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By Bulbul Singh

07 Mar 07. The Indian defence ministry is re-bidding the purchase of 400 pieces of 155mm guns worth $2bn in which Swedish SWS Bofors and Israeli Soltam are the front runners and four rounds of ground trials have already been held of the guns.

The re-bid comes in the wake of the detention of an Italian businessmen Ottavio Quattrocchi in Argentina allegedly involved in the 1987 Bofors pay-off case during the tenure of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the late husband of the ruling Congress Party’s Chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Sources said, the government fears a political fall-out of the Bofors case in case SWS Bofros is awarded the contract.

It is feared that in case Quattrochi is extradited to India his revelations on the Bofors guns purchase during the tenure of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi could kick off a political storm thwarting the purchase of the Bofors guns, which is said to be the front runner in the $2bn contract for the purchase of 400 155mm guns said sources in the Indian defence ministry.

In the running for the guns, Denel of South Africa was blacklisted by the ruling government 2005 on grounds of alleged kick-backs.

The purchase of 155mm guns has reached an advanced stage after the fourth round of field trails were completed early this year in the higher reaches of Jammu and Kashmir. The field trials of the guns from Bofors and Soltam were carried in the arid snowy heights of Ladakh region of the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Swedish SWS Bofors and Israeli Soltam guns which are pitted against each other in the $2bn contract had earlier demonstrated the capabilities of their guns in the field trials held in the desert of Rajas than.

The process of purchase of 400 0.52 caliber 155 mm guns began in 2001 with the global tender. The Indian Army conducted the first round of trials with three short listed contenders, Bofors (now owned by BAE Systems), Israeli firm Soltam and South African Denel company, in May-July 2002.

Then, after three rounds of trials in Thar Desert and high-altitude Ladakh area, Denel was blacklisted 2005 on allegations of payoffs in an anti-material rifles’ contract. Consequently, the fourth round of trials concluded early this year only with Soltam and Bofors guns.

The fall-out of the Bofors kick-back case is hurting the modernization program of the Indian Army commented said a senior officer of the Indian Army who added that in case these guns are not added at the earliest then the fire power of the Indian army will take a big hit.

The Indian Army had decided in 1999 to convert all the field guns with its artillery into 155mm guns which would mean purchase of around 3000 guns in the next ten years worth over$6bn. However the pace of induction of 155 mm guns is extremely slow and today the Indian army has around 300 pieces of 155 mm guns as most of the 400 Howitzer guns purchased from Bofors in the 80’s were cannibalized during the Kargil battle of 1999. The 155 guns proved to be very effective in the Kargil battle after which a decision was taken to equip all the artillery regiments of the Indian army with 155 mm , 0.52 caliber guns.

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