NEW DELHI — Reversing an earlier practice to give big-ticket orders only to state-owned companies, India's first homemade 155mm/52-caliber towed artillery gun, the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), will be built jointly by private sector companies.

"Initially an order of 114 guns worth $350 million will be given next year to the private companies," an Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) official said.

The Indian Army has a requirement of more than 1,500 towed guns, and the production order could be worth more than $4.5 billion, a potential boost for domestic private defense businesses.

The ATAGS is being developed by the state-owned Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) in partnership with two private sector firms — Kalyani Group and Tata Power SED.

"Two ATAGS prototypes have already been made and are under trials. MoD has already projected immediate requirement of 114 guns. The production can start within two years of order placement. With two partners having [their] own production line, [they] can meet the requirement faster," Bhupinder Yadav, a retired Indian Army major general and defense analyst, said.

Interestingly, Kalyani Group has already developed the gun barrel and breech for the second ATAGS prototype.

Last month, DRDO and the Army jointly conducted the first engineering trials, during which the ATAGS prototype, which boasts a range of 45 kilometers, fired test rounds of live ammunition.

The prototype will now undergo a series of trials for range accuracy and performance in varying terrain and climate conditions, an Indian Army official said.

"For serial production to be established, it would take at least upwards of one and [a] half years," the Indian Army official said. "In all, ATAGS will take at least four years for induction into artillery." According to the official, the Indian ATAGS will be far cheaper than other global towed artillery guns.

Rajinder Bhatia, president and CEO of the Kalyani Group's Defence and Aerospace unit, said of the artillery weapon: "The task of development and manufacturing of gun system was allotted to Kalyani Group, based on their know-how, competence, experience and infrastructure. Bharat Forge (a company of Kalyani Group) has taken up the role of co-developer, providing diverse inputs in design, manufacture and development.

"Kalyani Group has also established India's first private facility to manufacture ordnance including gun barrel, gun super structure and ammunition transfer system, auxiliary propulsion system including undercarriage, and gun display units for artillery guns."

Advocating greater participation by the private sector in weapons production, Tata Power CEO Rahul Chaudhry, said: "Wherever Indian private sector (large players) are involved in systems engineering with DRDO, the defense products have been successful, e.g, strategic missiles, Arihant (nuclear submarine), Akash air defense system and Pinaka multibarrel rocket launcher."

Agreeing with the MoD's decision to give the production line to private sector companies, Yadav, the defense analyst, said: "OFB's capacity is adequately engaged with another home-developed 155mm/45-caliber howitzer gun project, Dhanush."

OFB, or the Ordnance Factory Board, functions under the Department of Defence Production, which is under the purview of the MoD. It participates in the production, testing and development processes of land, sea and air systems.

"OFB's Gun Carriage Factory already has its hands full trying to deliver the Dhanush at the required rate at the required quality and has got its hands into too many projects. It should not be allowed to do ATAGS. As in any case, the nation should have strategic choices and be able to hedge against one entity failing to deliver," the Indian Army official said.

The Army requires a variety of 3,000 artillery guns - a stipulation worth approximately $9 billion.

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