ATHOS 155mm Autonomous Towed Howitzer System

New Delhi: The Indian Army has issued a fresh Request for Information (RFI) to acquire a 155mm/52 calibre towed gun system for modernising artillery regiments as part of a plan drafted in 1999.

However, the RFI opens up a new avenue to Israeli firm Elbit whose Autonomous Towed Howitzer Ordnance System (ATHOS) was in the reckoning for a mega contract from the Indian Army for over a decade.

This comes even as Indian firms Kalyani Group and TATA have collaborated with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to develop the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), which was used for the ceremonial firing in Independence Day at the Red Fort.

Issued 20 December, the RFI notes that the weight of the gun system “be preferably less than 15 tons”. And this clause is why the Israeli firm, which has a tie up with Adani Group, is back in the race for supplying the ATHOS to the Indian Army.

Given that the ATHOS weighs less than 15 tons while the ATAGS is well over 18 tons, industry sources see the new RFI as an opening for the Israeli weapon system.

The 155mm x 52 caliber towed artillery gun figured in the first negative list of defence imports. While the embargo was to kick in from December 2020, the cut-off date for this specialised gun was subsequently changed to December 2021.

But, a rule was brought in which allowed armed forces to import defence equipment in certain circumstances even if it figures in the negative import list.

The Israeli gun made it to the negative list because the DRDO was working on an indigenous version of towed 155 mm/52 calibre howitzer – ATAGS.

The History of ATHOS

The process for acquiring towed guns began in 2001 as part of the Army’s Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan, which was drawn up in 1999.

Multiple requests for proposal (RFPs) were issued since then, with Elbit along with France’s Nexter participating in the last RFP issued under the UPA government.

The deal was for the supply of 400 guns and indigenous production of the remaining 1,180 guns by Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), under a full Transfer of Technology (TOT) process.

While RFIs are issued to request information from suppliers about goods or services, RFPs are used in a bidding process to solicit offers for a project.

In March 2019, following what was meant to be an exhaustive ‘Field Trial Cum Evaluation Process’ spread over several years, which saw several ups and downs, Elbit Systems was declared the lowest bidder (L1).

However, the DRDO went on record to oppose any import plans, contending that ATAGS was better than ATHOS and is the gun of the future.

The Army, which backs the ATAGS program, pitched for 400 of these guns (for 20 regiments) to be procured from Elbit to “overcome operational voids in the medium artillery in high altitude area along the northern borders”, citing the tensions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

The Israel firm then wrote to the Ministry of Defence stating that in case, it preferred to acquire only the first 400 towed guns, the related cost corresponding to TOT can be deducted from the total contract price.

In the letter, Elbit Systems had offered the TOT for the future 1,180 guns as an option for India, at the same cost as mentioned in the commercial offer made.

Elbit also said it has finalised the approach and strategy to achieve 70 per cent indigenisation within the contract of the first 400 towed guns, starting from the first set of guns.

The ATHOS is tailored to the special requirements of the Indian Army, it said, adding that it has invested tens of millions of dollars in the design and development of the gun in accordance with Army requirements and in the field trials.

The defence sources said Elbit also promised to supply the guns much earlier than the contract delivery schedule — the first six within 10 months from contract signing, and an additional six within 14 months.

All the remaining guns were promised to be delivered according to an accelerated delivery schedule, not later than 54 months from contract signing, instead of the 72 months stipulated in the draft contract.

In its communications with the Indian defence establishment, Elbit said the ATHOS will end up being an indigenous gun — mass produced, assembled and integrated in India.