In the summer of 1999, the Indian Army detected major infiltration of hostile forces into its sovereign territory along the northern reaches of the inhospitable Kargil sector of Jammu and Kashmir. What the Army initially thought was, only to be an isolated insurgency incident, soon turtled towards a full blown conflict with its troubled neighbour – Pakistan.
Over the course of several days, the Pakistani Army had succeeded in inserting several well-armed troops along the strategic heights situated in the Kargil sector, which overlooked the crucial National Highway – 1 Alpha (NH-1A). Having entranced themselves along these mountain ranges, the Pakistani troops sat close enough to bombard NH-1A with direct artillery fire. Any incident along NH-1A, the lone feeder line for the Siachen theatre, threatened to cut-off essential supplies to forward deployed Indian troops, effectively bleeding them in the inhospitable battlefield.
The Indian Army soon prepared ground for launching a full-blown assault on these ranges in an effort to recapture them and rout the hostile forces. But before the ground forces could scale the rocky mountain faces, it was critical that the enemy positions situated in the higher reaches be neutralized, in an effort to reduce the causality rates.
As the inhospitable weather and the operational environment in the Kargil sector played dampers upon the Air Force’s CAS (Close Air Support) plans, the Army rolled in its state-of-the-art Bofors howitzers and rocket launchers into positions overlooking the captured heights. Firing high-intensity guided ammunitions; the Bofors soon wrecked havoc over the mountains and thus effectively softened up the area for a ground assault. Providing sustained firepower and effectively neutralizing enemy strongholds, the gunners thereby won the day for the country.
Following the Kargil conflict, the Indian Army treaded on a path of rapid modernization, even as hostilities with its neighbours grew exponentially. At the centre stage of this modernization program was the Army’s push to strengthen its Artillery arm by inducting several state-of-the-art guns, rockets, missiles and drones, which following their induction promised the army with unmatched firepower.
Ever since, the importance of the Artillery has only grown in the ever evolving complex network-centric battlefield. With capabilities of providing sustained firepower, the artillery arm can pulverize enemy locations effectively degrading the war waging capabilities of the enemy. In a combined battlefield scenario, this exponentially eases the task of the forward deployed ground assault troops.
Artillery has traditionally been tasked with surveillance, target acquisition, target degradation and also post damage assessment missions. The artillery, thus, not only helps in degradation of the battlefield; but also effectively helps in attaining unmatched battlefield transparency.
There is no greater time that calls for the modernization of the Artillery than the present scenario, where India’s hostilities with its neighbours are spreading higher and deeper into the mountain ranges. With conflicts in the future, which the Army expects to be swift yet intense, expected to be fought based on offensive and punitive firepower, the importance of the artillery has only been redeemed further.
Even though more than a decade and a half has passed since the Kargil episode, little has changed on the ground for the India Army’s second largest arm – the Artillery. The artillery arm, which is largely composed around the field, self-propelled, light and medium gun regiments, has failed to induct a single piece of howitzer or a field gun for the past three decades. To date, in any artillery aided offensive operation, it is these field guns and howitzers which form the core business end. Packed with unmatched firepower and through their capabilities of providing sustained precision strikes, these guns are crucial to break the back of the enemy.
A close look into the howitzers and the guns of the Artillery Regiment, revels that the arm is being haunted by critical shortage of these basic war waging and sustaining equipment. This short fall comes even as the Army works rigorously in lieu with all quarters of the Government to work around these short fallings.
Obsolete guns, which are no longer capable of operating in the complex terrain and network-centric environment; have effectively left the regiment toothless. While the crucial medium regiment, which is in-charge of inflicting strikes deep into enemy territory, is composed around the Bofors howitzers, which are themselves hurtling towards their imminent retirement, the situation is more alarming with the field and self-propelled regiments.
While the Field regiment is equipped with the obsolete 105mm Indian Field Gun and 122-mm Field howitzers, the self-propelled regiment has been left to grapple with the 130-mm catapult howitzer. The Light Regiment, which stands guard along the fronts, is also being haunted by the decrepit mortars in its ranks.
These crucial equipment, which were inducted in the late 1980’s, have all well surpassed their shelf life. Army’s repetitive failure with successive procurement programs has literally bled the artillery arm off its battlefield supremacy. Several retired gunners credit this alarming situation to the missing procurement roadmap, the somewhat unrealistic requirements of the user, the Bofors ghost, which is a by-product of the infamous Bofors Scandal and last but not the least the missing political will of the successive governments. Successive modernization programs mounted by the Army have only been fable of.
The situation relatively brightens with the rocket and missile regiment of the artillery arm. While the induction of the indigenously manufactured 214-mm Pinaka rockets and the 300-mm Smerch rockets into the regiment has given a glimmer of hope for the Artillery arm, the induction of the deadly BrahMos cruise missiles into the ranks of the Missile regiment promises to regain some lost ground.
Since the onset of the millennium, the Army has actively pursued the modernization of its field guns under the Field Artillery Rationalization Program (FARP), an ambitious up gradation program pegged at upwards of INR 50,000 crore. Under FARP, the army is planning to acquire at least 2820 howitzers, making it one of the single largest armed forces modernization program ever pursued.
In FARP, a bulk of the procurement would be under the ‘towed artillery gun’ system categories, which are essential force multipliers in the plains and the foothills, where a large part of India’s conflicts have been fought. The Army has set course for procuring at least 1,510 towed guns under the ‘Buy and Make’ category. This massive requirement arose almost three decades ago, following the scuttling of the Bofors deal mid-way, after corruption charges arose even as the deal for 1,500+ guns was being executed by the OEM.
The Army has unsuccessfully floated tenders for this program on at least three different occasions. While the first tender floated in 2001 was scuttled in 2007, following the undesirable performance of weapon systems on offer, the 2008 tender was withdrawn mid-way after the MoD ran into a single vendor scenario. The latest tender which was floated in 2011 has also made little headway. Even though French based Nexter in partnership with L&T and Israel-based Soltam System (a subsidiary of Elbit) in partnership with Bharat Forge have offered their guns, decision in concluding the tender has not been forthcoming. Britain-based BAE systems’ decision to withdraw its FH77-BW-L52 gun and the blacklisting of several global manufacturers including Soltam systems has left the tender in an abyss.
Of the 1,510 guns, the army had initially planned to procure at least 400 systems off-the-shelf, while the remaining 1, 4000 guns would have been manufactured locally in India. This decision of the Army is however now being reviewed by the ministry. Any changes at this stage will delay the conclusion of the tender further.
Through this entire muddle, the Army has however received a glimmer of hope from an Indian consortium, which for the maiden time consists of both DRDO and the country’s untapped private sector. DRDO working in partnership with Tata SED and Bharat Forge has successfully developed a 155mm/52-cal towed gun systems, which has currently been cherished the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS). The prototypes of the indigenously manufactured gun, which are undergoing trials, have successfully set several world records, thus proving the prowess of the system. Several officers who have witnessed the gun in action remain optimistic about the gun beating its global contemporaries with a healthy margin.
Another indigenous product that is surging forward from the stables of OFB (Ordnance Factory Board) is the Dhanush 155mm/45-cal towed gun system. Having been designed around the proven Bofors howitzers, these guns are being projected as a replacement to the field units as well as the Bofors themselves. After extensive trials and following multiple design modifications, the Dhanush is on the verge of being inducted into the Artillery arm. OFB – Jabalpur, which is producing these guns, has already received a confirmed order for 114 of these guns. Well informed sources with the OFB have indicated that the Army is currently contemplating of ordering at least 400 more Dhanush howitzers. The successful development and induction of these indigenous products is expected to turn around the tables of the Artillery arm on the ever fluid battlefield.
Besides these mega tenders for the towed gun systems, the army is also actively pursuing a program for inducting guns under the Mounted Gun System (MGS) category. In this configuration, a 155mm howitzer will be mounted on to a highly mobile and independent platform. Having shorter turning radius than the towed guns, these systems are crucial in the mountains, where manoeuvrability is extremely difficult. Being independent platforms, these systems also have a high-level of autonomy and shoot-and-scout capability.
The Army has drawn up plans to acquire 814 of these systems, in which 100 will be acquired off-the-shelf, with the remaining 714 being manufactured in India. DAC’s approvals for this tender was accorded in 2014 and ever since the Army is known to have been in conversation with the several global OEMs.
For the INR 15,000+ crore tender, the BAE system and Mahindra and Mahindra consortium fielded FH-77 BW L52 Archer system is competing with Nexter and L&T fielded Ceaser gun. Indian giant Tata SED has also jumped into the fray with its own system, which the company claims to feature close to 52% of indigenous components. Bharat Forge is also expected compete for the tender with a system that will derived from Soltam Systems. With the current catapult systems being rapidly outdated from the battlefield, it imperative that the Government pushes ahead with this tender.
The recent successful conclusion of the multi-million dollar tenders for acquiring tracked self-propelled howitzers with Hanwa TechWin and L&T for 100 K-9 Vajra and with BAE system for 145 M777 Ultra-Light Howitzers (ULH) are promising to induce some much awaited life into the artillery arm. While the Vajra will go on to aid the strike formations of the Mechanized Forces (MF), the M777 ULH will arm the mountain strike corps being raised along the Northern and Eastern theatres. Both these systems are expected to join the arm by 2021.
For the effective operation of these filed units, the most important factor is battlefield transparency, which can be acquired only through sustained surveillance and reconnaissance missions. In charge of this crucial role is the Artillery’s SATA (Surveillance And Target Acquisition) regiment. Armed with UAVs and Radar systems, the SATA units have been proving their effectiveness on the battlefield for decades.
The current long range capabilities of the SATA units are composed around the MALE (Medium Altitude Long Range) and Heron drones. For shorter range missions, the arm is operating the imported Search series of UAVs and also the indigenously manufactured Nishant UAV systems. The dismal state of the Aviation Corps calls for urgent up-gradation of the UAV fleet. Also, there is an on-going debate about arming these units with UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) in the future.
Another sector of the SATA units that is calling for fastened procurement is the Radar technology. It is these ultra-modern systems that help in detecting and also in guiding the shells on to an enemy location. While the Artillery is operating the Israeli-origin Medium Range Battlefield Surveillance Radars (MRBFSR) for battlefield surveillance, the US-origin ANTQP-37 Radars coupled with the indigenously designed Swati system are deployed in WLR (Weapon Locating Radar) role. Increased push of the enemy deeper and higher into the mountains is necessitating the rapid induction these systems to effectively guide the ammunitions with pin-point accuracy.
Army’s push for Network Centric Warfare (NCW) has mandated the fusion of technology with field assets. As the Army steadily surges towards realizing the C4I2 doctrine, it is crucial that the Artillery is also equipped with state-of-the-art combat effective communications and control system. The Artillery is currently being equipped with the Shakti Artillery Combat Command and Control System (ACCS), which has been indigenously designed by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL).
The addition of these systems will gradually increase the capability of the Arm to rapidly acquire process and disseminate battlefield information, which in turn will promise the arm with capabilities to deliver crushing blows. It also provides the Artillery with a system to automate and integrate artillery functions, which will provide the Commanders with unmatched decision support at all levels.
As India’s conflicts actively treads towards the treacherous mountainous terrain it is critical that the country’s armed forces are equipped with a combat-ready force that can inflict punitive strike against enemies with pin-point precision. It is thus imperative that the Artillery, which has for years provided the country’s ground-based troops with reliable fire support, is upgraded and armed to meet the growing operational requirements at both the tactical and operational levels.