ATAGS an imperative for success of Make in India

Sub Title : The project must be taken to a logical conclusion

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 6 Jan/Feb 2020

Author : Col AK Sharma (Reted)

Page No. : 52

Category : Military Affairs

: January 28, 2020

Acquisition of military hardware, capacity and capability development have much greater connotations than just enhancing  firepower. Indigenisation also leads to creation of infrastructure, economic growth and self reliance. We need to take ATAGS to its logical conclusion

The modernization of Indian Artillery is aligned to its vision of Artillery  Profile 2027 and is a major component of Indian Army’s capability development programme. It is one of the world’s most ambitious plans for acquisition and development of field artillery gun systems.

The Indian Army’s quest  for  new 155mm artillery guns saw the induction of 39 calibre M777 ULH of BAE Systems in collaboration with Mahindra Defence and South Korean SP gun system K-9 Vajra being produced by Samsung and L&T during  the past one year. Another important chapter in the history of Indian Artillery was created in April 2019 when the first batch of 155mm / 45 calibre Dhanush guns, produced by OFB, were handed over to the Army. And then the largest single contract for towed artillery guns till now, in which Elbit, Israel is L1 (lowest bidder).

It was a ‘PROUDLY INDIAN’ moment when the DRDO designed gun, manufactured majorly by two Indian companies, TATA Power SED and Bharat Forge, was wheeled into Delhi to participate in the Republic Day Celebrations on 26 Jan 2017. As a senior army observer said “We are on track in designing and building an international quality gun through the ATAGS project. If it continues like this, India will become a major gun supplier in the world market, instead of a major buyer”. The army is usually restrained in its endorsement of on-going DRDO projects.

ATAGS is a fully indigenous towed artillery gun system project, undertaken in mission mode by DRDO, where majority of the work is being carried out in conjunction with partners from the private industry. OFB, IRDE, VRDE, CAIR, DEAL, DMRL and PXE are also development partners to provide solutions in specific areas.

The project which commenced in September 2012 had the basic objective of developing an indigenous advanced gun system. All specifications and operational requirements are mutually agreed upon thus leaving no ambiguity. ATAGS is home grown technology and is a perfect example of successful indigenous capability. ATAGS, a future battlefield solution, claims to have achieved unmatched performance in terms of range, accuracy and mobility. The range achieved during trials by ATAGS is the highest ever range achieved by any artillery gun in this category. Two prototypes have been successfully tested for firing and mobility as part of internal DRDO testing. ATAGS has been successfully fired in all types of terrain – in ranges at Balasore, Pokhran and Sikkim (High Altitude). The User Assisted Technical Trials (UATT) are likely to commence anytime soon.

The gun has several significant features including an all-electric drive, high mobility, quick deployability, auxiliary power mode, advanced communications system, automated command and control system. Burst firing capability has recently been successfully validated at field ranges in Rajasthan.

In this project, ‘Make in India’ came to the fore with Bharat Forge Ltd and Tata Power SED, the two development partners. They established infrastructure, plant and machineries for the project. The two companies were involved in each phase of development right from the inception of the project. Traditionally, indigenous weapon projects have been dominated by the DRDO as the design and development agency with the DPSUs /Ordnance factories as the production agencies. In ATAGS, however, the DRDO functioned as a Project Manager and Overall Designer, while the two private firms with strong systems engineering strength merged into the project at the initial technical readiness level.

Progress of the project however has slowed down a bit. Despite the creditable achievements, there are predictably some aberrations like extra weight and reportedly high cost at the initial stages of development which are casting a shadow over the first ever major defence design and development project undertaken by the Indian Industry. A large number of stakeholders and the dynamics that are inherent due to multiple protagonists in a project, looming shadow of foreign acquisitions, and changing nature of warfare at the global level are some of the stumbling blocks; not the lack of R&D and industrial capability as some may like to believe.

Cost per gun system can be reduced drastically with increasing numbers while weight may be a red herring given that two axels bear the weight equally.

In the overall interest of self-reliance in defence and a promising future of Indian projects, certain key issues need to be identified and resolved on priority.

► Produce one type of gun system and ensure standardization. During the development stage 02 prototypes have been developed. Akash weapon system is one model for precedence.

► We need to produce the best gun system for the nation that India can produce, not the best that an individual entity produces. During the development process, so far DRDO, DPSUs and Indian Industry have developed systems and subsystems which are state of the art. There is a case here for DRDO to recognize the best of the two gun systems and integrate them on one platform and field it for trials. Fortunately, both the development partners, i.e. Bharat Forge and TATA have demonstrated more than adequate capabilities through their indigenously developed systems. One’s deficiency can be more than compensated by the other’s strength. ATAGS project possesses that combined strength.

►Of all the stakeholders, the end User, Regiment of Artillery, Indian Army must accept the significant role that it can play in indigenization and self-reliance. With their operational knowledge and technical expertise, the Indian Army can help overcome most of the deficiencies. And now is the time. Indian Army and the Regiment of Artillery must support with a sense of ownership and get into mission mode for its success. Together with the DRDO and Indian Industry, this project must be given the support that it needs.

►Forge a partnership between the two private industry partners; the (healthy) competitive stage is over.

►Launch indigenous MGS project to maintain momentum, exploit existing expertise and reduce time lag.

►Ensure adequate demand to amortise design and development cost, ensure financial viability, and provide the defence industry with a long term gainful project, while making India robust and self-reliant in this domain.  Import minimum numbers, if at all, to maintain Artillery upgrades for the immediate future, after which ATAGs should be the mainstay.

►Indigenize the project and reduce the role of foreign players in order to remove rivalry and infructuous interference.

This might necessitate creation of a special independent monitoring cell to oversee progress. Fortunately, adequate professional talent is available within the country.