Friday, 14 October 2011

Bofors reloaded: Defence ministry stung again

NEW DELHI: Allegations of kickbacks paid to middlemen in purchase of Bofors artillery guns led to one of the worst electoral defeats for Congress party in the late 80s, and since then the Army has been unable to purchase even a single new artillery gun for over the past 25 years.

But there is a yet unheard of twist to the Bofors scam, it now emerges. Sources said the blame for Army's stalled artillery modernization may lie closer home, with the government sitting on the transfer of technology that permits India to manufacture the Bofors gun in the country.

As the military top brass desperately look around for solutions to the crippling shortage of artillery guns, they stumbled upon the fact that India actually has the entire drawings of the Bofors guns, and had paid for the transfer of technology to manufacture the gun in India. But the Ordnance Factory Board sat on the drawings all these years, never attempting to make the gun in India.

A senior official, not very amused at the turn of events, told TOI that they have now asked OFB to manufacture six prototypes of the Bofors artillery guns within the next 18 months. "If we had indigenous capability, then all these years of effort to buy foreign guns and such crippling shortage in capabilities wouldn't have been there," he said.

A senior military source said the OFB has now been asked to manufacture two guns of the 155/39 mm caliber, the original make of the Bofors gun bought in the 80s. Two others would be of the same caliber but upgraded with new capabilities. The OFB has also been asked to make two guns of 155/45 mm caliber. All the six guns would be towed guns, sources said.

Once they are ready, the Army would put them through extensive field trials and once cleared, OFB could then resort to mass production, one of the officials said.

Despite repeated efforts, OFB representatives were not available for comments on the transfer of technology for Bofors. One OFB official said the board has "dedicated and fully integrated facility for manufacture of various calibers of artillery guns".

For years after the Bofors scandal, there were no efforts to buy new generation artillery guns. When the Kargil conflict of 1999 took place, the Army had to cannibalise some of the guns to run the rest of them to deadly effect.

Over the years, there have been several trials, cancellations, retrials and other efforts. But none of them have succeeded in getting the Army a new generation of artillery guns, leading to serious concern among the Army top brass about the war fighting capabilities.

The closest government came to buying a new generation of artillery guns recently was when the Army concluded detailed field trials, maintenance assessments etc for a government-to-government deal with the US for buying Ultra Light Howitzers for mountains. But even that has now run into legal tangle, with the defence ministry telling Army that a High Court order may be a hindrance. Now the entire issue is under legal examination.

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