New Delhi: The defence ministry has begun moving files to place a repeat order of 200 more 155mm tracked self-propelled howitzers worth Rs 9,600 crore.

This significant order, to be placed with Larsen & Toubro (L&T) sometime this year, is the largest order placed with an Indian private sector defence firm and is a potential booster dose for the government’s plan to modernise the military, create an industrial defence base and reduce defence imports.

A self-propelled gun is a tank chassis fitted with a howitzer designed to provide firepower to mobile columns. A K-9 Vajra weighs 50 tonnes and can fire shells out to over 50 kilometres. L&T had delivered 100 K-9 Vajras for Rs 4,500 crore in partnership with South Korean defence firm Hanwha Defence. The contract was signed in May 2017 and the 100th gun delivered to the army on February 2021. It remains the largest Make in India programmes signed and completed on this government’s watch.

It is also the fastest way for the army to acquire modern artillery systems.

A new order, which could be placed by this year, will see the guns start to roll out of Hazira by 2023 with all deliveries completed before 2028. A large number of these guns will be specially modified to operate in the cold deserts of Ladakh and Sikkim.

It is not a stretch to believe this massive order could be one of the highlights of DefExpo 2022, the defence ministry’s biennial land and naval systems exhibition. The 12th instalment of DefExpo is to be held in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, between March 10 and 13. It also coincides with the government’s drive to make Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state a defence industrial hub.

Until last year, the army had planned to order only one more K-9 regiment. How then did this become a humongous 10 regiments? One reason, clearly, was China’s military deployment, which began in eastern Ladakh in May 2020.

The army’s five existing regiments of Vajras (each regiment has 18 guns, not counting the two in reserve) were acquired not for the mountains, but to operate with the Indian army’s three strike corps ranged across the plains of the Punjab and the semi-deserts of Rajasthan. The People’s Liberation Army deployment and the subsequent activation of the entire northern and eastern borders saw the army scramble to acquire modern artillery. Late last year, three K-9s were moved up into eastern Ladakh on a trial basis. A senior artillery officer in the Udhampur-based Northern command was a key mover behind this unusual deployment. The guns drove up from Leh to the forward areas of eastern Ladakh on their own power (instead of a tank transporter-trailer), demonstrating their ability to operate independently. What seemed to have been forgotten was that these guns had been originally designed to operate in South Korea, a rugged mountainous country with a hostile neighbour and with climatic conditions that could mimic those of eastern Ladakh. The Indian army K-9s, however, still needed to be modified with a special low temperature kit in the field with L&T engineers. The range tables and the software that guided these guns was modified, again in the field, by the engineers. The guns are believed to have performed exceedingly well, which strengthened their case for more guns.

The army’s own howitzer acquisitions were going nowhere. Its insistence on acquiring 400 ‘Athos’ towed howitzers from Israeli firm Elbit were repeatedly rebuffed by the MoD and the case finally closed late last year. The MoD argued, correctly it would seem, that imports would kill indigenous howitzer capabilities developed over the years by a range of private and public sector developers. Seen from the army’s point of view, the two most promising indigenous artillery systems are yet to deliver. Design defects on the Dhanush, an indigenous version of the FH-77B Bofors, have jeopardised an army order for 114 guns. The DRDO-designed Advanced Towed Array Gun System (ATAGS), built indigenously by TATA Defence and Bharat Forge, is yet to clear army trials. The army believes it could take these guns at least until 2025 to pass its stringent trials.

The army hence cannibalised its requirement for nine regiments of wheeled howitzers—a 155 mm howitzer mounted on a 6x6 armoured vehicle—to make way for the K-9s. The wheeled howitzer programme was one of five different types of howitzers projected after the Kargil War and whose requirement was accepted by the government. Around 3,000 new guns were to be procured in the towed, wheeled and tracked (on a tank chassis, like the K-9) mounted gun systems (on a truck chassis) and ultra-light howitzer categories. Only the mounted gun systems and the wheeled howitzers are to be acquired. The second category now seems to have been scrapped.