The Indian Army on Sunday put up an imposing firepower display at the sprawling field firing range in Maharashtra’s Devlali, with a raft of indigenous artillery guns, rocket systems and ammunition, including weapons, deployed along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) where the Indian and Chinese armies have been locked in a lingering dispute for over 32 months.

The blockbuster demonstration of the army’s capabilities, code-named ‘Exercise Topchi-2023’, by the elite School of Artillery featured several big guns, including the latest 155mm/45-calibre Dhanush towed artillery gun, 155mm/52-calibre tracked self-propelled K9 Vajra-T guns, the M777 ultra-light howitzers, upgraded Sharang guns, the 105mm/37-caliber Indian field guns and the light field gun, and the Pinaka rocket systems (155mm denotes the diameter of the shell and calibre relates to barrel length). HT was invited to witness the show.

The focus of the exercise was to showcase the indigenous capabilities and strides made in achieving self-reliance in the defence sector, said Lieutenant General S Harimohan Iyer, commandant of the Devlali-based School of Artillery. “Atmanirbharta in defence is scaling new heights. The army is ready for any challenge,” he said.

The two-hour display also included the 155 mm FH 77 BO2 guns (better known as Bofors), the 155mm Soltam guns, the 130mm M46 guns, the Russian-origin Grad BM 21 multi-barrel rocket system, unmanned aerial vehicles, weapon locating radars, mortars, helicopters and several surveillance systems. The drills came at a time when the army is pursuing a major firepower upgrade, and is set to induct more artillery guns, longer range rockets and loitering munition to bolster its capabilities along the China border.

The artillery capability upgrade will involve induction of more K9 Vajra-T guns, additional Dhanush guns and the new 155mm/52-calibre advanced towed artillery gun system (ATAGS), Iyer said. Artillery regiments are also preparing to induct longer range Pinaka rocket systems, precision ammunition, loitering munition, unmanned aerial vehicles, and reconnaissance and observation systems to scale up their capabilities to meet battlefield challenges.

ATAGS System

What’s Next: The army is looking at inducting ATAGS by the year-end. The indigenous howitzer was deployed for the ceremonial 21-gun salute during the 75th Independence Day celebrations at Red Fort last year, along with British guns that have been traditionally used for the event. The Defence Research and Development Organisation began the ATAGS project in 2013 to replace older army guns with a modern 155 mm artillery gun. It partnered with two private firms, Bharat Forge Limited and TATA Advanced Systems Limited, to manufacture the gun, which has a range of 48 km.

On the ATAGS system which has completed validation trials in May 2022, officials said they are fast-tracking the remaining process for quicker induction. Following this, Electromagnetic Interference/ Electromagnetic Compatibility ( EMI/ EMC) trials were completed, followed by maintainability trials by the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, the source explained.

Currently, the Director General Quality Assurance (DGQA) evaluation is under way which includes environmental tests. They are being concurrently to shorten the evaluation and should be completed in another two months, the source said after which the preliminary requirements would be converted to General Staff Quality Requirements (GSQR) and commercial bids will be sought.

This would be followed by cost negotiations and the initial order for 150 guns would be split between the Lowest bidder (L1) and the second (L2) in 70:30 ratio, the source added.

The ATAGS is a 155mm, 52 calibre heavy artillery gun jointly developed by Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE), the Pune-based laboratory of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), in partnership with Bharat Forge and TATA Group. In May 2022, the gun successfully completed validation trails towards meeting the specifications of the Army is now ready for induction.

Here’s a low-down on the weapons that were deployed in the exercise:

Dhanush Towed Artillery Guns: The gun made its maiden appearance at the Republic Day parade in 2017. Manufactured by Jabalpur-based Gun Carriage Factory, its costs ₹14.50 crore apiece, and has a range of 38 km. The weapon, also known as the desi Bofors, is the first long-range artillery gun to be manufactured in India and is touted as a ‘Make In India’ success story. The army has already operationalised its first Dhanush regiment along the China border, and is now looking at raising a second regiment with 18 guns by March 2023.

K9 Vajra-T Guns: The guns have been manufactured in India by private sector defence major Larsen & Toubro and South Korea’s Hanwha Techwin. The army has already inducted 100 of these under a 2017 contract worth $720 million, and some of them have been deployed in the Ladakh sector after winterisation upgrades as the guns were originally bought for a desert role. The army plans to buy 100 more K9 Vajra-T guns.

M777 Ultra-Light Howitzers: India ordered 145 M777 howitzers from the US for $750 million in November 2016. The M777s were the first artillery guns to be ordered after the Bofors scandal unfolded in the late 1980s. The 155 mm/39-calibre howitzers can be sling-loaded to helicopters and swiftly deployed to high-altitude areas. M777 manufacturer BAE Systems delivered 25 ready-built howitzers and the remaining guns have been built locally in collaboration with Mahindra Defence under the Narendra Modi government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative.

Sharang Guns: The upgraded Sharang artillery guns are an important element of the ongoing artillery modernisation. The army already has three Sharang regiments, it’s raising a fourth one, and eventually plans to have 15 such regiments. The Sharang project involves upgrading the army’s vintage Soviet-origin 130mm M46 towed artillery pieces to 155 mm/45-calibre standard. The upgraded guns have an enhanced range – up from 27 km to 37 km – and better terminal effectiveness.