The desi version of the original Swedish 155mm Bofors howitzers, which proved its worth by wreaking havoc against Pakistani intruders during the 1999 Kargil conflict, is now all set to plug huge operational gaps in the long-range, high-volume firepower of the Army.
The defence ministry has placed an order worth over Rs 1,260-crore for acquisition of 114 of the artillery field guns developed by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), which has used the designs obtained under the transfer of technology (ToT) provisions in the infamous Rs 1,437-crore Bofors contract of 1986 to develop the new guns.
The order is in tune with defence minister A K Antony's latest directive, issued in the aftermath of the bribery controversy in the VVIP helicopters' contract, for a greater thrust on indigenization to avoid scams.
It will also serve to "exorcise" the almost three-decade-old Bofors ghost - which in later years got reinforced by scandals around other global artillery manufacturers like South African Denel, Israeli Soltam and Singapore Technology Kinetics (STK) - to ensure the Army failed to induct even a single 155mm howitzer since the mid-1980s.
Under the original Bofors contract, India had obtained ToT to indigenously manufacture the howitzers after inducting 410 guns but the ensuing scandal, which had led to the fall of the Rajiv Gandhi government, had put paid to all such plans.
"Now, the OFB has worked on the original drawings and electronically upgraded the guns to 45-calibre from the original 39-calibre. The new howitzers have a 38-km range compared to the 30-km of the Bofors gun," said an official.
OFB has developed two prototypes of the 155mm\45-calibre guns, one with 68% indigenous parts and the other with 46%, that have been "satisfactorily tested in validation firings" in Pokran and Balasore over the last five months.
The "letter of intent" for the 114 howitzers was placed on the OFB "a couple of days ago" to ensure it can begin bulk production after the "user-trials" in June.
The Army has projected an initial requirement for 414 of these guns, each of which will cost over Rs 11 crore, as part of its long-delayed artillery modernization programme.
Interestingly, the other artillery project on the verge of being inked — the $647 million contract for acquisition of 145 M-777 ultra-light howitzers (ULH) from the US - also has a strong Bofors angle.
Though the ULH deal will be a direct government-to-government deal, which is said to preclude kickbacks, the 155mm\39-calibre M-777s are manufactured by BAE Systems, which now owns the original Bofors firm.
"It should be signed by April-May. An Indian `maintainability evaluation team' visited the US from February 8 to 25 to examine the howitzers," said the official. The air-mobile howitzers, capable of being swiftly deployed in forward areas by helicopters and aircraft, are primarily meant for the high-altitude areas of Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh to counter China.
The other 155mm\52-calibre artillery projects, in the overall Rs 30,000 crore artillery modernization plan, include the purchase of 100 self-propelled tracked guns from a foreign vendor and the development of 814 mounted gun systems through a joint venture with the private sector.
But the biggest one is the over Rs 12,000-crore project to buy 400 towed artillery guns, followed by indigenous manufacture of another 1,180 such guns after transfer of technology from the foreign vendor. This project has been derailed at least a couple of times in the past, the last time after STK was blacklisted due to the corruption scandal against former OFB chairman Sudipto Ghosh.
Times of India