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January 27, 2014

Desi Bofors howitzer to be tested again, Army keeps fingers crossed


The desi Bofors howitzer is ready to boom once again. Its barrel has burst during firing trials last August, in a deadly blow to the indigenisation dream. This time, the Army is keeping its fingers crossed for the fresh trials slated for February-March.

Worried that their long-pending plans to induct advanced artillery guns from abroad are yet to materialise, the military brass is getting desperate for the indigenous howitzers being developed to pass muster and plug huge operational gaps in long range, high volume firepower. The Army has not inducted a single modern 155mm gun for the last three decades since the infamous Bofors scandal, which led to Rajiv Gandhi government's downfall. Conversely, both China and Pakistan are fast inducting 155mm/52-calibre artillery guns.

But in India, recurring scandals around global artillery manufacturers like South African Denel, Israeli Soltam and Singapore Technology Kinetic's (STK) has kept the Army's over Rs 30,000 crore artillery modernisation plans firmly derailed.

Consequently, the indigenous route is being pursued on three fronts.

The first is the joint venture with the private sector for 814 mounted gun systems. Another is DRDO's development of a 155mm/52-calibre advanced towed artillery gun system, sanctioned in September 2012 for Rs 248 crore. But both these projects are still far away from completion.

There is more hope on the third front, with Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) developing the electronically upgraded desi version of the original Swedish155mm Bofors howitzer. The long-forgotten designs obtained under transfer of technology (ToT) provisions in the infamous Rs 1,437-crore Bofors contract in 1986 for 410 howitzers have been used to develop the new guns.

"After the barrel burst in trials at Pokhran ranges in August last year, the faults were rectified. The fourth and the fifth prototypes have undergone `internal firing tests' in Balasore over the last couple of months. Now, the guns are being readied for the trials,'' said a source.

The Army wants 414 such guns. They have been upgraded to 45-calibre from the original 39-calibre to give the new howitzer a 38-km range compared to the 30-km of the original Bofors gun. The OFB has already been given an over Rs 1,260 crore order to make 114 howitzers.

As for imports, there is the $855 million deal with the US for 145 M-777 ultra-light howitzers, which are to be deployed with the new mountain strike corps being raised by the Army. But this direct government-to-government deal remains stuck in the final stages despite several years of negotiations.

The different 155mm/52-calibre gun projects, like the one for 100 self-propelled tracked guns from a foreign vendor, are similarly running excruciatingly slow. The mega project for buying 400 towed artillery guns, followed by indigenous manufacture of another 1,180 such guns after transfer of technology from the foreign vendor, for instance, has been scrapped three times over the last decade due to scandals. 
-  Times of india

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