Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Modernising artillery to fight future wars

Indian soldiers demonstrate combat skills during the Army Day parade in New Delhi in January. The Army celebrated the 67th anniversary of its formation with soldiers from various regiments taking part in a parade.

AFTER a decade of neglect under the two UPA regimes, military modernisation appears to be picking up pace again under the new NDA government. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), headed by interim Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, had approved projects worth Rs 80,000 crore in October 2014. The new Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, while chairing his maiden meeting of the DAC on November 22, 2014, cleared the long-pending proposal to acquire 814 truck-mounted guns of 155 mm/ 52-calibre for approximately Rs 15,750 crore. However, the approval merely amounted to “acceptance of necessity” (AON) — the first step in the acquisition process. It will be many years before the first few regiments are equipped with these guns.

Limitations of manoeuvre

Firepower and manoeuvre are generally considered the two complementary sides of the tactics coin. During future conventional conflict on the Indian Sub-continent, large-scale manoeuvre will not be possible in the mountains due to the restrictions imposed by the difficult terrain and in the plains against Pakistan due to the need to avoid escalation to nuclear levels. Hence, India's firepower capabilities need to be enhanced by an order of magnitude, especially in terms of Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs).  This will require substantial upgradation of the firepower capabilities of India's armed forces. Ground-based firepower resources comprising artillery guns, rockets and missiles and aerially-delivered firepower consisting of fighter-bomber aircraft and attack helicopters, both must be qualitatively as well as quantitatively augmented. Similarly, sea-to-land attack capabilities must also be enhanced.

Modernisation of the artillery has been neglected for over two decades, despite the lessons learnt during the Kargil conflict of 1999, in which artillery firepower had undeniably paved the way for victory. Approximately 400 pieces of the 155 mm/39-calibre FH-77B Bofors howitzers were acquired over 25 years ago. Though India paid for the designs, the guns were never manufactured locally as commissions were alleged to have been paid and Bofors brought down a government.

Since then, no new guns or howitzers have been introduced into service. The artillery is now equipped with obsolescent weapons and equipment like the 105 mm Indian Field Gun (IFG) that needs immediate replacement. The artillery also requires large quantities of precision guided munitions (PGMs) for the destruction of hard targets such as tanks and bunkers and a potent real-time reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA) capability. And, in view of their performance in Afghanistan and Iraq, the time has come to add UCAVs armed with PGMs to the artillery's arsenal. Only then will it be possible to achieve future military objectives, including the destruction of the adversary's war machinery.

Large-scale overhaul

Under the army's Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan (FARP) formulated in 1999, the Regiment of Artillery had decided to standardise the calibre of its guns at 155 mm so as to ensure commonality of ammunition. The artillery plans to acquire a total of 2,820 guns of all types to replace obsolescent guns and to equip the new regiments that will form part of 17 Corps, the Mountain Strike Corps now under raising. The modernisation plan had been stymied by the blacklisting of some firms in the fray. One example is that of the project for the acquisition of 180 pieces of 155mm/52-caliber wheeled self-propelled (SP) guns.

The tender was cancelled after the trials were completed. The contenders included Rheinmetal Defence of Germany and Konstrukta of the Slovak Republic. Fresh tenders were issued and the proposals received are being reviewed. The primary contenders now are the Teckwin 'K-9 Thunder' of Samsung, South Korea and the Russian Rosoboronexport's tracked gun, which is an upgraded 155 mm version of the 152 mm MSTA-S SP Gun. 

The single largest artillery acquisition will be of 1,580 pieces of towed 155 mm/52-calibre guns over a period of 12 to 15 years. Of these, 400 guns are to be imported and the remaining 1,180 produced in India with transfer of technology (ToT). Over the last eight to 10 years, several request for proposals that were floated for this project were cancelled due to the corrupt practices being followed by some companies. New tenders were floated for 155 mm/52-calibre long-range guns for the plains and trials have been underway since October 2013. Trials are also reported to be in progress for 100 pieces of self-propelled guns for the desert terrain. 180 pieces of 130 mm M46 Russian guns have been upgraded to 155mm/45-caliber with kits supplied by Soltam of Israel. The maximum range of the gun has gone up from 27.5 to 39 km. Another 300 guns are proposed to be upgraded in due course. 
Taking to long to decide

The MoD is also considering the acquisition of 145 pieces of 155 mm/39-calibre M777 howitzers of the US-based MNC BAE Systems for the mountains through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route from the US in a government-to-government deal. However, the deal is reportedly stuck for want of agreement on the offsets obligations and upward revision in the price intimated to Congress by the US government from $647 million to $885 million.  Also, as India has taken too long to decide, some of the factories involved in the manufacture of various components of the M777 have begun to close down. If this acquisition falls through, the process will have to begin afresh.

Indigenous efforts to manufacture 155 mm howitzers include that by the Ordnance Factories Board to produce a 45-calibre 155 mm howitzer. This project was initially based on the designs for which Transfer of Technology (ToT) was obtained from Bofors in the 1980s, but has matured into an indigenous design during development. 

Technical trials

The DAC approved a proposal from the OFB to manufacture 144 pieces of 155 mm/45-calibre howitzers with the option to acquire another 400 provided the prototypes successfully meet the army's GSQR in user trials. The prototype of the OFB gun is undergoing technical trials. Meanwhile, the DRDO has embarked on its own venture to design and develop a 155 mm howitzer in partnership with a private sector company. The acquisition of 814 truck-mounted guns that has been approved by the Defence Minister recently will be undertaken under the “buy and make in India” category with ToT. While the first 100 guns will be imported, the remaining 714 will be produced in India. The total project cost is estimated to be Rs 15,750 crore. 

Several Indian companies are known to be interested in the indigenous design and development of modern artillery systems in conjunction with overseas partners. Bharat Forge (partner Elbit of Israel), Tata Power SED (Denel, South Africa) and L&T (Nexter, France) are likely to bid for this contract when the RfP is issued by the MoD.

Rocket launchers

Progress on the multi-barrel rocket launcher front has been better than that in the acquisition of tube artillery. A contract for the acquisition of two regiments of the 12-tube, 300 mm Smerch multi-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL) system with 90 km range was signed with Russia's Rosoboronexport in early-2006. The BrahMos supersonic cruise missile (Mach 2.8 to 3.0), with a precision strike capability, very high kill energy and maximum range of 290 km, was inducted into the army in July 2007. 

These terrain-hugging missiles are virtually immune to counter measures due to their high speed and very low radar cross section. The indigenously designed and manufactured Pinaka multi-barrel rocket system is likely to enter service in the near future. These three weapon systems together will provide a major boost to the artillery's ability to destroy key targets at long ranges. However, a surface-to-surface missile (SSM), with a range of 500-600 km, so that it can be fired from the plains on targets in Tibet, is the missing link in planning for a future war in the mountains. 

Counter-bombardment capability

The counter-bombardment capability of the Army also needs to be upgraded. At least about 40 to 50 weapon-locating radars (WLRs) are required for effective counter-bombardment, especially in the plains, but only 12 AN-TPQ 37 Firefinder WLRs have been acquired from Raytheon, USA, under a 2002 contract worth US$200 million. Defence PSU Bharat Electronics Limited is reported to be assembling 28 WLRs. 
These radars will be based primarily on indigenous components with very little import content and are likely to be approved for introduction into service after extensive trials that are ongoing. The radar is expected to match the capabilities of the Firefinder system and will have a detection range of about 40 km. 

Artillery modernisation must be given a major boost so that the Army's firepower is enhanced quickly to the levels required to ensure victory on future battlefields. In conjunction with aerially delivered firepower, the artillery is the only combat arm that can cause degradation and destruction of the adversary's combat potential and ultimately break his will to fight. 

Any further delay in the implementation of artillery modernisation plans will be extremely detrimental to national security interests. If the new projects that are now in the pipeline are pursued vigorously, artillery modernisation will once again begin to gather steam. 

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