22 April 2005


From Jal Khambata

NEW DELHI: A media report on South Africa's biggest weapon manufacturer Denel allegedly paying the British agents to influence India's purchase of the light ordnance anti-material guns and Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee quickly freezing all deals with the firm "as a matter of routine" may turn out to be an attempt to benefit Bofors once again.

The whole exercise is seen here in the defence circles as an attempt to kill the competitor of Bofors that would have otherwise secured the order before the end of this year.

The Swedish Bofors AB company that was blacklisted for the alleged kickbacks in 1987 during Rajiv Gandhi's regime to bag the Howitzer gun order and that now goes by the new name of SBS Defence Systems AB is bound to gain a multi-million dollar Indian contract worth Rs 12,000 crores once Denel is eliminated.

The defence experts say India's requirement to upgrae and re-equip its artillery is so big that there should be no surprise if the South African media report were deliberately planted to eliminate Denel which had nearly bagged the order since after the last trials in December 2004. Such dirty games go on among the big defence manufacturers and dealers.

Already two trials have been completed, putting Denel on the top and the Army was scheduled to conduct the last "summer trials" of the 155mm/52 calibre howitzers in the Rajasthan deserts in the next two months before the deal is struck and put before the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) for the final approval.

Late Rajiv Gandhi was accused of playing the key role in getting the Bofors the 1987 order for the guns and there should be no surprise if again someone big in the Congress is behind the attempt to re-establish the same Bofors in India with the biggest arms deal.

The order of the anti-material guns bagged by Denel involving the alleged commission paid to get the Price Negotiating Committee's papers from a British firm was too small, just Rs 300 crores, as compared to what is at stakes in the Indian Army's bid to upgrade its artillery.

Bofors, or better call it by the new name SBS Defence Systems AB, were one of the three contenders with its FH 77 B05LS2 while the other two contenders were Denel with its G-5/2000 and Israel's Soltam with their TIG 2002.

Though the Army has kept under tight wraps the results of the two trials of the sample supplies from these three firms, the international defence journals have reported technical doubts about the efficiency of Soltam's supplies, thus leaving only Denet and Bofors in the race.

After Thursday's decision of Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee to put on hold all transactions with Denel, the South African company is automatically knocked out of the race, the Indian artillery is left with just one vendor to deal with and that is Bofors.

The practice is not to award the tender in the situation of a single vendor and re-tender the requirement, but there should be no surprise if the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which is all powerful, decides to approve Bofors citing how the Indian Army would suffer a setback in its projections to convert its entire artillery comprising big guns of 155mm/52 calibre if the placement of the order is delayed.

The Rs 300-crore contract for supply of the anti-material guns was awarded to Denel when George Fernandes was the Defence Minister and it was also during his tenure that the Indian Army that had last bought 410 pieces of heavy artillery from Bofors had started looking for the bigger guns that can be towed or wheeled, self-propelled and tracked.

According to the defence magazines, Denel had nearly bagged the order for the 155mm tracked version named "Bhim" which would have involved mounting of the Denel make of turret and barrel on the chasis of the indigenously manufacture Arjun Tanks.