India’s first new artillery guns since the infamous Bofors Scandal of the eighties will enter service this September when two BAE Systems M777 ultra-light howitzers (ULHs) are handed over to the Indian Army. Part of a $750 million deal for 145 guns concluded in November 2016, the first two guns arrived in May last year and have since been deployed at the Pokhran field firing range in India’s western desert sector to generate firing range tables for the Army’s artillery directorate. The two guns, reset to their factory settings and joined by three more guns that will arrive from the United Kingdom, will join the Army in September and begin a training phase with an artillery unit.
While in inquiry into a September 2017 barrel incident involving one of the M777s using local ammunition is still underway, Livefist learns that the gun has since resumed firing exercises for the Army’s range tables without a hitch, and will complete the committed requirement over the next five months.
While the first lot of guns are being supplied direct by BAE Systems, its Indian joint venture production partner Mahindra’s Assembly, Integration and Test (AIT) facility opens on Delhi’s outskirts by end June and will begun to supply Indian-assembled guns at a rate of five per month starting March 2019.
Meanwhile, BAE Systems, which has been involved in a U.S. Army requirement to extend the range of current and future M777s with a longer barrel (from the current 39 cal to a new 55 cal barrel) has opened the door to the Indian Army to join up if its interested. BAE Systems showcased M777 and M777ER models side by side at DefExpo 2018.
Speaking to Livefist, Paul West, India Campaign Director – Weapon Systems at BAE Systems said, “It could be a simply logistics decision for the Indian Army if it is interested in the extended range M777.”
The M777ER is a set of six modules that can be retrofitted on existing M777 guns, doubling their effective range to between 54-70 km depending on the sort of ammunition used. The modules include a modified barrel, suspension and recoil system, and adds approximately 500 kg to the M777’s existing weight, though BAE Systems engineers are working to see if the modification can be effected with no change in the gun’s weight.
West is cautious, though — and for good reason. The M777 deal has had a long and troublesome birthing, with India concluding the deal after over a decade in delayed process, including several occasions when the contract appeared to be firmly on the familiar proverbial backburner.
“The discussion and the M777 extended range option isn’t meant to be disruptive or to interrupt the Indian build program. However, it is a safer way for India to modernise looking into the future,” West says.
With the BAE-Mahindra joint venture to begin churning out guns from later this year, the Indian Army has been briefed that it has the option of either retrofitting its M777s to the ER standard later, or modifying the Faridabad assembly line itself so that later tranches of the gun could be of the extended range version. The Indian Army has heard out the offer, though it remains very unclear how much manoeuvering room it may have with the existing deal considering intensifying budgetary pressures. The Army could conceivably understand the merit of advance planning on a modernised gun that it has fought hard and long for, especially with the attendant Make in India skin it will bear. But selling an additional cost on an existing deal at a time when other modernisation priorities tread water will be something else altogether.
BAE, though, is looking ahead. A more realistic option could lie beyond the current order of 145 guns. The current order is a bare 20 per cent of India’s known requirement of at least 700 ultra-light howitzer guns for its mountain divisions. West says an India-specific extended range barrel could be considered as part of work undertaken by BAE-Mahindra in India. The U.S. Army will get to fire six M777ER prototypes in 2020. The Indian production run of the M777 will be complete by June 2021.
“It would be a good idea for a three-way discussion to take place at this time between the Indian Army, the U.S. Army and us. There’s huge commonality between the M777 and the M777ER,” West says.
The Indian Air Force’s new Boeing CH-47F Chinook heavylift helicopters, which begin arriving in March 2019, will almost definitely count as one of their missions transporting underslung M777s to forward areas for training and exercises. The M777ER will also be Chinook-transportable, BAE Systems confirms.Competition to the M777 for further ultra-light howitzer orders from the Indian Army though could come from India’s Kalyani Group, which unveiled its own ULH offering at DefExpo this year. The
Being developed in two variants — conventional recoil and ‘advance hybrid’ recoil — the 155mm/39cal artillery weapon system weighing between 4.3-4.8 tons. A statement from the Kalyani Strategic Systems Ltd this week said, “This breakthrough has been achieved through innovative design and use of special lightweight materials. A one of its kind variant designed in the world, this gun provides high field maneuverability.”
The Indian Army’s ambitious $8 billion field artillery rationalisation plan looks to arm over 160 artillery regiments with guns that span the full spectrum of howitzer technology. The first of 100 L&T-Hanhwa Techwin K9 Vajra-T tracked self-propelled howitzers begin deliveries this year to the Indian Army, with L&T to concurrently begin rolling out Indian-built versions from its Hazira facility in Gujarat. Prime Minister Modi was introduced to the first specimen at DefExpo on April 12.
Apart from the high-visibility DRDO ATAGS and OFB Dhanush (an Indian-built Bofors FH-77), another gun that will likely compete for Indian Army orders, and unveiled at DefExpo, is a 155mm/52cal truck-mounted gun system developed and built by India’s BEML in collaboration with the Ordnance Factory Board and BEL.