New Delhi: After 18 years of having failed to buy a towed artillery gun from the global arms market, top army generals are finally reassured that their most worrying operational shortfall will soon be met from within India.
This belief comes after a week of successful “engineering trials” of the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), from December 13-20, at the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) ranges in Balasore, Odisha. Army observers witnessed the trials.
“We are on track in designing and building an international quality gun through the ATAGS project. If it continues like this, India will be a major gun supplier in the world market, instead of a major buyer”, asserts a senior army procurement manager.
The army is usually restrained in its endorsement of on-going DRDO projects.So pleased is the ministry of defence that it has ordered the two existing ATAGS prototypes to be transported post-haste to New Delhi and displayed in the Republic Day Parade this year.
ATAGS is potentially the DRDO’s biggest indigenous project, aiming to meet the army’s need for more than 2,000 towed artillery pieces in the coming decade, generating indigenous manufacture for over Rs 30,000 crore.
Conceived and designed by the DRDO’s Armament R&D Establishment, Pune (ARDE), the gun is mostly built by two private firms. The lion’s share has been won by Tata Power (Strategic Engineering Division), which has built one prototype. The Kalyani Group has built a second prototype.
Development of the ATAGS system has been divided into nine “work packages”, with each package competitively tendered within India. The Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) won the tender to manufacture gun barrels, along with forgings giant, the Kalyani Group.
Other private companies have won roles too. Mahindra Defence Systems will make the recoil system along with Tata Power SED, while Punj Lloyd will make the muzzle brake. During full-scale manufacture, an entire eco-system of smaller Tier-2 and Tier-3 suppliers is expected to come up.
At first look, ATAGS appears similar to the Bofors FH-77B – the famous “Bofors gun” that India bought 410 of in the 1980s. In fact, the ATAGS, a 155-millimetre, 52-calibre gun-howitzer (guns fire at low angle, howitzers at high angle, while ATAGS does both) is significantly bigger than the 155-millimetre, 39-calibre Bofors.
155-millimetres is the “bore” of the gun, or the width of the gun barrel. Calibre relates to barrel length; the higher the calibre, the longer the barrel, and the longer its range. A third parameter is chamber size, which determines how large a projectile can be fired from the gun, and therefore how much damage a round can inflict on the target.
While most globally available 155-millimetre guns, including the French Nexter and Israeli Elbit guns the military has evaluated, have a chamber capacity of 23 litres, ATAGS will have a 25-litre chamber. That would let it fire more high explosive onto the target with each round.
In addition, that makes the ATAGS’s range noticeably higher, especially while firing “extended range full bore” (ERFB) ammunition, with which the range goes up to an astonishing 45 kilometres.
The ATAGS is the world’s only gun with a six-round “automated magazine”, which lets it fire a six-round burst in just 30 seconds. Most other 155-mm, 52-calibre guns have three-round magazines, which must be reloaded after firing three rounds.
Since most casualties are caused by artillery in the initial burst of fire, when enemy soldiers are caught in the open (and not after they dive into their trenches), a high “burst fire” capability is an important attribute.
The ATAGS specifications also require it to fire 60 rounds in 60 minutes in the “sustained fire” mode. Another first in the ATAGS is its all-electric drive, which replaces the comparatively unreliable hydraulic drives in other towed guns. The ATAG’s all-electric drive operates its automated mechanisms: ammunition handling, opening and closing the breech, and ramming the round into the chamber.
These enhanced performance attributes have increased the weight of ATAGS to 16 tonnes, a couple of tonnes heavier than comparable towed guns. The army is willing to accept a heavier gun that delivers significantly better performance.
Notwithstanding the army’s enthusiasm, the ATAGS faces a stiff regimen of trials before entering service. In June, “range and accuracy trials” will be conducted to evaluate its accuracy and its effect on the target. Its performance will be evaluated in varying terrain conditions, like deserts, plains, mountains and high altitude; both in summer and winter. The gun’s mobility, and that of the Ashok Leyland tractor that tows it, will also be evaluated. Maintenance evaluation trials (MET) will follow.
Traditionally, indigenous weapon projects have been dominated by the DRDO. In ATAGS, however, the DRDO functions as a project manager and concept designer, while private firms handle much of the systems development. With the workload thus shared, the project is expected to escape the delays that have bedevilled past projects that were exclusively handled by an overloaded DRDO.