In a major fillip to the capabilities of the artillery regiment, the Indian and US government have formally signed the Letter of Acceptance (LoA), for the sale of 145 M777 howitzers under a $750 million deal. The multi-million dollar deal was formalized on the sidelines of the 15th India-US Military Cooperation Group (MCG) meet which began in Delhi yesterday.

The acquisition process was initiated nearly a decade back, when the Indian Army raised a request for Ultra Light-weight Howitzer (ULH) to arm its Mountain Strike Corps, which was being raised to counter the Chinese.

A formal contract to finalize the deal is expected to be signed and ratified when Mr. Ashton Carter, the Defense Secretary of USA, visits India later this month.

The artillery regiment, which is the second largest arm of the army, has failed to induct even a single gun for the past three decades. The infamous ‘Bofors Scandal’ that emerged in the 90’s had haunted every single procurement program floated by the army. The inking of the M777 deal is a major relief for the army even as tensions rake up along LoC.

The M777 howitzers are ultra light-weight towed artillery guns which are manufactured by BAE systems. The gun weighs a mere 4.2 tonnes and this makes it possible to be rapidly deployed at moment’s notice.

The modular design of the gun also allows it to be towed along narrow and treacherous mountain roads with ease. It can be transported to the battlefield, slung under heavy-lift helicopters like the Boeing manufactured Chinook, which India is acquiring from the US by 2022. India’s strategic lift aircraft – Lockheed Martin C130J Super Hercules – can carry two of these howitzers in addition to support systems in a single sortie.

The deal has been processed under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route. For years, US and Indian government were at loggerheads over the pricing of the able guns. However, renewed efforts launched by the current government have helped India see through the crucial deal.

M777 howitzer in action. Source - Net.

M777 howitzer in action. Source – Net.

BAE systems, is expected to deliver at least two guns within three months of the contract and these guns will be tested at adverse operational environment with Indian-operated ammunitions. The company will delivery two guns per month and plans to complete the deal by the 54th month.

Of the 145 guns, the company will manufacture 25 pieces in its US plant and deliver them within the next 24 months. The remaining 120 pieces will be manufactured indigenously with Mahindra Defence (designated Indian partner for the deal).

BAE systems in a statement said “We welcome the news that the Governments of India and U.S. have agreed on the Foreign Military Sale of 145 M777 Ultra Lightweight Howitzers”

Dr. Joe Senftle, vice president & general manager for Weapons Systems said “We look forward to providing the Indian Army with combat proven M777.”

Close to 1,090 M777 howitzers are in service with US, Australian and Canadian forces. The guns have proved their capabilities from the treacherous heights of Afghanistan to barren deserts of Iraq.

M-777 howitzers can fire up to 5 – 155mm GPS guided accurate munitions and artillery shells per minute. The optimal range of the gun is speculated to be around 25 kilometers and the longest recorded shot is 36 kilometers. A single shot from the gun can incinerate enemy bunkers and ground based targets.

M777 Deal – Major boost to ‘Make in India’

Even though the deal was contracted under the ‘Buy’ category, due stress was given to boost indigenous facilities. Of the 145 howitzers on order, 120 pieces are to be locally manufactured by an Indian vendor, thus providing private partners an opportunity to participate in the lucrative defence sector.

BAE systems in February 2016 had chosen ‘Mahindra’ as its Indian partner to execute the offset clauses. The company in its statement has confirmed offsets worth over $200 million will be invested to develop Indian suppliers.

Dr. Joe Senftle speaking on the company’s commitment said  “Our plan to establish a domestic Assembly, Integration and Testing facility further demonstrates our commitment to ‘Make in India’ and [it] remains a firm part of our strategy to work with Indian defense sectors across Air, Land, Sea and Security”

A Canadian Army Helicopter carries a M777 howitzer as under sling load. Source - Net.

A Canadian Army Helicopter carries a M777 howitzer as under sling load. Source – Net.

A major portion of the M777 is being currently manufactured in the company’s UK plants. The final integration and testing phase which is being handled at the BAE’s Hattiesburg facility in Mississippi, USA will be over time shifted to India. Mahindra Defence will be in-charge of assembling, integrating and testing the guns at the AIT facility. This will enable the army to have unhindered access to spare parts and it further drastically reduces the maintenance time and cost of the guns.

The addition of the M777s is a major boost to Indian Army’s herculean efforts to counter the Chinese aggression along the Eastern frontiers of Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh. Deal for the M777 ULF is largely seen as the dawn for the rise of the artillery regiment that has suffered for decades. With the offset clauses Indian defence sector will stand to gain critical knowledge from the deal.

Further, a part of Indian Army’s demands under the FARP (Field Artillery Rationalization Program) has been met. There still exists a need for over 1800 artillery guns to ensure India’s supremacy in the battlefields. The government working proactively with the army and the development agencies should work towards answering these grappling deficits at the earliest.

© Karthik Kakoor