Howitzers booming in Sikkim near the China border would normally be cause for alarm, especially after last year’s tense 73-day standoff on the Doklam plateau. But last month, it was an occasion to celebrate. Two indigenously designed, developed and manufactured (IDDM) howitzers successfully concluded high-altitude trials at the army’s firing ranges situated at 12,000 feet near the Tibetan plateau. The two gun prototypes, G1 and G2, shot hundreds of shells across the test range to meet consistency and accuracy trials. It hasn’t been an easy process, the DRDO-designed and private sector-produced guns have had to fight for development funds and protect themselves against competition from imported platforms.
A breakthrough came last November when the DRDO got the defence ministry to agree to strike down the licensed production of 1,100 imported 155 mm / 52 caliber artillery guns (155 is the width or bore of the barrel, 52 the multiple of the bore which gives the barrel length, in this case an 8-metre barrel) in favour of the ATAGS, short for Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System.
The DRDO has said that it had no objection to the army’s import of 480 towed artillery guns, a 1.8 billion dollar contract for which France’s Nexter and Israel’s Elbit are in contest. But if the guns were licence-produced, as the original contract mandated, it would endanger ATAGS. “We are following the spiral development mode for ATAGS and we will meet all the GSQRs (General Staff Qualitative Requirements) of the imported guns the army is planning to procure,” says DRDO chairman S Christopher.
On February 1, just a day after the trials in Sikkim had proved that the guns could deploy and fire in near-freezing temperatures and negotiate the sharp bends on the mountain roads, the DRDO boosted the programme by ordering six more guns worth Rs 60 crore from the manufacturers, Tata Power SED and Bharat Forge. The guns will be delivered to the army for trials by 2019.
But here’s the catch. The Rs 20,000 crore, 1,100-howitzer order is in the distant future. Getting there would need more development support in the form of more prototypes and funding. Hence, in the interim, the DRDO and private developers want the army to place orders for at least two regiments: 40 guns for Rs 900 crore to be split between its private producers. This order, developers say, will provide the impetus to create manufacturing depth in the country and two gun production lines ready to churn out 1,000 guns each by 2021. The army, on the other hand, wants the gun to meet all its requirements before it places the order. While acknowledging the gun’s huge technological strides, the army points out that it has not yet fully met the DRDO’s own services qualitative requirements (SQRs). ATAGS has to pass three main tests of weight, accuracy and the ability to fire multiple rounds in quick succession before it can be considered for even a regiment’s worth of orders.
Developers argue that the DRDO’s SQRs are actually a quantum jump over the army’s parameters for the imported towed artillery guns. ATAGS is aiming for ranges of close to 60 km, nearly double that of the first Bofors guns. It has all-electric drive as opposed to hydraulic drive, which means it can work at high altitudes without fears of the hydraulic liquid freezing.
A cavernous shed on the outskirts of Karnataka’s erstwhile gold mining district Kolar reverberates with the deep thrum of a diesel engine. Tata Power SED executives watch as the G1 prototype is put through its paces like a prized thoroughbred. The gun spins on its axis, making a black circle on the concrete floor. It then switches to electric drive – a battery operated 95 KW onboard motor to get into firing position, spread its trails and raise its barrel to a 45-degree angle.
“This gun is a true reflection of Team India,” says Rahul Chaudhry, CEO, Tata Power SED and chairman, Defence Innovators and Industry Association. “It is indigenous technology and a project in the true spirit of public-private partnership with a young team of the development agencies (ARDE, which is the DRDO’s Armament Research & Development Establishment, Tata Power SED and Bharat Forge) working together on a programme of national importance.”
Just six years ago, the ATAGS was nothing more than a mesh of CAD-CAM lines at the ARDE laboratory in Pune. The project was sanctioned by the defence ministry in September 2012. Four years later, in September 2016, two firing prototypes — Tata Power’s G1 and Bharat Forge’s G2 — made their spectacular debuts. Both prototypes shot out shells to a distance of 47 km at the Pokhran test ranges in Rajasthan. This is the distance between New Delhi and Gurugram, a world record for their class of howitzers which usually fire a shell to around 40 km. In the thin air of the mountains, its designers say, the shells can easily achieve a 25 per cent range addition. The ATAGS is a feat of frugal engineering capabilities. It was developed for a modest project cost of Rs 282 crore, sanctioned to the DRDO in 2014 (for a comparison, India’s moon mission, Chandrayaan-1, cost Rs 386 crore in 2011).
The stakes for all the key players in the ATAGS programme are enormous. For the DRDO, which has been severely criticised by the armed forces for delayed weapons development, it is a chance to deliver a world-class system in a reasonable timeframe. The programme is also a litmus test for the government’s flagging Make in India initiative-the reason it has found an enthusiastic proponent in defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
Structurally, the howitzer has changed very little in over a century. The principle remains the same-a shell is spun out through a grooved steel barrel in a high trajectory to fall on its target. The addition of modern electronics and computers-automated gun alignment and positioning systems, laser rangefinders and shells embedded with GPS systems-have made it the most cost-effective way to deliver ordnance over a 50 km range. A surface-to-surface missile like the Prithvi, for instance, costs Rs 10 crore. A single 155 mm shell weighing 50 kg costs just Rs 10 lakh. The programme promises to be a large scale industrial multiplier and job creator. Tata Power SED alone has over 40 principal partners and over 220 supply chain vendors in this project. This is where ATAGS has made its mark. Over 80 per cent of the firm’s G-1 prototype has been sourced locally (see graphic). A key indigenous breakthrough-a sophisticated high-strength barrel made by Bharat Forge using autofrettage technology-is used in both prototypes. The howitzer borrows from the proven PPP model used in the only two Indian designed, developed and manufactured (IDDM) weapons systems-the Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launcher produced by L&T and Tata Power SED, and the Akash missile produced by DRDO, Bharat Dynamics Ltd and Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL).
TAGS, which could become a third such IDDM system, comes at a time when the army’s howitzer arm is awash with new acquisitions after nearly three decades of sloth following the 1987 Bofors bribery scandal. The slowdown was surprising, given the decisive role they played during the 1999 Kargil War-even Pakistan army accounts admit that a majority of its 453 casualties were caused by Indian artillery. The role of artillery in any future Kargil-like conflict will continue to be vital. A classified section of the Lt Gen. Shekatkar committee report submitted to the defence ministry in December 2016 believes all future wars will be fought in the rugged Himalayas where all of India’s disputed boundaries with Pakistan and China are.
The Indian army’s Field Artillery Rationalisation Programme (FARP), approved in 1999, aims to equip its 169 artillery regiments (one regiment has 18 guns) with over 3,000 155 mm howitzers-towed, tracked, self-propelled, wheeled and ultra-light-by 2025. This Rs 50,000 crore plan is still decades away from realisation, but recent developments suggest it may finally be on track. In 2016 and 2017, the army signed orders for 145 ultralight howitzers from the US worth Rs 5,000 crore and 100 K-9 Vajra self-propelled 155 mm howitzers (howitzer-mounted tanks) from South Korea’s Hanwha Techwin. These guns will be manufactured in India by Larsen & Toubro and delivered by 2022.
Another indigenous option has also opened up. Six prototypes of the Ordnance Factory Board’s (OFB) ‘Dhanush’ — an Indian copy of the Bofors FH-77B howitzers, but with a 7-metre-long barrel — is under firing trials. If it passes, the OFB gets to manufacture for 19 regiments, a total of 414 guns. ATAGS’s fight for development and funding comes amidst this onrush of what the army terms ‘proven artillery systems’. At least some of the army’s indifference can be explained in the fact that the service didn’t ask for the gun to begin with. It was the DRDO which initiated the project in 2012 when it spotted an opportunity in the army’s stalled howitzer programme-no guns being made indigenously and no imports coming.
“ATAGs is a promising system, but not a fully proven concept yet. It is still five years away from entering service,” says Lt Gen. P. Ravi Shankar, former director-general, artillery. Even the OFB-made Bofors copy, the Dhanush, he points out, has its share of problems, which is why it has been in trials for over three years now.
The army has flagged several issues in ATAGS, which is why they say they are not ordering the gun yet. The gun weighs 20 tonnes, nearly 70 per cent over its 12-tonne weight limit. The weight restrictions are because most bridges in the mountainous forward areas are designed to bear 18-tonne loads. On the plains, too, the added weight can lead to mobility issues because the army’s 6×6 artillery towing trucks are designed for 12-tonne guns. Inducting ATAGS in its present form would mean more investments in heavier trucks. The imported towed artillery pieces, they point out, weigh only 15 tonnes. The weight issue, the army points out, flows from the DRDO increasing the gun chamber’s capacity-where the shell is actually ignited-from 22 litres to 25 litres. A larger chamber meant higher pressure and thus greater range but it increased the weight. It is also yet to demonstrate sustained firing “like an automatic rifle”, an army officer says. “What we now have is the gun firing in single shot mode, like a bolt-action rifle.”
Once ATAGS meets the DRDO requirements, it will begin a lengthy series of user trials under the MoD’s WE (weapons and equipment) directorate, which will be followed by a certification by the Director General Quality and Assurance and, finally, a maintenance and evaluation of the system by the army’s EME (Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers). The entire process has to be done serially and not parallelly, a reason why the army feels the ATAGS will take several more years for induction.
The developers say they plan to shave two more tonnes off the gun to bring its weight down to 18 tonnes. Besides, they say, the four-wheeled ATAGS is far more stable than the two-wheeled imported guns. The gun’s advanced capabilities like the six-round automated magazine, which can fire a six-round burst in 30 seconds, are still under development and will come in subsequent prototypes. A case of not wanting to jump the gun.
By: India Today
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