Napoleon once said, “God fights on the side with the best artillery.” There is little doubt that the Indian Army’s artillery is in urgent need of modernization. That much was clear after the Kargil War, where artillery played a decisive factor. But delays in procurement are hindering the process. Take 155 mm towed howitzers, a key element of India’s artillery. India hasn’t purchased a new system since the Bofors in 1980s. Senior Indian army officials have also raised concerns over shortages of modern artillery systems, which they believe would be a crucial drawback in any future conflict. Even though the Bofors proved its utility in the Kargil War, the Army has been notably lackadaisical when it comes to acquiring these types of guns, with tenders cancelled in 2007, 2009 and 2010.
So in 2012, with then Indian Army Chief, General V.K Singh warning of gaps existing in India’s military preparedness, the Ministry of Defence cleared a $647 million deal to acquire 145 M777 155-mm 38-caliber howitzers under Washington’s Foreign Military Sales program, after the Army conducted a “series of rigorous trials” of the gun.
In October 2013, however, it was reported that British multinational BAE Systems would be closing the U.S. factory that manufactures the gun, due the “absence of any order or commitment from New Delhi.” If New Delhi wants the guns, it will have to pay to reopen the line, raising the price to as much as $885 million. A recent strengthening of the U.S. dollar makes the deal even more expensive. Washington points out that if India had been able to move more quickly, it could have had the guns at the lower price.
This battle-tested M777 has been called the world’s “largest sniper rifle” due to its range and accuracy, which enables it to “hit windows from 25 miles away.” With a digital fire control system, the M777 has the ability to fire five rounds per minute.
This gun was used by the U.S. military during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in 2002. The M777 guns possessed both tactical and strategic mobility that enhanced their survivability and enabled them to be used for both point and area defense. The low thermal and radar signature and low silhouette further enhance survivability, reducing reaction time for the enemy. Because they are easily concealed compared to the Bofors, the M777 could be useful in warfare in both desert and mountain terrains.
Although the M777 is light artillery, its firepower matches that of heavier towed howitzers. Its light weight is achieved by the use of titanium and aluminum alloy. That makes the M777 an ideal weapon for mountain warfare, since it can be readily moved by helicopter and transport aircraft like the Indian Air Force’s C-130J Super Hercules or IL-76. With that feature, the M777 was meant to be part of the Indian Army’s new Mountain Strike Corps, for use in high altitude regions like Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh. The failure of the deal could well undermine the military capabilities of this corps. Mountain warfare is complicated by the non-linear terrain, which calls for light, maneuverable and accurate artillery. Yet the Army still lacks such a system.
Since the infamous Bofors scandal of the mid 1980s, the Indian Army has been unable to procure any 155 mm howitzers. Controversies surrounding Denel and Singapore Technology Kinetics have also prevented India from considering these companies as potential suppliers. In the meantime, the role of artillery in challenging terrain grows more important. As Brig. (retd) Gurmeet Kanwal points out, “of all the combat arms of the Indian Army, artillery will be the battle winning factor on future battlefields.” Regular contributor to The Diplomat, Nitin Gokhale has argued that the Army needs more than 1,500 towed artillery guns.
Despite the Army recognizing the importance of the M777 system, the defense establishment is of a different mind, believing that India could acquire less costly alternatives. In June 2014, the Ordinance Factory Board (OFB)-made Dhanush, considered to be the desi version of the Bofors, was reported to have entered production phase. This 45-caliber gun is claimed to be “20-25% better” than the Bofors, and will apparently feature an electronic sighting and laying system that would indeed represent a major enhancement. It can also apparently hit targets up to 38 km distant on plains. Moreover, the Dhanush would be far cheaper than the Bofors.
It is reported that the OFB has received orders for 114 howitzers. Meanwhile, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is partnering with the private sector in developing modern 155 mm howitzers of 52 caliber under the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun Project. Private companies like Tata Group and Bharat Forge are also working on systems. Clearly, the failure to strike the M777 deal has opened the door for Indian private firms.
Debalina Ghoshal is an Associate Fellow with the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi.