The Indian Army issued a Request for Information (RFI) to vendors in the country for the acquisition of 155 mm/52 caliber towed artillery gun systems.
The document, which gives a detailed outline of the army's requirements, states that the force needs an artillery gun that weighs less than 15 tonnes.
The gun, it mandates, must be capable of operations not just in the plains, desert, and semi-desert sectors in the west but also at elevations up to 5,000 metres, a euphemism for the northern border with Tibet.
The requirement that the weight of the gun "be preferably less than 15 tonnes" could lead to the disqualification of the indigenous-developed Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS).
Indigenous ATAGS Gun
The ATAGS, developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in collaboration with the Kalyani Group and Tata Advanced Systems Limited, weighs 18 tonnes, exceeding the 15-tonnne limit.
The gun had performed exceptionally well during initial trials, setting a new world record in range in its category by hitting targets at a distance of 48 km. High-altitude trials of the gun in January 2018 at the 12,000-foot-high Menla Firing Range in Sikkim were also successful.
However, the ATAGS programme experienced a significant setback in 2020 when the barrel of one of the guns undergoing trials burst during testing in Pokhran.
After further trials in the summer of 2021, Lieutenant General T K Chawla, the then Director General of Artillery, stated that the gun failed to meet certain criteria and would require further modification.
The gun underwent trials again at the Pokhran Test Range in 2022. In October at the DefExpo, officials from Kalyani announced that the firing trials of the ATAGS had been completed in July of this year.
But despite its successes and the completion of firing trials, the timeline for the induction of the ATAGS into the army remains uncertain.
"This program should have been over a long time ago..our problem in India largely is — it takes just too long a time," Baba Kalyani, chairman of the Kalyani Group, said in a recent interview.
The latest RFI for towed guns has only added to the uncertainty.
An Opening For Israeli ATHOS?
At the same time, it opens the door once again for Autonomous Towed Howitzer Ordnance System or ATHOS developed by the Israeli defence company Elbit Systems. The gun, which the Indian Army has long fancied, could qualify for the new tender as it weighs 15 tonnes.
Elbit Systems emerged as L-1 (lowest bidder) in 2019 after several years of testing and trials for a tender issued under the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government.
The deal was for the supply of 400 guns by the vendor and the domestic production of 1,180 additional guns by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) through a full transfer of technology process.
Elbit's ATHOS was reportedly 40 per cent cheaper than its French competitor Nexter's Trajan gun, with a cost of less than Rs 11 crore per piece, which is also significantly cheaper than the estimated cost of the ATAGS guns, which ranges from Rs 16 to Rs 18 crore.
However, after the bid was opened and the cost negotiation process was completed in 2019, the final decision was not announced.
The Indian Army's insistence on purchasing 400 ATHOS guns from Elbit Systems was "repeatedly rebuffed" by the Ministry of Defence, which believed that such a step would prove to be a death knell for the nascent artillery design and development ecosystem that had emerged in India in recent years.
With multiple indigenous options, such as the ATAGS, available in the country, the ministry argued against the acquisition of foreign-made guns in favour of supporting the domestic industry.
Interestingly, the gun was included on the negative list of defence imports and was set to be banned from December 2020.
However, the cut-off date was later revised to December 2021. But in December 2021, a rule was implemented that allows the armed forces to import defence equipment, including the 155mm x 52 calibers towed artillery gun, in certain circumstances, even if it is on the negative import list.
It is for this reason that the import of the gun can't be ruled out.
Indigenous Alternatives Exist
There could be at least two more alternatives for the army if the 18-tonne ATAGS does not qualify for the tender.
The first of these is Bharat 52, developed by the Kalyani Group, one of the co-developers of the DRDO-designed ATAGS. The gun weighs less than 15 tonnes and is capable of firing ammunition in service with the Indian Army, which means it would qualify for the tender.
Bharat 52 has been evaluated by Saudi Arabia in the past.
The other is a 52 caliber upgraded version of the 155mm x 45 caliber Dhanush gun, a significantly improved version of the Bofors howitzer acquired by India in the 1980s.
The new gun has been developed by Advanced Weapons and Equipment India Limited (AWEIL), which until recently was part of the Ordnance Factory Board.
The new gun, which was displayed at the DefExpo in Gujarat's Gandhinagar this year, weighs less than 14 tonnes, AWEIL has said.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.