Guns At Last: Indian Army Is Finally Getting New Artillery Guns It Desperately Needs

by Prakhar Gupta - May 21, 2017 06:10 PM +05:30 IST
Guns At Last: Indian Army Is Finally Getting New Artillery Guns It Desperately NeedsM777 howitzers manufactured by BAE Systems.
  • With over three different types of guns ordered and indigenous initiatives taken up, India seems well on its way to plug the critical gaps in the Army’s firepower.

The Indian Army on Thursday received the first two of the 145 M777 Ultra-Light Howitzers (ULH) ordered from the United States, the first batch of new artillery units that the country has bought after it imported Bofors guns from Sweden starting 1986. The delivery of these guns, first addition to the Indian artillery strength in over 30 years, brings an end to what is termed as the ‘Bofors jinx’.

Manufactured by BAE Systems, the guns were bought by India in a $737 million deal inked in November 2016. Of the 145 guns sold to India under the Foreign Military Sales programme of the US government, 25 will be imported and the remaining assembled in India in partnership with the Mahindra group.

The purchase of these guns was a part of the Army’s wider strategy, drawn in the Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan of 1999, aimed at acquisition of 3,000 modern artillery systems of various types, to equip its 220 artillery regiments by 2027.

Over a decade and a half later, the plan has finally begun to materialise. But what delayed the acquisition of new artillery guns for over 30 years?

In 1986, the Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi signed a $285 million deal with Swedish arms company Bofors for supply of 410 155mm Howitzer field guns. About a year later, a report by the Swedish Radio claimed that Bofors had paid kickbacks to officials and politicians in India to make sure that the deal went through. The scandal brought down the Congress government of the time and derailed acquisition plans for decades to come.

Scandals surrounding other major global artillery manufacturers at that time, such as South African Denel and Singapore Technology Kinetic, further punched gaping holes in the Army's long-range firepower.

However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to office with plans of modernising the armed forces and was quick to act on the Army’s plan to acquire the M777 Howitzers, one that was announced in 2006 and was repeatedly delayed during the rule of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.

The M777 ULHs, which weighs only about 4,000 kg, will serve a special purpose for the Army. Due to their low weight, these guns can be transported using CH-47 Chinook helicopters, C-17 Globemaster and the C-130 Hercules aircraft or on trucks. They can easily be airlifted to mountainous regions along India’s border. While India already operates C-17 Globemaster and the C-130 Hercules aircraft, it has ordered 15 CH-47 Chinook helicopters from the United States.

During the Kargil War, when Pakistani intruders captured peaks along the Srinagar Leh Highway and bombarded Indian positions, the Army brought about 250 Bofors howitzers into the game. The guns played a vital role in destruction of enemy defences and suppression of enemy artillery in the mountainous terrain, enabling ground troops to climb steep peaks and recapture them.

The M777s are expected play the same role in such future conflicts. Reports suggest that the guns will equip the new 17 Mountain Strike Corps. This strike corps is being raised for the China front and is expected to be in place by 2021.

However, 145 M777s are not sufficient. The Artillery Rationalisation Plan calls for induction of around 3,000 guns. To this end, India has undertaken acquisition of two other guns - the 155mm/45-calibre Dhanush howitzers and 155mm/52-caliber K9 Vajra-T artillery gun.

The Dhanush has been designed and produced indigenously by the Defence Research And Development Organisation (DRDO) and is based on the Bofors gun. The gun was first test-fired in 2011 and over 80 per cent of its components are indigenous. The Army will reportedly procure 414 of these guns in the initial phase. These guns are primarily meant to replace the ageing Bofors howitzers.

The K9 Vajra-T artillery gun, of which India is procuring 100 at a cost of nearly Rs 4,500 crore under its ‘Buy Global’ programme, will be manufactured by Larsen and Toubro and South Korean defence major Hanwha Techwin (HTW). The delivery of these guns is expected to begin in 18 months from L&Ts manufacturing facilities, including a new Armoured Systems Complex at Hazira in Gujarat.

The armoured corps of the army require artillery guns that can move fast and keep up with tanks and personnel carrier. As the K-9 Vajra are mounted on a tracked vehicle, they can keep up with other vehicles in the armoured corps.

Meanwhile, DRDO has developed another indigenous gun, the 155-mm/52-calibre Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS). The gun successfully completed engineering trials last year and was showcased at this year's Republic Day parade. These guns will be assembled in collaboration with the Kalyani Group and Tata.

With over three different types of guns ordered and indigenous initiatives taken up, India seems well on its way to plug the critical gaps in the Army’s firepower.

Prakhar Gupta is a senior editor at Swarajya. He tweets @prakharkgupta.

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