Army waits endlessly for artillery guns

Defence Ministry for the third time rejects the single vendor in fray

 The new guns (155 mm/52calibre) are expected to replace the two-decade-old Bofors guns that boomed during the Kargil war. But most of the Bofors guns are so obsolete now that the Army has to cannibalise many of them to keep at least a few of them operational.

In the last five years, the Defence Ministry made three efforts to purchase long-range artillery guns. Each time, the process was scrapped with the Central government attributing no reason at all.

The third attempt was scrapped only last week, after the ministry issued a fresh tender (request for information) on the gun purchase. Only one vendor — BAE Systems which now owns Swedish firm Bofors AB — remains in the competition.

The cancelled tender was for 1,580 units, of which 400 were to be purchased off the shelf and the rest 1,180 to be license-produced in India by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) after the transfer of technology.

Blacklisting company

Its competitor Singapore Technology Kinetics is no longer in the competition with the Central Bureau of Investigation blacklisting the company in the wake of a corruption case. BAE guns FH77 BO5 were pitted against ST’s FH-2000 in an $1.8 billion contract (about Rs 9,000 crore).

The guns were to be fired in cold climate (Ladakh) and desert conditions (Jaisalmer) in an evaluation process that could take 6-12 months. The Army has recently cancelled the summer trials in Rajasthan and sought directives from the Defence Ministry after ST Kinetics asked for more time for the no-cost, no-commitment trials.

Even though trials were stalled for quite some time following the ongoing investigations in corruption cases involving ST, the Defence Ministry in December allowed the trials with the caveat that no purchase decision would be made till the investigations are over. At the defence expo in February, the BAE system displayed the guns, which would participate in the trial.

The officials don’t give any reason for a fresh RFI, which automatically means rejection of the earlier process. However, it is believed that the UPA government is uncomfortable with a single vendor situation and to make the matter worse, the vendor now own Bofors, which triggered such a massive campaign against Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government in the mid 1980s.

Army officers said even assuming a smooth sailing of the fourth tender, it would take at least three years for the contract to be realised. Meanwhile, the booming Bofors guns in the mountain may become silent.

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