TRIAL CATCHES ERROR
MOD puts howitzer contract on hold after an alleged cover-up of a barrel burst
The Ministry of Defence ( MOD) has put on hold the army’s Rs 4,726 crore tender for buying 180 wheeled howitzers. The move is another setback to the Indian Army’s Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan, a Rs 22,000-crore project to buy 2,700 artillery guns. The tender to buy wheeled guns—howitzers mounted on six- or eight-wheeled armoured vehicles—was put on hold after allegations of deviations in the gun trials carried out in 2010. The army submitted its trial report to MOD in August this year but the ministry has put the procurement on hold, reportedly on an anonymous complaint. The widelycirculated complaint alleged a coverup in the defects of one of the competitors, Konstrukta of Slovakia.
Signed by “a group of concerned officials”, the letter alleged that the army covered up the fact that the Konstrukta gun barrel exploded during user-trials at the Pokhran firing range in July 2010. Confirming the incident, a senior army official privy to the trials said that the barrel was replaced by the Slovakian company. The Directorate General of Quality Assurance ( DGQA) a department of MOD that certifies the reliability of military equipment, submitted a report to the AKONSTRUKTA155 MM WHEELED HOWITZER IN ACTION army headquarters four months after the incident. “The DGQA report pinpointed faulty ammunition made by the Ordnance Factory Board as the cause. One of the rounds exploded, shearing off the barrel. The manufacturer replaced the barrel and successfully completed the trials. We found no reason to hold up the procurement,” the official added. He attributed the letter to “infighting within DGQA”. The letter, however, alleges that
DGQA kept delaying the trial report deliberately till Konstrukta, in connivance with vested interests, sent the barrel back to Slovakia so that its metallurgy could not be checked. The complaint attached a copy of an internal test report from a DGQA lab which certifies that the so-called defective ammunition was not at fault.
“Given the current political climate, MOD is extremely wary of taking a decision. But they should at least formally scrap the contract and immediately reissue it so that we don’t miss crucial summer and winter trial windows next year,” says an army officer. “Despite exhaustive guidelines in the procurement procedure, repeated retraction of major procurement cases on account of infirmities in their technical evaluation is a cause for serious concern,” says Major General Mrinal Suman (retired). “Yet, no corrective measures have been taken to prevent their recurrence. Worse, no official has ever been held accountable for perverting the process,” he adds.
The army has been unable to buy a single artillery gun after the Bofors scam in 1987. It hopes to buy five types of howitzers for its formations. However, successive contracts to buy howitzers have hit roadblocks or have been rebooted. Two howitzer vendors, Denel of South Africa and ST Kinetics have been blacklisted, while MOD is still wary of dealing with Bofors, now cleared of bribery charges and owned by the UK’S BAE Systems. MOD recently placed a plan to directly import 146 ultra-light howitzers from the US after a court case was filed by ST Kinetics.