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Tatas display Indian Bofors

India’s first indigenous artillery gun has a reach of 52 km. Bofors’ reach is below 30 km.


he Indian private sector defence company Tata Power Strategic Electronics Division (SED) has created a sensation in the arms bazaar by unveiling a high calibre artillery gun at an army-industry seminar this week in New Delhi. India has been struggling unsuccessfully to import a similar gun for a decade. This is India's first indigenous howitzer.

Tata claims this "21st century" 155 mm, 52 calibre gun can extend the reach of India's artillery firepower to 52 km. The existing 155 mm, 39 calibre Bofors guns of the Indian Army have a range below 30 km. Not a single new artillery gun has been inducted by India since the scam-tainted Bofors deal of 1986.

The market for new artillery guns in India is conservatively estimated at $8 billion. The fear of scams has inhibited A.K. Antony's Ministry of Defence from signing a deal with a foreign supplier. Three successive artillery tenders have been cancelled over the last decade, severely compromising India's firepower capability. The erstwhile Bofors — now owned by British Aerospace — was the front-runner in all the scrapped tenders. Four other key gun makers have been blacklisted in the process: South African Denel, Singapore's ST Kinetics, Israeli Soltam and European Rheinmetall.

Tata now seeks to disrupt the impasse with the "Made in India" label, and the "cheapest possible gun in its class". While claiming that 55% of the gun is indigenous, Tata admits that key barrel and metallurgy technologies have been purchased from foreign sources. The suddenness with which the Tata gun has emerged has stunned the trade. The buzz is that Tata may have purchased technologies released by companies blacklisted by the Ministry of Defence: South African Denel and European Rheinmetall.

"We have created capability by purchasing the right technologies from partners across Africa and East Europe," acknowledges Tata Power SED CEO Rahul Chaudhry. But he insists vital technologies have been developed in-house. "The critical thing is ballistics know-how. No foreign supplier will part with this. It was only after we mastered this technology did we embark on the big gun project," Chaudhary told The Sunday Guardian.

Tata's artillery learning curve was its participation in such recent projects as the DRDO's Pinaka rocket launcher, the L-70 gun upgrade, fire control system for the Russian T-90 tank and the mounting of the smaller-range 105 mm artillery on Tata trucks. Chaudhry claims hydraulics, electronics and fire control systems have all been developed in-house by Tata Power SED, which has invested in defence R&D since 1973.

The big deal in the Tata gun is the Indian private sector investing its own money to develop a top-end weapon. "This is our answer to the defence establishment which keeps saying that the private sector does not invest in R&D," quips Chaudhry. It's a "huge leap of faith" because the gun has been made without any commitment for orders by the Ministry of Defence.

Till a decade ago, defence production in India was a monopoly of the public sector, the limitations of which forced India to become the world's largest arms importer. Government policy now aims at reversing imports by creating indigenous capability.

Ironically, the initial response in India's defence establishment to the "desi Bofors" has been tepid. While one worthy reportedly remarked that the "MoD does not entertain unsolicited offers", another dismissed it as a "hobby project".

Tata, which has fired the gun system abroad, now wants to prove the prototype at an Indian range, and be allowed to take part in an Indian Army global tender for 814 mounted artillery guns, for starters.

The world's newest artillery player is also exploring a collaboration with the government's Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) on an advanced towed artillery gun project. Best known for the mind boggling delays in its weapons development programmes, DRDO could well take inspiration from Tata's Usain Bolt-like speed with its gun, which has been delivered in just five years, and on cost.

As the mission statement for the new gun suggests, corporate culture is knocking on the doors of India's defence establishment: "If I can't meet the military requirement at the cheapest cost, I will not be able to sell even a single gun."

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