With the international procurement of the 155-mm towed gun for the Indian Army dogged by controversy and failure, India’s Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) has made the potentially game-changing decision to jump into the fray. The DRDO’s most productive laboratory, the Armament Research & Development Establishment (ARDE) in Pune, could soon become the hub for developing an indigenous 155-mm towed gun, with the DRDO partnering private industry giants such as Bharat Forge and Larsen & Toubro.
A DRDO project to produce a 155-mm towed gun indigenously would introduce an Indian consortium into a jinxed procurement confined to foreign vendors, many attended by controversy. Today, defence minister A K Antony informed Parliament that the Central Bureau of Investigation had recommended the blacklisting of four companies that had been involved, at various stages of this procurement: Singapore Technologies Kinetics (STK); Germany’s Rheinmetall; Israel Military Industries (IMI); and another Israeli company, Soltam. Denel, a South African company, had been blacklisted earlier; and the only other gun on offer, the BAE Systems FH-77B-05 howitzer, is a modernised version of the controversial Bofors gun.
In these circumstances, say MoD sources, an indigenous 155-mm gun could be a politically palatable choice. Anil Datar, the ARDE Director, told Business Standard, “Within the DRDO, we are discussing how to develop a 155-mm gun. We can make it, no problem, with the help of Indian industry. A 155mm gun requires high-class manufacturing; we have Bharat Forge and L&T in and around Pune, which are keen to join us.”
While the ARDE — the DRDO’s facility for developing small arms, guns, howitzers, and rockets — has worked on gun technology earlier, now the army appears to have also concluded that indigenous development might be a faster route than international procurement.
The DRDO spokesperson in New Delhi, Ravi Gupta, confirmed to the Business Standard, “The DRDO is very keen to develop 155-mm guns for the army. We had formed a team to work on this more than a decade ago, but the army did not give us a firm requirement then. Now, the army has expressed interest in the 155-mm gun project and preliminary work has already begun.”
The selection of a 155-mm towed gun has dragged on for eight years without result. On Friday, the MoD cancelled army trials of two guns — the Singapore Technologies Kinetics (STK) IFH-2000; and the BAE Systems FH-77B-05 — after the CBI’s announcement about STK left only the Bofors gun in contention. MoD insiders say it was impossible to select that gun on a single-vendor basis.
The contract, worth an estimated Rs 8,000 crore, envisages buying 400 towed guns off the shelf and building 1,180 in India from transferred technology.
Highlighting the ARDE’s experience in guns and artillery systems, Datar says: “The army is currently inducting our Pinaka multi-barrelled rocket launcher, a world-class system. Our 120-mm gun for the Arjun tank has outperformed the T-90 gun in army trials. In 1972, ARDE developed the 105mm Indian Field Gun (IFG), which was a mainstay of the Army’s field artillery. We assisted with up-gunning the army’s 130mm gun to 155-mm. And, ARDE produced a heavy 185-mm gun, but that never entered service because the army was not interested then.”
Datar claims ARDE — given adequate support from the private sector, and from the DRDO network of 50-odd laboratories — could develop a world-class 155-mm gun within three to three and a half years. The Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory, in Hyderabad, would develop special alloys and materials for the gun. Ammunition would be tested at the Proof and Experimental Establishment at Balasore, Orissa. Warheads would be tested at the Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory, Chandigarh.
The ARDE is one of DRDO’s star laboratories, having developed over 200 items that are in service with the military today. With just one per cent of DRDO’s total budget and five per cent of the DRDO’s manpower (1,300 persons, including 220 scientists and 250 technical officers), the ARDE has developed 70 per cent of the equipment that the Ordnance Factories have manufactured for the military.