The Indian Army has finally set the ball rolling again on a long-festering modernisation compulsion — replacing its very old air defence guns deployed in border sectors as a last line of defence against hostile air intrusions. And while there is little by way of assurance that the Army will be able to successfully navigate the rebooted drive to a conclusive contract, the decks stand cleared. The Army has formally announced, for the third time in the last eight years, a requirement of 938 guns to replace in-service Swedish Bofors L-70 and Russian ZU-23MM-2B guns, most of which stand deployed to protect military installations in forward areas. The replacement program will be the first major step to end years of stop-gap efforts that have sought to upgrade and life-extend the in-service weaponry.
Any contract down this path could be worth in excess of $3 billion.
The Army has also indicated its preference for the Buy (Indian Designed, Developed and Manufactured) category of the Defence Procurement Procedure, that would limit the prospective contest to guns of Indian origin. It has however left the door to open to more realistic category of Buy and Make (Indian) that involves local production of a ready foreign system. Companies likely to line up for the contest include India’s L&T, Tata, Kalyani Defence, Punj Lloyd and Mahindra Defence.
By way of an information request send to global vendors, the Army has stated that the guns ‘should have the capability to engage fighter aircraft, transport aircraft, helicopters (including hovering helicopters), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) / Drones, Cruise missiles, PGMs, RAM (Rocket, Arty & Mortar), Micro light aircraft, para motors, Para gliders and Aero models.’ The Army has also revealed that it is looking for 5,05,920 rounds of ammunition with the purchase, including 1,63,200 smart 3P rounds.
In 2009, the Army began an exercise to upgrade its Zu-23 and L-70 guns with new electro-optical systems, shortlisting the state-owned BEL and private sector Punj Lloyd in 2015. Upgrading and replacing its vintage air defence guns have both proven elusive to the Indian Army, despite high-level calls — including by an Army Chief in 2011-12 — on how dire the situation was. The Army’s new request for information may be seen as only another attempt to embark upon an equipment replacement drive that stubbornly refused to lift off for over a decade now.
But like with most things in Indian defence procurement, there’s a searing irony to the rebooted hunt for air defence guns.
If budgetary pressures and priorities have played their part in stalling modernisation of the army’s air defence regiments, it hasn’t been a problem at all at the higher end of the air defence requirement. The push for basic guns comes just weeks after India pulled the trigger on its biggest ever weaponry deal, for S-400 Triumf missile systems — the system that will be, in effect, the big daddy of India’s multi-layered air defence network. Nor has India had a problem progressing, albeit with stumbles and delays, the very short range air defence system (VSHORADS) contest, even though the latter has hit trouble with vendors weighing the option of protesting a Russian win in court. In September, the Indian MoD also approved the acquisition of 2 more regiments of the indigenous Akash surface-to-air missile system for the Indian Air Force.
The fleet-footedness with which India has concluded high-value deals for high performance air defence weaponry, while allowing crucial basics to languish for over a decade have also contributed to questions of how the various layers will ‘talk’ to each other — and whether the S-400 layer can successfully ‘hand over’ a target to, for instance, the Akash SAM system. The result, on one recent occasion when journalists visited Moscow, was some hard-nosed levity.
Earlier this year, the Indian Air Force set the ball rolling to acquire 244 close-in weapon systems — guns to protect its air bases, a mission profile currently fulfilled by the Indian Army’s old air defence guns. The new CIWS program looks to transfer the responsibility of ‘last layer’ air defence of air force bases to the Indian Air Force.