The Indian Army is set to scale up its capabilities with more M777 ultra-light howitzers that can be swiftly deployed and redeployed in mountains, amid the ongoing border row with China in Ladakh, people familiar with the developments said on Sunday.
India ordered 145 howitzers from the US for $750 million in November 2016. “The army will receive 56 more M777 guns by June 2022. As of now, 89 howitzers have been delivered,” said one of the persons cited above.
The army has deployed M777s in Ladakh, where India and China have been locked in a border row for over 18 months, and also in Arunachal Pradesh across which the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has stepped up its activities.
M777 manufacturer BAE Systems has delivered 25 ready-built howitzers and the remaining guns have been/are being built locally in collaboration with Mahindra Defence under the Modi government’s Make in India initiative.
The 155 mm/39-caliber M777 howitzers have a range of up to 30km, but it is capable of striking targets at ranges of more than 40 km in some areas where the geography allows the shells to fly in rarefied air.
“The howitzer can be easily moved from one area to another depending on the requirement. The induction of the remaining M777s will provide a big boost to the army,” said Lieutenant General SL Narasimhan (retd), a member of the National Security Advisory Board.
Built with titanium and aluminum alloys, the howitzers weigh 4,218 kg. In contrast, 155mm towed guns weigh twice as much. The Indian Air Force’s CH-47F Chinook helicopters can carry the howitzers as underslung load for swift deployment in high-altitude areas.
“There are many places where heavier artillery guns cannot be deployed because of the terrain. But the M777s can be sling-loaded to Chinooks and swiftly inserted there,” Brigadier Sanjeev Kumar, the commander of an artillery brigade in Arunachal Pradesh, previously said.
The M777s are a key component of the army’s field artillery rationalisation plan (FARP), cleared in 1999. The ₹50,000-crore FARP lays down the road map for inducting new 155mm weaponry, including tracked self-propelled guns, truck-mounted gun systems, towed artillery pieces and wheeled self-propelled guns. The plan seeks to equip 169 artillery regiments with a mix of nearly 3,000 guns over the next decade.
The M777 order in 2016 was the first contract for artillery guns in almost 30 years after the Bofors scandal erupted in the late 1980s.
Apart from M777s, the army has also deployed the K9 Vajra-T self-propelled artillery guns and the 155 mm FH 77 BO2 guns (better known as Bofors) in the Ladakh sector.
Private sector defence major Larsen & Toubro and South Korea’s Hanwha Techwin (HTW) have built the highly mobile K9 guns in India. The guns were meant to be deployed in the plains, but the army has carried out some minor changes to deploy them in high altitude.
India and China have hardened their positions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh with increased military activities on both sides of the boundary, infrastructure development, surveillance and combat manoeuvres by their armies.
Despite two rounds of disengagement at friction points on LAC this year, the two armies still have 50,000 to 60,000 troops each and advanced weaponry deployed in Ladakh.
PLA did not agree to suggestions made by the Indian Army at the 13th round of military talks on October 10 to cool tensions in Ladakh. The Indian Army said it made constructive suggestions for resolving outstanding problems but the Chinese side was not agreeable and also could not provide any forward-looking proposals, while China accused India of unreasonable and unrealistic demands in an unusually aggressive statement.