|By Air Marshal VK Jimmy Bhatia (Retd)||Published: June 2017|
With the induction of the first two BAE Systems’ M777 ultra-light howitzers, after battling with the ghosts of the Bofors gun scandal for more than three decades, the Indian Army seems to have broken the jinx attached to its artillery modernisation programmes. The Army had not seen induction of any modern artillery gun after the Swedish Bofors guns were inducted in the late 1980s. There was a controversy over payment of alleged kickbacks in the deal, which were never conclusively proved, but, which put on the back-foot all deals for the modernisation of the artillery. It was also alleged in some political quarters that the guns were of inferior quality with some going to the ridiculous extent of claiming the guns fired backwards and kill their own troops.
Notwithstanding the fact that Bofors more than proved their mettle came during the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan, any attempt by the Army to acquire new guns continued to be mired in one controversy or the other.
The acquisition process of the M777 howitzers has been no exception either, which took a better part of the current decade to finally fructify. It may be recalled that Army had announced plans to acquire 145 ultra-light howitzers guns almost a decade ago to go along with its plans to raise a mountain strike corps for deployment mainly on its
northern and north-eastern Himalayan borders with China. But the purchase plans were overtaken by events which took time to get sorted out. The acquisition process recommenced in 2010; with Ministry of Defence (MoD) taking a further two years to clear the proposal for buying 145 M777 howitzers on May 11, 2012, through the US Government’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process. This was put up before the Ministry of Finance for clearance and to be subsequently taken up by the Cabinet Committee on Security for final approval. The see-saw in the acquisition process however continued with the inevitable escalation in costs which went up to $885 million at one stage, resulting in a Catch-22 situation. The deal was postponed a number of times. It took another four years before the Indian Government decided to complete the deal for approximately $750 million, while linking it with ‘Make in India’ programme. The deal calls for the direct supply of 25 guns from the US while the remaining 120 guns will be manufactured by BAE Systems’ offset partner Mahindra Group in India. In addition several other domestic companies will also be selected to execute the offset obligations. Indian Army received its first shipment comprising two guns on May 18 in New Delhi from the United States in ready to use condition.
The guns arrived by air and were promptly taken to Jaisalmer and then on to Army’s live firing ranges at Pokharan in Rajasthan. The first lot of two M777 guns will be used for compilation of firing tables — a calibration for target acquisition with various types of ammunition used with the guns. These guns have been designed for firing Indian ammunition and will be thoroughly tested with different types of permissible ammunition under Indian conditions.
After these two guns, three more M777 guns will come to India in September 2018 and used for training. Thereafter, five guns will be inducted every month from March 2019 to June 2021. These guns, which will equip seven artillery regiments, are capable of firing at a range of 24 to 40 km, depending on the type of ammunition used.
Notably, these guns are already in service with the US, Canadian and Australian armies and have been used extensively in Operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan during ‘Op Iraqi Freedom’ and ‘Op Enduring Freedom’, respectively (See accompanying photographs).
The biggest asset of the M777 Ultra-Light Howitzers – as its nomenclature already suggests – is its light weight, which allows it to be towed by ordinary army trucks even along narrow and treacherous mountain roads, which abound in India’s borders with both Pakistan and China.
Moreover, it can be easily transported to the battlefield, slung under heavy-lift helicopters like the US CH-47F Chinook, which India has signed to acquire from the US for the Indian Air Force (IAF), in addition to its already existing but depleting fleet of Mi-26 helicopters. Not only that, even the Mi-17 V5 helicopters of the IAF with an under-slung payload capability of 4,500 kg could be utilised to airlift the M777 guns, especially in the plains and low altitude battlefield areas. For, inter-theatre air transportation, the IAF has the Boeing C-17 and Lockheed Martin C-130J aircraft on its inventory. For example, C-130J Super Hercules aircraft, used by the IAF for tactical airlift/special operations are capable of carrying two M777 guns each on a single sortie. The C-17 airlift capability would of course be of a much greater order of magnitude.
However, the Rs 5,000 crore-deal for 145 pieces of M777 may just be the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’ when compared with Army’s overall requirement – as per its Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan (FARP) of 1999 – of over 3,000 guns of various types to equip 220 artillery regiments. Even the M777 requirement is likely to go up in the coming years with sources quoting a figure of as many as additional 500 guns.
According to reports, the BAE’s Hattiesburg facility in Mississippi, US, will be shifted to Mahindra’s Defence Facility in Faridabad, near Delhi. Mahindra Defence will assemble, integrate and test at the AIT facility, allowing an unhindered access to spare parts as well as ease of maintenance.
In the now relaxed Indian environment, these guns (after meeting the Army’s requirements) may also be allowed for export to friendly countries at a later stage.