The Indian Army celebrated receiving its first M777A2 Ultra Lightweight Howitzers (ULH) - which the US Army says has proven its worth in Afghanistan - at an official handover ceremony on November 12, 2018, implementing a key step towards modernizing and strengthening of the long-required artillery’s capabilities.
Produced by BAE Systems and accepted earlier this year, as part of a 145-gun agreement between the US and Indian governments. The first regiment of 155mm M777 systems will be operational by 2019.
“The Indian Army is receiving an extremely reliable and battle-proven artillery platform,” Joe Senftle, vice president and general manager of BAE Systems’ weapon systems business said at the event. “The M777 brings a new level of capability to the artillery unit by offering rapid deployment and extreme accuracy. It can operate in areas that are difficult to access and is also very easy to maintain.”
BAE Systems is building and delivering the first 25 M777 ULHs fully assembled, with the remaining 120 to be assembled in India by Mahindra Defence Systems Ltd. (MDSL) under an arrangement designed to support defense industrial cooperation and promote local economic growth.
Interacting with this writer, managing director India, BAE Systems Nik Khanna said, “The M777 ULH is more than a very effective piece of artillery technology….With the M777 program, BAE Systems has made the first step of our substantive Make-in-India commitment, which includes our pledge to develop a network of Indian suppliers for our global supply chain and deepen our relationship with industry in India. We are committed to a strong and collaborative working relationship between BAE Systems, the Indian Armed Forces and Indian industry.”
Group President - Aerospace & Defence Sector, Mahindra Group, and Chairman - Mahindra Defence Systems SP Shukla stated, “This is a landmark event with the first M777s being delivered to the Indian Army. It is a product of our long-standing business partnership with BAE Systems. In this program each of the M777 howitzers have value addition from Mahindra Defence. I believe that this is the first step towards Make-in-India with much bigger programs to follow.”
The US government recently certified that MDSL is ready to carry out the work at a purpose-built production facility created for this program to conduct the in-country assembly and integration of 120 of the 145 gun systems on order. The newly-handed over M777 ULHs were instrumental in establishing the new MDSL capability in India. The Mahindra team finalized these weapons by replicating the proven manufacturing processes to the highest of quality specifications, including modifications specifically tailored for the Indian Artillery, such as a unique camouflage paint scheme.
Earlier this year, BAE Systems delivered the first spares and other logistics including tooling, technical publications and training materials, to support the Indian Army as it brings these new M777 ULHs into service.
The last artillery guns that India bought were the controversial Swedish Bofors in the mid-1980s. But the $1.4 billion deal was mired in controversy after reports that the Swedish company had paid $9.9 million (64 crore rupees) in kickbacks to top Indian politicians. It cost then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi a chance to return to power in the next election; it also slowed down defence procurement considerably. In the 1980s, India had received the blueprints of the Bofors gun but manufacture of the weapon system never began owing to the kickbacks scandal which is still to be resolved. While the Bofors were used very effectively during the Kargil war with Pakistan in 1999, in the period following it Indian Army’s artillery remained starved for guns and ammunition. During the 10 years of UPA’s rule there was no progress in the long overdue modernisation of the Indian Army and particularly the artillery. Some artillery weapon systems were tested and found fit by the artillery, but that was it. There was no forward movement towards replenishing/replacing artillery and air defence systems. Some old “gunners” even commented that there seemed to be “forces at work to ensure that we don’t get what we need, making us lose much of the edge we had during the 1971 India-Pak war.”
For the first time after three decades, in November 2016, the M777 weapon system was contracted and in May 2017 Indian Army received two new gun systems for preparation of firing tables, which process the guns fired 155 mm indigenous ammunition.
With maximum unassisted and assisted ranges of 24.7 km and over 30 km respectively, rates of intense fire of five rounds per minute for up to two minutes and sustained fire of two rounds per minute, the M777 has an ultra-low silhouette making its thermal and radar signatures quite low. Its portability by land, sea and air, makes the system’s logistical footprint low. This means that it can be frequently moved and redeployed, maximising survivability, without encountering the IED risks that self-propelled systems face. The US Army reportedly found this gun proven in battle, particularly in Afghanistan since 2006, and, according to BAE Systems, over 40,000 rounds fired have proven its simple, dependable operation, even in harsh desert climates
(The author, a strategic analyst and former Defence Ministry and Indian Army spokesperson, can be contacted at email@example.com)