|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
Media reports of November 18 indicate that the first regiment of ultra-light howitzers in the Artillery will include three locally built howitzers in collaboration with Mahindra Defence, under the ‘Make in India’ initiative in addition to 15 x BAE M777 howitzers imported from the US in ready condition. The howitzers are likely to be delivered to the Indian Army (IA) by the end of this year. This would enable the IA to raise the force to raise the first of its planned seven M777 regiments early in 2010. It may be recalled that the first two M777 howitzer guns manufactured by BAE System of USA had arrived in India in May 2017 and were test fired at the Pokhran field firing ranges on May 18, 2017, to mark 'Pokhran Day', marking the first nuclear test by India at Pokhran on 18 May 1974. Arrival of these guns also marked a boost for the IA, 30 years after the Bofors howitzers were introduced in the Artillery. After almost seven years of discussion, trials and choosing, India and the US inked a nearly 5,000 crore deal for 145 x M777 ultra-light howitzers in 2016.
India signed the Letter of Acceptance (LoA) on November 30, 2016, which formalised the agreement. The offsets under which BAE Systems (manufacturer of the gun) were to be pursued independently with BAE Systems investing some $200 million. 25 x guns were to come to India in a fly-away condition and the rest be assembled at the proposed assembly integration and test facility for the weapon system in India in partnership with Mahindra Defence. 40 Indian companies were eligible to be part of the supply chain. Of the 25 x M777 howitzers to be imported, the first two howitzers were to be delivered within six months of the contract being inked — which arrived in May 2017. The rest were to be delivered at the rate of two per month. Army had successfully tried and selected BAE Systems M777 155mm/39-calibre light-weight howitzers guns from the US years back but the procurement was stymied over an anonymous letter alleging bribes – the bane of delayed modernisation of IA. Built with titanium and aluminum alloys, the M777 is 155 mm/39-caliber howitzer that weighs only 4,218 kg, compared to the 155mm towed howitzers that weigh twice as much. This gives the former superior tactical mobility including facilitating their swift deployment in mountains under slung from helicopters. With a range of 35-40 kms, it is ideal for deployment in mountains along our borders with Pakistan and China. At the same time while the mountainous regions along the western frontier has good roads (where these howitzers can be delivered by truck, the border infrastructure is still being developed along the China border, where heavy guns cannot be transported due to poor road connectivity, leaving critical gaps. The M777s have been used during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, while more than 1,090 M777 guns are in service globally. India will be the latest user of these howitzers operated by the US, Australian and Canadian militaries for accurate artillery fire support. The M777 howitzers are ideal for mountains. They can be airlifted swiftly to beef up high-altitude areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China in emergent situations. These guns will also be mainstay ordnance for artillery regiments of the Mountain Strike Corps. The M777s can be sling-loaded with the Boeing CH-47F (I) Chinook helicopters and swiftly deployed to high-altitude areas to provide accurate artillery fire support.
India ordered 15 x Chinook helicopters from the US for $1.18 billion in September 2015, of which six have already been delivered. Current media reports have quoted a veteran Deputy Chief of Army Staff in saying, “The parallel induction of imported howitzers and the locally assembled ones serves the Army’s interests. The rate of production will be higher and delivery faster under such an arrangement. Also, if there are any issues with the howitzers, the Army can quickly reach out to the original equipment manufacturer and the Indian partner.” He also said that the M777s were an important part of the Army’s field artillery rationalisation plan (FARP) as the guns were designed for flexible deployment in mountainous terrain. The FARP lays down the road map for inducting new 155mm weaponry, including tracked self-propelled guns, truck-mounted gun systems, towed artillery pieces and wheeled self-propelled guns. The plan seeks to equip 169 artillery regiments with a mix of nearly 3,000 guns over the next 8-10 years. In addition to the M777 howitzers, other Make in India projects include local production of AK-203 assault rifles and K9 VAJRA-T artillery guns. The IA is likely to get all the 145 x M777 howitzers by the end of 2021.