ATAGS VS ATHOS : Understanding the rift from user and developers perspective
Apart from stand-off with China, there is a fierce stand-off going on within India, i.e. on whether to procure Elbit’s Autonomous Towed Howitzer System aka ATHOS 2052 or DRDO and TATA/Kalyani JV Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System aka ATAGS. The original plan was to acquire 400 guns from OEM and then another 1180 guns were supposed to be made in India under Transfer of technology. The main competitors were Elbit systems ATHOS 2052 and Nexter Trajan, of which Athos came as L1 bidder with price of Euro 1.2 mil a piece which at current rates will be around Rs. 10.7 cr.
However this deal did not went through as DRDO in partnership with Kalyani and TATA came up with 2 prototype of Indigenously developed 155/52 ATAGS. The plan was modified by army to just acquire 400 Athos from Israel to meet immediate requirement while rest could be fulfilled by ATAGS. However this plan is being objected by DRDO which want whole order to be given for ATAGS. This back and forth is going on for quite some time. While ball remains in court of MOD, let’s understand both sides.
ATAGS v/s ATHOS – Army’s Point of View
Army currently lock horns with china in Eastern Laddakh, and to our utter surprise, it has very limited number of 155mm artillery guns. Though army have a decent number of 105mm IFG, but other than having less destructive power, these guns have very limited range of 17km as compared to 30-45km range offered by 155mm guns using base bleed rounds. However when we consider mountainous terrain, this range is further reduced drastically due to extreme firing angles. Army did upgraded some 200 odd M46 to 155/45 standard, but these system have serious disadvantages with its restricted elevation of merely 45 degrees, afterall its a towed artillery gun and not howitzer. This leaves Army towed howitzer inventory with some 200 odd ageing Bofors guns and 59 M777 while rest M777 are in process of being delivered. 100 K-9 Thunders SPH add to it, but Tracked SPH has limited scope of deployment in mountainous terrain, say mainly to support armored columns at Depsang Plains and Spanggur Gap.
The situation for army is eventually dire with respect to heavy artillery system which has become worse with mess up by OFB. As per some latest reports, out of 114 Dhanush ordered OFB has merely delivered 12 such guns, not making even a first regiment of 18 guns and this is when 1st 6 guns were delivered in 2019. The condition of upgunned M-46 Sharangs is no better even though it just involve upgradation and not full manufacturing. Now consider current number of guns to the total requirement of around 3500 155mm guns of various types, you will realize in what critical situation army is in. Coming to ATAGS, army is supportive to ATAGS but issue popped up when last year during summer trials it’s barrel burst. This one accident derailed the whole project of which DAC has cleared purchase of initial 150 guns after successful trials. Now re-confirmatory summer trials are supposed to happen this month after which gun can be cleared for production.
But once trials are cleared, delivery won’t start happening right away. It will take atleast two years for delivery of 1st gun, as after trials there will be clearance by cabinet committee of security, then contract signing, then factories involved will start with pre-production activities etc. Compared to this, if ordered now, ATHOS offer better timeline. Another issue is weight of gun. Army in its requirement asked for a gun which weights around 15 tons, but DRDO ended up making 18 tons gun.
In general, one may think, why does it matter if it weights 3 tons more, which as a matter of fact is 20% more than requirement, but these things matter because these are towed guns and the tow truck capacity must be taken into consideration while ordering such guns specially in mountainous terrain. The most important factor is cost, ATHOS costs extremely cheap at Euro 1.2mil i.e. around Rs.11 cr as compared to current price of Rs. 18 cr of ATAGS. It’s like army can get 3 ATHOS for every 2 ATAGS and still save Rs.3 cr. Now consider this for 400 guns and then for 1580 guns, Army do has a point here.
ATAGS v/s ATHOS – DRDO and Industry’s Point of View
One of the biggest concern which DRDO have is that once ATHOS is ordered, it is possible that army tries to sideline ATAGS and go for more and more ATHOS totally scuttling ATAGS. It has happened with arjun as it has still not find way in army after induction of 2 regiments and final contract of additional 2 regiments still pending. This project becomes more important because this is one of the project where major private players are involved, who have put in quite decent amount of investment and have actually produced a world class gun. DRDO another contention is why go for ATHOS when ATAGS offers better performance. As compared to 3 round burst of ATHOS, ATAGS offers 5/6 round burst depending on prototype. The range offered is 48 km by ATAGS as compared to 42km by ATHOS. ATAGS also offer more powerful APU and all electric drive. But obviously these capabilities came at the expense of weight and cost. However is weight that much of issue? Well some reports suggest otherwise.
Extracts from ‘The Print’ article by Snehesh Alex Philip:
“Industry sources said that the most significant achievement during the second phase of PSQR Winter Trials was moving the guns to the Northern-most point of operational area (Lukrep) in the Plateau areas of North Sikkim.-Snehesh Alex Philip
The movement was undertaken mostly during the hours of darkness to facilitate undisturbed movement of tourists and civilian vehicles and at the same time maintain confidentiality of the gun system with our adversaries.
They said that ATAGS (Bharat Forge) has demonstrated efficient towed movement in the treacherous terrain climbing altitudes up to 15,500 ft.
“Movement to Lukrep meant covering 341 kilometres and was tested over 10 days. ATAGS could negotiate the otherwise un-accessible mountainous terrain with steep gradient and narrow Hair-Pin Bends with ease, without needing to unhook the Gun from the Tower. In similar terrain, other systems need to be unhooked and moved in self-propelled mode, thereby increasing the overall travel time,” a source said.
He added that the total distance traveled by the ATAGS in mountains and high altitude was 526 kms as against 23 Kms mobility test done for foreign guns.
“So there cannot be any doubt on the mobility component of the ATAGS. The foreign gun should also be tested at the same location if someone believes that it is better,” the source added.
He added that the the ease with which the Bharat Forge Gun could traverse the complete stretch, stands testimony to the ability of the Guns to move into the remotest of places, in any type of terrain.”
If this report is to be believed, mobility is not an issue for ATAGS. Also airlifting too must not be an issue as all three transport aircrafts i.e. C-17, IL-76 and C-130 can airlift these howitzers. Coming to delivery schedule, even though initial delivery is faster for ATHOS, overall delivery will be faster for ATAGS. As it has 2 production partners involved i.e. TATA Advanced system and Bharat Forge with claimed production capacity of 200 guns per annum each, meaning around 400 guns per annum, which is equal to total proposed order of ATHOS. Other than that ordering some foreign system over indigenous one that has private players involved will be highly demoralizing for private players, who have shown quite an enthusiasm in Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat.
We Alpha Defense opine that both Howitzers are pretty decent and will more than meet requirements of Indian Army. Coming to price, cost is not permanent and is subject to multiple variations from time to time. ATHOS is an in-service system, and gun has achieved economies of scale, so cost is more or less stabilized. But when we consider it in Indian scenario there will be 2 factors involved, first is exchange rate fluctuation and 2nd is inflation.
Other than that when production in India will start, cost will go up as it will include capacity creation cost in India. Coming to ATAGS, Rs. 18 cr seems to be cost of prototype, however once production line is stabilized and economies of scale achieved, cost will likely come down. Even though ATHOS are cheaper, higher price of ATAGS can be justified by enhanced capabilities it offer as compared to ATHOS. Coming to the question on weight, we don’t consider it to be a serious issue, specially in light of above extracts.
If gun has cleared trials, it means it must have met with the said requirements of PSQR, which must have included mobility in high altitude areas. The only issue which remains is delivery timeline. ATHOS being in service gun can initiate delivery in a shorter period, while ATAGS is yet to complete its trials.