|#751||20512||January 03, 2012||By Saurabh Joshi|
The Indian Army chief of staff General VK Singh at the last Army Day press conference expressed optimism that the delay in the procurement of artillery guns would soon be over. He said, "We hope to procure some artillery guns this year." He did not elaborate when asked the type or make of artillery weapons he saw hope for procuring.
Much has happened in the months following. BAE Systems, one of the favorites for the towed gun tender, which was floated again this year, chose not to bid, citing 'watered-down' parameters or GSQRs (General Staff Qualitative Requirements). Another contender, Singapore Technologies Kinetics, was not invited to bid, probably in light of its ongoing struggle with allegations of involvement in the corruption accusation that have been directed at the former chairman of the Ordinance Factory Board, Sudipta Ghosh.
These two companies have also been possible contenders for supplying light artillery. While the tender route has gone cold with the Singapore Technologies Kinetics' Pegasus howitzer not even being tried before getting into the above wrangle, the proposed direct government-to-government sale of BAE Systems' M777 howitzer from the US also seems likely to face difficulties.
Singapore Technologies filed writ petitions in the Delhi High Court, earlier this year, seeking to clarify its status as blacklisted or otherwise. In the course of hearings, the court asked the Ministry of Defence to refrain from awarding the tender without ‘leave and liberty of the court’. Further, the court has also said that if STK were found not blacklisted, it would be allowed to compete in the tender.
Assuming the company does end up cleared of these charges, this could have an effect on all tenders in which STK has been participating, since the principle for the hold on its participation would be the same. STK had also bid to supply 43,318 Close Quarter Carbine (CQB) with day and night sights and quantity 3,33,11,500 rounds of ammunition with transfer of technology (TOT) to the Ministry of Home Affairs. And besides the tender for towed howitzers, this could also mean that the light howitzer tender could be resurrected, since it was never officially terminated.
The court also received a sealed copy of the trial report of the BAE Systems M777 howitzer. This took place as questions were raised by the petitioner about news reports referring to leaks about the report as well as threatening letters being sent to the army chief.
Earlier this month, Defence Minister A.K. Antony told the Lok Sabha that 'The procurement on Single Vendor basis from M/s ST Kinetics, Singapore is sub-judice' and that 'The option of procuring the equipment through US Government (FMS route) is also being pursued'.
He said that the 'The field evaluation of Ultra Light Howitzer comprises three parts viz. user trials, DGQA trials and Maintainability trials. Out of these, only user trials of the gun proposed to be procured through US Government have been completed. The performance of the gun can be ascertained only after evaluation of all three trial reports.'
Last month, the court ordered the issue listed for directions next February after noting, “The hearing qua the issue of black-listing of the petitioner was concluded on 18.05.2011. Despite this, we are still informed that the final order qua the issue of black-listing of the petitioner has still not been issued.”
But what has complicated the procurement of towed artillery further is the assertion of the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) that it can manufacture the existing Bofors gun indigenously. The Director General, OFB, D.M. Gupta, has been reported as being optimistic of getting the order, especially, since Bofors had transferred technology to it in the 1980s, as part of the aborted artillery purchase.
A few months back, Josy Joseph of The Times of India reported the defence ministry to have asked the OFB to produce six units of the old Bofors howitzer purchased by India in 1986 within 18 months. This came about when the chairman of the OFB stated they had blueprints of the artillery gun in their possession in a discussion where the army had raised the question of acquisition of artillery.
There are questions as to whether this can be accomplished with technology having moved on in the more than two decades since the OFB would have received this technology documentation. Also, even assuming it were feasible, since the agreement between the Government of India and the Bofors company and its successors has lapsed, OFB would not have the benefit of technical support from the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM).
In the background of these challenges and the defence ministry's inaction on a decision to blacklist the Singapore-based company, the OFB mandate should not become an excuse for lack of movement on the procurement of artillery by the army. Already, the ministry has been reported to have indicated it cannot move on the procurement as the matter is sub judice. At the same time, it has not decided the issue either, as is evident from the observations of the court. This has held up the acquisition of crucial types of artillery again, after the multiple cancellation of tenders since the Bofors buy.
The 18 month timeline given to the OFB must not become a vacuum of inertia for the ministry, which will only serve to further delay the acquisition of artillery by the army. This has already been amply displayed to the extent that a decision on blacklisting may now fall to the court.
Saurabh Joshi is Editor, StratPost.Com
Views expressed are personal