April 01, 2020
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A Gun Resurrected

Despite opposition in Sweden, technology transfer is on track

A Gun Resurrected
Speculation has been rife in the media on whether the lifting of the 10-year-old embargo last fortnight on Celsius, the manufacturers of the 155 mm Bofors guns, would come a cropper with opposition parties in Sweden protesting the sale of arms, spares and ammunition to India. Their rationale: arms should not be supplied to any country at war.

But it is now confirmed that Celsius will not only be honouring their '86 contract to supply spares and ammunition but will also provide technical assistance to manufacture the guns and its spares indigenously. 'We have got the okay from the Swedish prime minister. There is no question of us not honouring the contract signed between the two countries. Take it from me, we are 100 per cent certain that we will supply spares as well as ammunition,' Goran Karlsson, commercial manager of Celsius, told Outlook.

Karlsson says the objections to supplying arms to India comes from opposition leaders in his country who are ignorant of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between the two countries at the time the Bofors deal was struck. Says Karlsson: 'The MoU clearly states that Sweden will supply spares as well as ammunition for the howitzers even in the event of a war. So there is no reason why we should not honour the contract on account of Kargil.' Only a UN embargo on India can now stop Celsius from supplying spares and ammunition.

The Opposition in Sweden has been up in arms against the proposed supply. The Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society (spas) was the first to raise objections. Other than their argument that arms trade with a nation at war was inadvisable, the spas, supported by the Green Party and the Left Party, has also been pointing out that the Swedish government could well dishonour the contract since it was India which first breached it by putting an embargo on the manufacturers of the field gun.

However, the official Celsius line is that the spas' objections aren't based on facts and that the Opposition parties in Sweden would come around to the government's point of view once they were made aware of the facts. Says Karlsson: 'Like you have politicians in India, we have politicians in Sweden and they have been raising objections. But it will not affect our business with India.'

The lifting of the embargo on Celsius has been a long-standing army demand. Having inducted 410 of the howitzers, the army has been strapped for spares and high-grade ammunition. At present, the ordnance factories manufacture low-range (17 km) and normal range(30 km) rounds for the guns. But the indigenous manufacture of the extended range (40 km) ammunition has not taken off because the ordnance factories have not perfected the technology. As a result, during the Kargil operations, the government had to rush to a South African manufacturer for the higher-powered ammunition.

Ironically, Celsius has been trying to regain the Indian government's favour of ever since '95 when it was relaunched as a new company. The earlier ownership pattern of the Bofors company was changed and it was rechristened Celsius. But all this did not change the Indian stand. With the Bofors scandal refusing to die down, no government was willing to take the risk of allowing the Swiss company a re-entry.

Defence sources say the embargo has worked against the army's interests. Points out a senior officer: 'Had we kept politics out and been more pragmatic, we should have been manufacturing our own 155 mm field guns and ammunition. But the entire project became a taboo thanks to the Bofors scam.' He adds that the kickbacks scandal had even raised questions about the performance of the gun but it had proved itself in the Kargil operations as a top-class weapon.

Surprisingly, the embargo even meant a clampdown on services that India had already paid for under the '86 contract. Like the transfer of technology, for which the Swedish manufacturer had dispatched technical drawings and documentation. All these papers were kept unused and sealed with the ministry of defence (production).

Now that the government has given the go-ahead, the documents are likely to come out of the cold. Celsius has already agreed to chip in with technical assistance. This, incidentally, is also a service for which India has already paid for. Perhaps now there'll actually be some delivery.

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