|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
As part of the ‘Make in India’ initiative and indigenisation, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has designed and developed the 155mm/52mm calibre Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) project in conjunction with Kalyani Group, Tata Power and OFB to replace older guns. Up gunning of the 130mm/39 caliber and 155mm/45 calibre guns is also being addressed.
The Army has a Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan, drawn in 1999, to acquire 2,800-3,000 155mm/52-calibre guns of all kinds and 155mm/39-calibre lightweight howitzers by 2027. These include 814 truck-mounted guns, 1,580 towed guns and 180 wheeled self-propelled guns. The ATAGS project was started in 2013 with production scheduled to begin in 2019. The project was delayed earlier during the development cycle, with issues cropping up in the gun system’s recoil systems as well as delays in the manufacture of sub systems. DRDO’s Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE) had partnered with private players, including Bharat Forge and Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division for the project, with the understanding that orders would be divided between the two companies after successful trials.
As part of the internal development firing of the 155mm/52mm ATAGS conducted by the DRDO at Pokhran firing ranges in Rajasthan on September 12, 2020, a gun barrel burst causing injuries to four Army personnel. The gun barrel, manufactured by Bharat Forge Ltd, exploded right after a firing test that was being supervised by DRDO officials. The DRDO has ordered an inquiry into the accident. According to media, the ATAGS accident is being viewed as a setback to defence modernisation efforts, especially since the army had put on the backburner a proposal last year to procure 400 artillery guns of the same type from Israeli defence manufacturer Elbit Systems, as the homemade one was still under development. The remaining 1,180 guns were to be produced by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) but the proposal was put on hold as the DRDO project was heading towards completion.
The accident comes at a particularly difficult time, given the border standoff with China and the neighbouring country’s continued collusion with Pakistan on its support for cross-border terrorism. Now media has quoted and un-named official saying that the accident will impact the induction of an urgently required modern gun system into the Army and that the design parameters of the ATAGS will have to be brought back to the drawing board to ensure that the gun has reliable technology that is safe for users.
This un-named official is unlikely from the DRDO because the accident occurred when the ATAGS had successfully completed trials and production of the first 40 was to begin shortly. Besides, a DRDO spokesperson had already stated that the cause of accident was not presently clear, an inquiry committee has been set up to look into the cause of the accident and that as soon as the report comes, DRDO will share the findings. He also added that while the cause of the accident would be revealed after a detailed inquiry, it could have occurred due to the inferior quality of metallurgy or the barrel not meeting prescribed standards.
What the DRDO official did not mention is that the cause could also be because of the ammunition. It is an established fact that 70 per cent of ammunition accidents are caused by indigenous ammunition. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) too have been reporting about the inferior quality of indigenous ammunition and fuses.
As for the remarks by this un-named official, “ATAGS will have to be brought back to the drawing board”, the following needs to be taken into consideration:
There is no doubt that we have neglected defence in the past 70 years plus, which is a reason that China dared an aggression in Ladakh and we could not throw the enemy out immediately. Operational requirements must always be given preference. But import of weapons and weapon systems are controlled and approved by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), not by the military. Bureaucrats of MoD are in tandem with the import lobby for reasons not difficult to understand. In the instant case, the official who made a categorical statement that ATAGS will have brought back to the drawing board apparently belongs to the MoD with vested interests.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the personal views of the author.