The Army will soon begin testing an indigenously-developed artillery system, which the DRDO contends is the best in its class in the world with a record-breaking strike range of 48-km. If the big gun passes muster, it can fulfill the Army’s requirement for 1,580 such guns worth over Rs 25,000 crore.
The 155mm/52 caliber advanced towed artillery gun system (ATAGS) is set to undergo “winter user trials” by the Army in Sikkim in January-February, which will be followed by the “mobility trials” and then the “summer trials” in May-June.
With the development of ATAGS, which has Bharat Forge (Kalyani Group) and Tata Advanced Systems as the production partners, DRDO officials contend the Army has no need to import such guns from Israel or other countries.
But the Army says the indigenous guns will have to first prove their worth in the forthcoming user trials. The force has a parallel project stuck in the final stages to procure 400 Athos towed gun systems for Rs 5,147 crore from Israeli firm Elbit Systems, which was originally supposed to be followed by the domestic production of another 1,180 guns in collaboration with the Ordnance Factory Board.
The Israeli gun had emerged as L-1 (lowest bidder) a year ago to beat the French one from Nexter Systems after trials. “Our procurement case for towed artillery guns has been hanging fire since 2010,” said an Army officer.
Amidst this wrangling, the user-trials of the indigenous ATAGS also got somewhat delayed after the barrel of one of the guns burst during test-firing at the Pokhran field firing range in Rajasthan, which injured four personnel, in September.
“It was most probably due to defective ammunition. There was no issue with the barrel. Over 2,000 rounds have already been successfully test-fired from the ATAGS during high-altitude trials in Sikkim and then in Pokhran,” a senior DRDO official said.
“Further tests are currently underway at the Proof and Experimental Establishment range at Balasore. Why should the Army import such guns if a much better indigenous option with a longer 48-km range is available? Other contemporary guns have a 40 to 45-km range,” he added.
The ATAGS has “excellent accuracy, consistency, mobility, reliability and automation”, and can fire five-round bursts as compared to three-round bursts by other foreign contemporary guns.
“ATAGS is also configured with an `all-electric drive technology’ for the first time in the world, which will ensure maintenance free and reliable operation over longer periods of time,” said another official.
But the Army contends DRDO often “over-promises and under-delivers”. The force has also had to contend with recurring scandals in artillery procurement projects, from the Swedish Bofors in the mid-1980s to the South African Denel in 2005 and Singapore Technology Kinetics in 2009.
It was only in 2018 that the Army finally managed to exorcise the Bofors ghost by beginning to induct 145 US-origin M-777 ultra-light howitzers (155m/39-calibre) and 100 South Korean-origin K-9 Vajra tracked self-propelled guns (155mm/52-calibre).