NEW DELHI: The Ministry of Defence (MoD) faces accusations of serious contradictions in the apparently ill-considered ban it had imposed last June on arms vendor Singapore Technologies Kinetic (STK). The ban was slapped on seven companies after the May 19, 2009 arrest of former Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) chairman, Sudipta Ghosh, on charges of corruption.
The ban on STK is all but collapsing. Next month, STK’s 155-mm towed gun will take part in firing trials — cleared by the MoD – for selecting a new-generation artillery piece for the Indian Army. STK’s Lightweight Assault Rifle will also begin army trials in February. Inexplicably, though, the ban remains on STK’s 155-mm Pegasus ultralight howitzer, which the army wants urgently for India’s mountain divisions.
The Pegasus trials remain blocked despite efforts of the army chief, General Deepak Kapoor — himself an artilleryman — who requested the MoD for trials to continue alongside the Central Bureau of Investigation’s investigations, to save time (reported in Business Standard on July 18, 2009). Rejecting that request, the MoD approached Washington to allow India to buy the American BAE Systems’ M777 ultralight howitzer.
The army, however, wants the option open on both, not a single-vendor situation in which the US-based company can dictate its price. Despite the MoD ban, the army chief has publicly declared that the STK howitzer remains an option.
On January 14, 2009, General Kapoor told the press, “We have one gun (the Pegasus) waiting for trials and, at the same time, we have approached a foreign country (the US) for purchasing an ultralight howitzer directly. We will follow both routes. The moment one of them is successful, we will go ahead with that purchase.”
But, MoD sources say they are not rethinking the ban on the Pegasus. They say the CBI has solid proof that STK paid money into Ghosh’s bank account in Singapore. Asked why the CBI has failed to file charges against Ghosh, who was freed on bail last July, they have no answers.
Now, STK has also, for the first time, publicly protested the ban. Last week, STK’s CEO, Brigadier-General Patrick Choy, revealed to the press in New Delhi that he had travelled to India last year to assist the CBI in its investigations into Ghosh’s alleged corruption. Choy said he had invited the CBI team to Singapore for a full audit of STK, promising that he would fully open the company’s books to investigators. The CBI has not, so far, responded.
STK first encountered the unpredictability of the Indian defence market when it flew a Pegasus howitzer into India for trials last year, in response to an MoD request. On June 5, 2009, just as the Pegasus reached the Pokhran Field Firing Ranges in Rajasthan, a media statement from the MoD spokesperson announced that STK had been banned. To this day, the MoD has not officially intimated STK about any ban.
After remaining stranded by the roadside in Pokhran for several days, the Pegasus was moved to Gwalior, where it remains housed in an army unit.
The Indian Army’s artillery modernisation plan has remained stalled, for various reasons, for over two decades; the ultralight howitzer is only the latest procurement fiasco. The army’s 180 artillery gun regiments — each having 18 guns — have not received any new weaponry since the Bofors gun was bought in the late 1980s.