New Delhi: India’s newly created mountain strike corps awaits a good artillery gun that will be easily transportable in the high Himalayas to face any aggression from China.
A decision is pending at the highest level in the Indian Government on purchasing the 155 MM, 39 calibre ultra light howitzer (ULH) M777 produced by BaE systems and sold by the US. A US congressional notification deadline, allowing for the sale of 145 such artillery pieces to India at a cost of US $ 647 Million, expired on October 15 last year.
The M777 ultra light howitzer by BaE Systems have the same specifications – 155 MM, 39 calibre -- like the Bofors FH-77B artillery guns imported from Sweden in 1987. However, the M777 is lighter, being made of special alloys like titanium and aluminum. These can be slung underneath the Boeing’s CH47 Chinook helicopters and transported quickly to be placed on mountain ridges. It was supposed to be purchased from the US through the foreign military sales route. The gun maker, BaE systems, produces the gun at its plant in the UK.
Since the purchase is to be made from the US under the foreign military sales programme, which does not raise doubts of kickbacks and therefore is considered ‘safe’ from controversies that otherwise bog down all defence negotiations in India.
Dean McCumiskey, Managing Director and Chief Executive, BAE Systems in India, said on January 29: “ We are confident of selling the M777 and have addressed all issues raised by India including the one on off-sets”. Notably, McCumiskey moves out of India his replacement is John Brosnan, the BaE announced on January 30.
In case India decides on buying the M777 the matter will need to go back to the US Congress and costs could rise, said insiders who are in the know of the US move. The discussion on buyig the gun were going on for the past three years. These were at a final stage months before India announced the raising of its new Mountain Strike Corps in July 2013 at cost of Rs 64,000 crore.
India is looking to have two independent artillery brigades in the Corps. An artillery brigade has 3 to 5 artillery regiments, with some 100 artillery guns . This will be apart from the artillery batteries.
Besides equipping the upcoming mountain strike corps, the guns were planned to be stationed in the existing seven corps which India has in the Himalayas facing China and Pakistan. The mountain rise to more than 15,000 feet.
After waiting for a decision from India, the BaE Systems, in October 2013 announced that it was shutting its production line in the UK. The company’s existing orders are nearing completion and it has said it can no longer continue to maintain the same level of staffing.
Versatile M777 and its use
It is the world's first 155 mm Howitzer weighing around 4 tonnes. It has been selected by the US Marine Corps, the US Army as their next generation Medium Force weapon. The US, Canadian and Australian orders total more than a thousand guns. It enjoys high mobility on land, at sea and through the air. India can even fit the M777 it into C-130-J Super Hercules and the Boeing C-17 Globemaster to land on mud-paved strips, advanced landing grounds or very short runaways in the Himalayas.
It is a vital piece of weaponry for a specialised mountain formation where mobility of Infantry soldiers is slow. It can fire upto five rounds a minute virtually pinning down enemy movements. Artillery guns play a crucial role in supporting both Infantry and Armour formations by softening the enemy through brute firepower from a distance of 30 km – just like the Bofors did in the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan. The existing 155 MM gun in the Indian Army kitty, the Bofors FH 77, weighs some 11 tonnes and can be towed or only moved by road. With road networks in the Himalayas not being of the best quality it tough to lug around an 11 tonne gun.
The need to ramp up artillery
The Indian Army’s Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan has projected the need for 145 ultra-light howitzers of 155mm/39 calibre, 1,580 towed guns of 155mm/52 calibre, 100 tracked guns of 155mm/52 calibre, 180 wheeled and self-propelled guns of 155mm/52 calibre Army’s second-largest arm, the Regiment of Artillery, however, continues to be a victim of repeated setbacks and that has caused it to remain the most obsolescent wings of the Army. India uses Soviet-era 130 mm M46 field guns, 122 mm D30 towed howitzers and 105 mm light field guns. The ‘latest’ artillery gun, the Bofors 155 mm FH77 howitzer, was purchased in 1987. Attempts by the Defence Ministry owned public sector under taking, the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) to produce replica of the Bofors have so far failed. A prototype is under test and trials are slated for February 2014.
Besides the delay in buying the M777, in recent years, attempts to buy pieces of towed artillery and both tracked and wheeled self-propelled guns have stalled due to last-minute cancellations The only highlight is the upgrade of 180 pieces of 130 mm guns upgraded to 155 mm / 45 calibre by an Israeli firm.