Despite the efficacy of artillery firepower unleashed by the Bofors howitzers during Kargil, the Army’s longstanding Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan stands stymied

God, Napoleon said, fights on the side with the best artillery. The legendary French general’s foot and horse artillery repeatedly demonstrated its lethal capacity against his European adversaries by degrading their formidable formations before his cavalry and infantry moved in to victoriously conclude the fighting.

But applying Napoleon’s adage to the Indian Army’s prevailing dismal artillery profile is absurd.

It would preclude God’s cooperation to the Artillery Directorate, whose 180-odd field regiments employ six different gun calibres, a majority of them obsolete.

And if that were not enough cause for worry in an increasingly turbulent region, the Army’s catastrophic artillery woes just got progressively worse.

Lack of communication

Unsurprisingly, these have been triggered yet again by the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) extended stoic silence on acquiring 145 desperately-needed M777 155mm/39-calibre BAE Systems light-weight howitzers (LWH) and Laser Inertial Artillery Pointing Systems via the U.S.’s government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route.

Due to the inexplicable lack of communication by the MoD regarding the LWHs and the absence of any other orders in the pipeline, BAE Systems was forced in October to shut down its M777 facility at Barrow-in-Furness, northern England, where around 30 per cent of the 4,200-kg gun is fabricated.

The remaining 70 per cent — including its notable titanium barrel and other aluminium alloys which make it lighter are made at the BAE Systems plant in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which also undertakes the final assembly of howitzers. The Hattiesburg plant too is expected to close by March 2014 following the lack of communication from the MoD.

But more crucially, nearly half of around 200 technical experts — including engineers — laid off at the BAE’s Barrow facility have been absorbed into the company’s submarine-building operations in the same town. Industry officials said they were unlikely to return to the M777 line, which is almost certain to be revived at some point to execute the Indian order.

Consequently, recruiting and training new technicians to build the M777s will not only add to the already-inflated cost of re-opening and re-certifying the terminated LWH line for India, but further delay the much-postponed procurement.

Cost escalation

Acquiring the LWH howitzers is a priority for the Army, according to the Artillery Directorate, which is highly displeased by the MoD’s delay in furnishing the M777 contract. The acquisition will equip the Army’s proposed Mountain Strike Corps and fourth artillery division for deployment along the unresolved northeastern Chinese frontier. However, acquiring the M777s will now cost India $885 million, 37 per cent more than the earlier offer of $647 million valid for nearly three years till August 2013.

The extra charge is tacked on to cover the expenses BAE Systems undertook in having kept production lines open for over 12 months in anticipation of the Indian order, having resurrected extended component supply chains since terminated and, now, having trained over 100 and possibly more technicians for the LWHs Barrow plant.

The MoD’s recent conduct is odd considering that it had, in January this year, dispatched a team (comprising officials from the Ministry and the Army’s Corps of Electronic and Mechanical Engineers and the Directorate General of Qualitative Assurance) to the U.S. to conduct Maintainability Evaluation trials on the M777s. These efforts constitute the final round of the trials, conducted by the services for all materiel procurement, to confirm that the equipment parameters conform to the stipulated Qualitative Requirements (QR). A final round of price negotiations and spares and maintenance support will be held before the deal is inked.

The M777 contract, beset from the outset, had earlier faced a lawsuit from a rival vendor. The issue was eventually resolved two years later and negotiations with the U.S. to acquire the howitzers resumed.

Further, the M777s ‘confirmatory’ firing trials conducted, in mid-2010 in the Rajasthan desert and Sikkim were compromised after their classified outcome was posted anonymously to Army Headquarters in February 2012. An inquiry into the leaked report revealed nothing.

At the behest of the MoD, BAE Systems has, since 2010, extended its commercial bid for guns five times in addition to conducting eight rounds of negotiations on investing its mandatory 30-per-cent offset obligation of $209 million in the country’s private and public sector.

However, the MoD has now retreated, observing, since February this year, strict radio silence. “Slippages in the Army’s artillery procurement programme, delayed by over a decade, are liable to slip, further raising serious operational implications,” a senior artillery officer has said. He warned that if acquisitions like the M777 were not decided upon imminently, the Army could face a situation where it simply had no long-range firepower in a neighbourhood where its enemies were better equipped.

Despite the widely-accepted efficacy of decisive artillery firepower unleashed by the FH-77B Bofors howitzers during the 1999 Kargil conflict, the Army’s longstanding Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan stands stymied.

Under this Plan, the Army proposes to acquire, by 2025-27, a mix of around 3,000-3,600 155mm/39-cal light-weight howitzers and 155mm/52-cal towed, mounted, self-propelled (tracked and wheeled) howitzers through imports and local, licensed manufacture for an estimated $5-7 billion.

But all these acquisitions continue to be deferred due to bureaucratic delays and a bewildering string of issuing, withdrawing and re-issuing of tenders by the MoD, inconclusive trials and QR overreach by the Artillery Directorate thwarting howitzer upgrades.

The programme to locally build FH-77B howitzers to make up artillery shortages, suffered a setback in August after the barrel of one of the prototype guns burst during firing trials in Rajasthan. An inquiry is underway into the accident, which involved howitzers built by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) based on technology transferred to it in 1987 alongside the purchase of the 410 Bofors guns that have never been operationalised.

Shortfalls and obsolescence

All this has been further complicated by the MoD having blacklisted at least four overseas howitzer vendors without providing any clarity on their respective statuses. This has further impeded artillery acquisitions where shortfalls are alarmingly high and proliferating.

The Army employs Soviet D-30 122mm guns, the locally-designed and OFB-built 105mm Indian Field Guns (IFG) and its Light Field Gun (LFG) derivative, the FH-77B 155mm/39-cal Bofors howitzers (presently reduced to half their original number of 410 due to non-availability of spares and cannibalisation), Soviet 130mm M46 towed field guns and 180 M46s unsatisfactorily retrofitted by Israel’s Soltam to 155mm/45-cal.

However, the limited 17-km strike range of the IFG, which has been the mainstay of the Army’s artillery regiments for over three decades, is, in today’s battlefield environment, largely irrelevant as the envelope of battle contact at the tactical level has almost doubled to over 30 km.

Besides, many armies had inducted mortars with enhanced ranges of 12-14 km, virtually neutralising at minimal cost the IFG’s marginally-longer-reach, urgently necessitating the induction of more capable artillery.

(Rahul Bedi is the India Correspondent of Jane's Defence Weekly)

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