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Bofors phobia stalls gun upgrade

New Delhi, Feb. 25: The Indian Army has been asked to re-invite bids for an order of towed artillery guns after the Bofors guns outraced South African and Israeli competitors in repeated trials held over four years.

The order was issued in January — before Ottavio Quattrocchi’s detention in Argentina — but it reflects the sense of unease the name of the arms manufacturer evokes in the corridors of power in Delhi.

Defence minister A.K. Antony issued directives that defence procurements should be contracted only after vetting offers from multiple vendors.

The revelation coincides with the ongoing controversy over Quattrocchi’s detention in Argentina. The CBI, facing charges of dragging its feet, is preparing to send a team to Argentina on February 28. ( )

The order to re-tender means that the army’s plans to upgrade its artillery — more than 20 years after the Bofors deal of 1986 — have been set back indefinitely. Army chief General J.J. Singh had said last year that he expected the induction of the new guns to begin in 2007.

But Antony and the army are fighting shy of the controversy that could result if Bofors were to be given the order again under a government led by the Congress.

Bofors is the clear favourite of the Indian Army once again for the fresh order of 400 towed artillery guns. The army was already convinced in the 1999 Kargil war that the gun was a good buy irrespective of the kickbacks row it threw up.

But the version of the Bofors gun in contention for the Indian order — (Field Howitzer) FH-77B05L52 — is an improvement on the 1986 gun.

If the Bofors gun contracted in 1986 advertised its ability to “shoot and scoot”, the version that is in contention for orders that could total $2 billion from the army focuses on its “gun and run” capability.

During trials for the towed pieces, the Bofors artillery sequence — into action, a volley of eight rounds in under a minute, out of action and a move of 500 metres — was faster than that of its competitors. Also, the Israeli Soltam gun had broken down during an earlier summer trial in the Rajasthan desert.

Senior defence ministry sources said the order to re-tender for 400 towed artillery guns was issued in January. Each gun could cost Rs 25-30 crore but the exact value of the deal will be structured around a package involving licensed production, spares, servicing and ammunition.

In a fifth round of summer and winter trials, Bofors performed better than the Israeli Soltam. The third gun in contention from South Africa’s Denel was ruled out earlier because the firm was blacklisted.

The Bofors facility continues to be located in Karlskoga in Sweden but its ownership has changed. It is now part of Bae Systems Land and Armaments division.

However, the firm retains the Bofors brand name in its field howitzer system. Negotiations with Bofors were re-opened by the Vajpayee government in 1998.

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