|By Lt General V.K. Kapoor (Retd)
Senior Technical Group Editor
As part of its massive artillery modernisation plan, the army had planned to induct several types of howitzers through in-house manufacture by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)/Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), inter-governmental pacts and global tenders. The last major acquisition of towed gun-howitzers was that of 400 pieces of 39-calibre 155mm FH-77B howitzers with a range of 30 km from Bofors of Sweden in 1987. The Bofors ‘kick back’ controversy during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as the Prime Minister and the black listing of the Bofors company together with many cancelled trials due to allegations of corruption along with the dismal performance of A.K. Antony as the Defence Minister put paid to all modernisation plans of the Indian Army. However the Bofors gun, whose technical and operational performance was never in doubt in the military, despite the sordid political controversy, proved its mettle in the Kargil conflict in 1999.
After about 30 years of neglect, plans are now in place to fulfill the long-postponed 1999 Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan (FARP), under which the army aims to import, locally develop, and license-produce some 2,820 to 3,000 assorted 155mm howitzers to equip all its artillery regiments at an estimated Rs 22,000 crore (approximately $3.3 billion). These include 1,580 towed gun systems (TGS), 814 mounted gun systems (MGS), 100 self-propelled howitzers (SPHs) — all of which are 155mm/52-calibre — and 145 BAE Systems M777 155mm/39-calibre ultra lightweight howitzers. Locally upgraded and retrofitted guns will make up additional numbers. While many projects are afoot, none has fructified.
The M777 purchase is meant to equip the Indian Army’s 17 Mountain Strike Corps, which is presently partially raised for deployment along the disputed border with China.
In May 2015, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) approved the import of 145 M777 155mm ultra light howitzer, along with Selex Laser Inertial Artillery Pointing Systems (LINAPS) via the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme. The M777 purchase is meant to equip the Indian Army’s 17 Mountain Strike Corps, which is presently partially raised for deployment along the disputed border with China. This deal has been in the process since 2008. Weighing just over 4-tonne due to the use of titanium, the M777 can be airlifted to high-altitude areas of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh along the 4,057-km Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China.
Two of the 145 M777 ultra-light howitzers ordered from the United States have arrived in India on May 17, 2017. These two howitzers, which came in a chartered aircraft from the UK, will be taken to the Pokhran ranges for testing and ‘compilation of the firing tables’ for subsequent use. The firing tables, for these guns are going to be prepared for different types of Indian ammunition with bi-modular charges, and will take some time to be formulated.
The delivery schedule, for the M777 155mm howitzers which are air mobile are being acquired under the $737 million deal inked with the US in a government-to-government deal, covers a four year period. The induction will commence from March 2019 onwards. Induction schedule includes five guns per month from March onwards till all 145 are inducted by June 2021. While the first 25 guns will be imported, the rest 120 will be assembled in India by the manufacturer BAE Systems who have selected Mahindra as its business partner.