Prime Ministers rarely break protocol or waver from their itinerary. Doing something on the spur of the moment is a luxury those in leadership positions don’t always have. This is because their time isn’t really their own and even the slightest of deviation on their part from the set agenda could sometimes bring unexpected surprises.
On January 19, 2019, when he dedicated L&T’s newly built Armoured Systems Complex (ASC) at Hazira to the nation, Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi was only supposed to witness the capabilities of the K9 Vajra, country’s latest self-propelled howitzer, from the observation deck built at the far end of the test tracks. But the weapon system, freshly painted in slick desert camo and the enormous roar of its engines proved far too tempting for the PM. Barely a minute into the K9's display run, PM Modi hopped on board in the commander’s cupola and was photographed riding the gun. Naturally, shots of him commandeering the K9 Vajra went viral on social media. That and his own tweets a bit later had millions around the country talking about the impressive weapon system for the rest of the day. If only they knew that the howitzer was only a part of his itinerary on that day and that the big draw was the ASC, the facility which PM had dedicated to the nation just a few minutes earlier, solemnizing an amazing Make in India success story.
A first in the Indian private sector space, the ASC is a state-of-the-art facility for specialized manufacture and integration of advanced armoured platforms such as Self-Propelled Artillery Howitzers, Future Infantry Combat Vehicles (FICV), Future Ready Combat Vehicles (FRCV) or Future Main Battle Tanks. Spread over 40 acres within L&T’s sprawling 755-acre Hazira Manufacturing Complex, the ASC comprises an Industry 4.0 ready facility with high-end equipment and machinery, feeder shops, and a full-fledged mobility test track for acceptance and qualification of armoured vehicles. Highly-automated, nearly 90-95% of the processes inside it are robotized.
Mr. J.D. Patil, Sr. EVP - L&T Defence & Member of the L&T Board, says that the ASC is the 7th manufacturing unit created and operationalized for Defence Production in the last ten years and 10th overall owned by L&T Defence. L&T has invested in this crucial high-tech sector because it is the Company’s stated mission and ethos to build a strong and secure India.
L&T Defence, Mr. Patil says could have manufactured the K9 Vajra piecemeal at any of its other nine facilities but chose instead to create a dedicated facility given the highly critical nature of the project. From a strategic and operational standpoint, it made sense to have a facility where the majority of work could be completed under a single roof. “With ASC, you could feed cut steel plates at one end of the shop and have a fully assembled and integrated gun, rolling out of the other,” he says.
At present, five L&T factories are involved in making the parts and subsystems for the Vajra. The hull and the turret of the howitzer is built entirely from scratch at the ASC. Once built, it drives to the test track adjacent to the main shop. There, the howitzer is run for 80-100 kms on a variety of surfaces designed specially to test and validate its durability, reliability, terrain negotiating capability and battle readiness. Once each weapon system has been tested thoroughly and cleared by the in-house trial & quality evaluation teams, the Army professionals step in and test it independently before approving and taking delivery. The test track at ASC is an asset available for use by other defence industries in Gujarat and adjoining states.
The dedication of ASC to the nation at the hands of the PM marks the beginning of the Phase II of the K9 project. The guns manufactured during Phase I (10 nos.) are already with the Indian Army.
Awarded to L&T in 2017, the Rs 4,500-crore contract from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to supply 100 units of K9 Vajra-T 155 mm/52 Calibre Tracked Self-propelled Howitzers under the centre’s Make in India initiative, K9 remains the single largest defence contract awarded to a private firm till date.
L&T partnered with Hanwha Techwin of South Korea to offer what is globally regarded as the best Tracked Self-propelled Howitzers in the world by suitably customizing the South Korean platform with 13 indigenously developed systems including Fire Control Systems, Autoloaders, Direct Fire Capability, etc. to fully comply with stringent requirements of the Indian Army. The gun system underwent countless technical evaluations, internal trials, and field trials for nearly three and half years before MoD shortlisted L&T for the contract.
L&T’s initiative involved identifying & developing suitable sub-systems (such as Auxiliary Power Unit, Air Conditioning System, Inertial Navigation System along with GPS, Sighting System for Gunner to engage targets in direct line of sight during day and night, Muzzle Velocity Radar to measure velocity of the shell while exiting the gun, Driver’s Thermal Viewer for night driving so as to transform the original Korean K9 platform into K9 Vajra to meet Indian MoD’s requirements and indigenous development of Fire Control System, Ballistic Solution, Nuclear Biological & Chemical Protection System, Instant Fire Detection & Suppression System.
All this work meant a host of challenges, including development and integration of several new systems / sub-systems onto the existing platform and ensuring that each component is compliant to the stringent requirements in terms of Electro Magnetic Interference / Electro Magnetic Compatibility (EMI/EMC), environmental conditions, operational envelop, availability, maintainability and sustainability over the entire life cycle. Additionally, L&T also developed an indigenous ballistic solution for the gun to enable firing of a range of in-service ammunition in India.
Although the K9 Vajra looks like a tank, it is a 155-mm / 52-calibre artillery cannon mounted on tracked chassis. With just a three-member crew needed to operate it, K9 requires fewer men than it takes for a tank. Its design is customized specifically for arid landscapes such as desert areas and hilly terrains. The 100 howitzers that L&T is mandated to deliver as part of the contract will be used by the Indian Army’s armoured divisions which form a part of its strike corps.
While the first ten K9s were imported in semi knocked down state, assembled, and integrated in India using indigenously developed subsystems, the remaining K9 Vajras under Phase II will be largely manufactured in the country. Late last year in November, at an official ceremony in Nashik, Maharashtra, where the first batch of K9 Vajras were formally inducted into the army – with Mr. Patil handing over a K9 Vajra to the Chief of the Army Staff and Chief of Artillery in the presence of Hon. Defence Minister – top government officials mentioned that induction of all 100 howitzers is expected to be complete by November 2020 with the next 40 K9 Vajras scheduled to be delivered by November 2019 and the remaining 50, a year later.
The ASC has already begun rolling out the K9 Vajra ahead of schedule, informs Mr. Arun Ramchandani, EVP – GMA Business of L&T Defence. He says that starting with 25% indigenous work packages in Phase I, L&T plans to reach 75% work packages by the 20th system in Phase II.
One of the defining aspects of the program according to Mr. Patil, has been the manner in which L&T has embodied the spirit of Make in India by large scale indigenous production of various equipment and systems for cost efficient life support through in-house development, transfer of technology and a judicious mix of L&T’s in-house manufacturing facilities as well as tierised supply chain.
L&T Defence has played a catalyst’s role in developing the ecosystem of partners mainly from the MSME sector and by recruiting and training a large number of engineer apprentices from local institutes to do system integration and testing under the watchful eyes of domain seniors.
The K9 systems are currently being integrated with 50% indigenous content (by value) which includes 75% indigenous work packages at the program level and involves local production of over 13,000 components per K9 Vajra system through a supply chain of about 400 local Tier 1 manufacturers out of which 100+ are from the MSME segment, adds Mr. Ramchandani. L&T’s agreement with the South Korean partner also included training a team of engineers and integration specialists at Hanwha facilities. This trained team made structured efforts towards skill development in India by training suppliers’ as well as its own extended teams. Additionally, the ASC brings manufacturing of armoured systems to Gujarat in accordance with the thrust areas articulated in the state’s new Aerospace & Defence Policy.
Addressing the members of the press gathered at the venue, Mr. Patil spoke briefly about the strategic importance of the ASC and the K9 Vajra project to L&T’s contribution to the Nation as a Defence Manufacturer and positioning for future opportunities. As he did so, one couldn’t help but notice the glint of satisfaction and future hope in his eyes. Responding to media queries, he kept reminding everyone that this was a project which L&T had plenty riding on. That ASC in itself was proof of its commitment to developing local defence capabilities. The local input for the K9 was already at 75% in terms of work packages and that the K9 Vajra had cleared even the most stringent of tests administered by the army and met 100% of its requirements.
“No one puts up a shop as modern and advanced as the ASC for a 100 gun project and the fact that we did is indicative of our future plans given the Government’s focus on Make in India. At some stage, in not too distant future, we would like to be able to manufacture complete battle tanks right here in the ASC,” he said.
As an organisation, L&T has long been engaged in cutting-edge development programmes for the Indian Armed Forces. This ranges from warships to submarines, heavy artillery systems and variety of weapon systems to cutting-edge electronic systems and secured military communication to critical infrastructure setups. As the wheels of change gain momentum and defence indigenisation takes further roots in the country, L&T hopes to cover the entire defence value chain and transition itself into a Military Industrial Complex (MIC), along the lines of world’s leading defence manufacturers to serve the nation and build a stronger India.
The ASC or the house of K9 Vajra as some have come to call it, brings L&T a step closer to realizing that goal.