The indigenous howitzer

Source: By Sushant Kulkarni: The Indian Express

In a first, an indigenously developed howitzer gun, ATAG, became part of the 21-gun salute during the Independence Day ceremony at the Red Fort 15 August 2022. Developed by the DRDO, the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) was used alongside the traditional British-origin ’25 Pounders’ artillery guns.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also referred to the gun while speaking about the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative of the Centre during his Independence Day speech. “Today, for the first time in 75 years since Independence, a Made-in-India artillery gun was used in the 21-gun salute that is given to the tricolour. All Indians will be inspired and empowered by this sound. And that is why, today, I want to thank our Armed forces for carrying the responsibility of Atma Nirbharta on their shoulders in an organized manner,” the PM said.

The 21-gun salute tradition

When the National Anthem is played by the Military Band after the unfurling of the Tricolour at the Red Fort by the Prime Minister, a 21-volley gun salute is fired by a ceremonial battery from an artillery regiment.

The tradition of gun salutes originates from the Western navies where guns from the ports and those from incoming ships used to be fired in a particular manner to convey that there was no belligerent intention. This tradition was carried forward as a way of paying respects or for according official welcome to the Crown, royals, military commanders and heads of states. India inherited the tradition from the British rulers who had gun salutes comprising 101 volleys, 31 volleys and 21 volleys, and so on depending on the hierarchy. In India, artillery gun salutes are fired on the Republic Day, the Independence Day and also at the time of oath taking ceremony of the President, among other occasions.

Over the years, this 21-gun salute — which are blanks — was fired by the World War era howitzers of British make known as ‘Ordnance Quick Fire 25 Pounder’ or just ’25 Pounder’.

Inclusion of ATAGS

This year, two Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) howitzers joined the battery that fired along with other 25 Pounders, officials have said.

The ATAGS is an indigenous 155 mm x 52 calibre howitzer gun developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) with its Pune-based facility Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE) being the nodal agency. Howitzers are an umbrella term for a category of long-range artillery guns.

Some practice firing sessions of the ATAGS were held in the run up to the Independence Day celebrations. Officials said that including the ATAGS in the symbolic activity of 21-gun salute is a crucial step in the journey and is significant towards its induction into the Army.

Development of the ATAGS

The ATAGS project was started in 2013 by DRDO to replace older guns in service in the Indian Army with a modern 155 mm artillery gun. With ARDE as the nodal laboratory, other DRDO facilities that joined the development efforts are Instruments Research and Development Establishment (IRDE), Vehicle Research and Development Establishment (VRDE), Proof and Experimental Establishment (PXE), Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR), and Defence Electronics Applications Laboratory (DEAL). The ARDE has collaborated with Bharat Forge Limited and Tata Advanced Systems Ltd for the manufacturing of this specialised gun system.

After the several tests of the subsystems in the initial phases of development, July 2016 marked a key milestone when the proof-firing of ATAGS was conducted during the technical trials at DRDO’s Proof and Experimental Establishment (PXE) in Balasore.

In August and September 2017, a record target range of around 48 km was achieved at Pokhran Field Firing Range.

The system has subsequently undergone various levels of trials in different weather and terrain conditions. In 2020, the ATAGS reported a mishap during one of its test firing at Pokhran which was probed by the DRDO.

The system is currently undergoing an evaluation by the Directorate General Quality Assurance (DGQA) marking its final stage before the Army places orders for it. The DGQA is a nodal agency for the quality assurance of all arms, ammunition, equipment and stores supplied to the Armed Forces.

ATAGS features

The armament system of ATAGS mainly comprises barrel, breech mechanism, muzzle brake and recoil mechanism to fire 155 mm calibre ammunition held by Army with a longer range, accuracy and precision and provides greater firepower.

The ATAGS is configured with all electric drive to ensure maintenance free and reliable operation over a longer period of time. It has advanced features in terms of high mobility, quick deployability, auxiliary power mode, advanced communication system, automatic command and control system with night firing capability in the direct fire mode.

During its September 2017 test at Pokhran, the maximum ranges of 38.5 km and 48 km, with boat tail and extended range full bore types of projectiles, were achieved. These, the DRDO officials say, are at least 20% more than ranges achieved by any contemporary gun system.

During the same trials, a minimum range of 4.7 km was achieved from the systems meeting the critical parameter of minimum range at high angle.

The specialised gun system is compatible with C4I (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence) systems like the Artillery Combat Command and Control System (ACCCS) called Shakti for technical fire control, fire planning, deployment management, and operational logistics management of the Army.

Future role

The development process of ATAGS by the DRDO coincides with development of Howitzer Dhanush for Advanced Weapons and Equipment India of the erstwhile Ordnance Factory Board.

In 2019, the Army and the Ministry of Defence gave bulk production clearance to produce 114 Dhanush. Officials hope that the two flagship products under Make In India — ATAGS and Dhanush — will successfully replace the older systems from the artillery in coming days.