This was the first time that Parrikar was chairing a meeting of the defence acquisitions council (DAC) since taking over the office from Arun Jaitley.
Defence ministry officials touted the decision to purchase the mounted artillery pieces as a “breaking of the jinx” on heavy guns since the Bofors were last inducted in 1987 and embroiled the then Rajiv Gandhi government in a row over kickbacks.
In truth, today’s decision merely gives a nod to re-tender for the guns for the fifth time. The mounted guns — cannons of the 155mm/52cal category mounted on the chassis of a 6 X 6 or 8 X 8 wheeled trucks — are part of a field artillery rationalisation plan (Farp) that goes back 15 years to 1999.
That year, the Indian Army’s shortage of heavy artillery told heavily on its firepower during the Kargil war. After reviews of its performance, the army decided to standardise the 155mm/52cal gun for all its 220 artillery regiments. Even now, the artillery firepower is non-standardised, with the regiments using guns of 105mm, 120mm and 130mm apart from the outdated Bofors FH77B 155mm/39cal heavy guns.
The army decided to procure the guns in four different categories — wheeled, tracked, self-propelled and mounted. In all, the army estimated it would need between 3,000 and 4,000 guns. The mounted guns would arm 40 of the 220 artillery regiments.
Fifteen years and three successive governments later, the army has not been able to add a single big gun for a combination of technical and political reasons. The technical reasons concerned the emergence of non-competitive single-vendor situations because of the blacklisting of foreign companies after allegations of malpractice. The political one concerned the inability of governments to outgrow the shadow of Bofors.
Today’s decision concerns only one of the four categories. The DAC approved the “acceptance of necessity” to buy 814 mounted gun systems, 100 “off-the-shelf” and 714 from an Indian firm that would be entering into a joint venture with a foreign original equipment manufacturer (OEM).
The ministry has not decided what it would do if the selected gun was from companies that have been tainted by allegations of corruption and have been “blacklisted” or barred from doing business with the Indian armed forces.
The questions will surely arise even after tailoring the procurement to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “make in India” campaign. The DAC categorised the procurement under “buy and make Indian”.
It expects that Indian firms or entities will tie up with foreign firms. Such tie-ups already exist though they may or may not have been formalised yet.
Among the possible winners of the contract after technical and financial bids are examined are:
Tata Power Strategic Electronics Division that has a tie-up with South Africa’s Denel for a variant of its G6 gun mounted on a Tata Motors truck. Denel of South Africa was blacklisted in the UPA regime after allegations that it had attempted to bribe officials in an ordnance factory project to make bi-modular charges (ammunition) for heavy guns
Kalyani Group’s Bharat Forge that has a tie-up with Israeli firm Elbit Systems for a version of its Atmos 2000 gun. Israeli firm Soltam that was contracted to upgrade the Indian Army’s 130mm guns is now a part of Elbit. Soltam’s contract was suspended midway after allegations that it had bribed officials.
Sweden’s Archer, mounted gun system seen in action in Afghanistan with western armies, is a variant of the FH77B Bofors that was contracted in the 1980s and embroiled the Rajiv Gandhi government in a kickbacks row.
Larsen and Toubro has a tie-up with the French Caesar Nexter. The gun has also been seen in action in Afghanistan. L&T has exhibited the gun mounted on an Ashok Leyland Super Stallion truck chassis.
Ordnance Factory Board/Bharat Electronics: The OFB has demonstrated the “Dhanush”, the “Desi Bofors” in trials with the army. It is introducing a variant of the mounted Dhanush.
The Nora gun, made by the Military Technical Institute of Serbia in Belgrade. An Indian partner is not yet known.
Punj Lloyd, that has a tie-up with Singapore Technology Kinetics. ST Kinetics was also blacklisted after investigations were opened into allegations that it had bribed the head of the Ordnance Factory Board, Sudipto Ghosh, who was arrested.
Defence ministry sources said the DAC also approved phase two of an Indian Air Force command and control system programme. The second phase to link up all island territories with the command and control system at the centre would cost about Rs 7,160 crore. The system is being executed by defence public sector Bharat Electronics.
The sources said Parrikar had deferred decisions on a Tata-Airbus proposal to make 56 light transport aircraft to replace the IAF’s Avros. Tata-Airbus had emerged as a single-vendor.
The defence ministry has to take a call on the IAF’s requirement for more Swiss-origin Pilatus trainer aircraft after defence public sector Hindustan Aeronautics offered to make trainer aircraft (HTT-40) on its own.
-The Telegraph, Calcutta