development Establishment of DRDO),” said Lt Gen. Chawla. “We have mutually come to agree on where the requirement is.”
The Army, he added, wants both the programmes to succeed. “We want them to succeed, we are part of their success,” he said.
Explaining the issues dogging the programmes, Lt Gen. Chawla said the summer fire trial this year of the ATAGS had failed to achieve certain parameters and would undergo further modification. He said it is “difficult” to give a timeline for possible induction of the ATAGS into the Army.
“We did try them (ATAGS) out in the summer of Pokhran. There are a few issues. We have informed the DRDO and they have agreed to work on it. We are looking at a robust gun, reliable gun which can fire accurately and reliably,” he said.
While ATAGS is facing trouble in the design and development stage, the Army has flagged the production quality of Dhanush — of which the Army had ordered 114 in 2019. The induction of Dhanush started in April 2019. Between then and the beginning of June this year, only 12 of the long-range artillery guns had been delivered. This is far below the 18 guns required to make a full regiment.
“Very recently, I had a fruitful and constructive engagement with the production-level officials. There are a few teething issues which they need to iron out. It is good work in progress,” Lt Gen. Chawla said.
He said that, of all the plans, the one for K9 Vajra howitzers, manufactured by L&T in collaboration with a South Korean firm, has been completed. He ruled out the Army looking at ordering more M-777s, adding that three regiments of the howitzers have been deployed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).