Army Can Forget About New Towed Artillery

The government's decision to re-tender the towed artillery competition (450 guns) has come as a deep shock to the Army, notwithstanding indications from the government that it was the Army that had found the trials unsatisfactory and unsuccessful and recommended a re-tender. The Army has never asked for a re-tendered competition ever for any weapon system. Fresh rounds of trials have always been the recourse, but not a completely fresh competition. With the government's decision to re-tender, the purchase procedure for 400 guns to arm about five regiments gets pushed back by another three-four years. To put that in perspective, this competition began in February 2002.

Anyway, the Army's broad parameters for the guns were that they should be fully automated, easy and quick to deploy and re-deploy (gun-and-run capability), easy and quick to fire, armed with a fully automated sight and with an onboard ballistic computer for system accuracy and consistency.

After two rounds of trials in 2002 and 2003, the blackballing of South African firm Denel and the elimination of two other firms, the Soltam 155-mm ATHOS 2052 towed gun and the Bofors FH77 B05 L52 were downselected for the third round of trials in late 2004. The parameters that the two guns were tested under included mobility, firing range, firing accuracy and consistency, sustained fire and burst fire, maintenance tests and environmental tests. They were called back for an unprecedented fourth round of trials in 2006, this time the trials took place in November in Mahajan Field Firing Range (MFFR) and Leh.

I have personally seen the 2006 trial report (the MFFR part) and the 2004 trial report, and in both, the Bofors gun notched up better scores. The propaganda ran thick. What would happen if Bofors got the deal? Would a Congress-led government really be stupid enough to think that it can hand a defence deal to Bofors again? Who cares whether the selection process was fair or not? So what if the Bofors gun is technologically superior to the other competitors? These were questions that were doing the busy rounds last year.

Army chief General JJ Singh assured some of us reporters on the sidelines of a press conference about seven months ago that the artillery deal would shortly be concluded and that the last round of trials had been "conclusive". He didn't however say if there would be another round of trials. He was echoing what the Army's Directorate of Weapons & Equipment (DW&E) had reasonably concluded after four rounds of trials -- that while both guns had certain problems, the Bofors one was much simpler to iron out and came closest to set down staff requirements. The Army chief was apprised of this and was therefore clear that the Army's decision would be taken up by the government.

Obviously the government cannot now say that it has decided to call of the deal because of any other reason except the Army's dissatisfaction. Did the Army change its mind at the last minute? Possible, but highly unlikely. Maybe it's really not that complicated at all. Maybe it's just a sound government well aware that the Bofors scam of 1980s will never lose its vitality. Why give anyone another? Maybe the government simply told the Army that its findings were "unacceptable" and that things needed to be reworked.

What about the Israel factor? It's all a bit neat. Soltam has much to gain from the re-tendering, as it does the new healthy India-Israel dynamic. Will the new deal really be fair? Maybe the UPA government will be bundled out of office by the time the new tender is concluded. Maybe by that time it'll have to explain the the huge waste of the Army's time for nothing. Meanwhile, the Army can neatly fold the artillery rationalisation plan and put it away for "future reference".

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