NEW DELHI — Indian Army officers and defense analysts here criticized as irrational a Defence Ministry decision to spend nearly as much buying homemade 130mm Arjun Catapult artillery systems as it would have on advanced 155mm howitzers.
India is buying 40 of the Arjun Catapult systems, which is a hybrid of aging Russian-made 130mm guns mounted on indigenous Arjun tank chassis. It will cost nearly as much as purchasing 155mm light howitzers from the US subsidiary of BAE Systems — a deal the Army has been awaiting since 2010.
India’s Defense Acquisition Council, which is headed by the defense minister and responsible for weapon procurement decisions, on Aug. 29 cleared the purchase of 40 Arjun Catapult guns for $150 million from the Avadhi-based Combat Vehicle Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE). This is part of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
A senior Indian Army officer said it would have been better if MoD had approved the purchase of 145 more capable M777 light howitzers for nearly the same per-unit cost.
“I fail to understand why MoD finds the light howitzer guns expensive,” the office said.
The M777 is lighter than the Arjun Catapult and has a firing range of up to 40 kilometers compared with 24 kilometers for Arjun Catapult. In addition, the M777 has advanced digital fire control systems that Army officers have said is far superior. The M777 also can be transported by helicopter.
MoD has been withholding a $650 million contract for the M777 since 2010 because of price considerations, the officer said.
One Arjun Catapult would cost $3.75 million compared with $4.48 million for an M777.
The price for the M777 includes training for Army personnel, spares, and the latest electronics instrumentation. The guns would be procured through the Foreign Military Sales route, Army officer added
“Ordering the homemade 130mm guns and holding back the purchase of the much-needed 155mm light howitzer guns is an economically irrational decision,” said Mahindra Singh, a retired Indian Army major general. It would have cost $179 million compared to $150 million to buy 40 units of an advanced 155mm light howitzer in place of what he said was a “local makeshift arrangement.”
When asked why the MoD has cleared the purchase of the Arjun Catapult but not the howitzer, another Army officer said, “this is possibly a precursor to the mounting of the 155mm gun on Arjun chassis.”
No official of CVRDE would confirm if there are plans to mount a 155mm gun on the Arjun tank.
An MoD source said the Arjun Catapult buy is only temporary to meet the operational demands of the Indian Army.
“Ultimately, the Indian Army would be buying the 155mm howitzers,” the source added.
“The 130mm guns are old Russian guns and are no comparison to the capabilities of 155mm howitzers,” Singh said. “The DRDO is pushing for mounting 130mm guns on Arjun chassis, which are at present mounted on outdated Vijayanta tank chassis,” Singh added.
The Army has used the 130mm guns mounted on Vijayanta chassis since the 1980s but there are problems of maintenance and spares, the second Army officer said.
MoD has not been able to procure any 155mm howitzers in the last 10 years, and procuring the Arjun Catapult will take care of immediate operational needs, the second Army officer said.
The Army needs a variety of 155mm guns that eventually could cost more than $6 billion as it plans to replace all of its artillery.
The Army has said it urgently needs the howitzers to deploy on the mountainous terrain along the Chinese border.
Even as the Army struggles to buy howitzers on the international market, Pakistan has begun upgrading its 130mm M-46 towed howitzers to the 155mm/45-caliber configuration with the help of the Chinese, the first Indian Army officer said. Nearly 400 of the M-46 guns are being upgraded by China’s North Industries Corp. Pakistan has also acquired M-109 A5 155mm howitzers from the United States, the first Army officer said. ■