In the Indian Army’s high-altitude firing range, artillery officers are supervising what they call “confirmatory trials” of the BAE Land Systems 155mm/39cal M777 ultra-light howitzers even as the foreign and defence ministries in New Delhi look for a big idea — such as a multi-million-dollar cheque — to add zing to Barack Obama’s India visit.
The deal for the “flying cannons” — so-called because the ultra-light howitzers weighing just about 4.2 tonnes each can be underslung and flown by some helicopters — is already a minor victory for the Pentagon. The M777 uses titanium and aluminium alloys to keep its weight low.
Whether the contract is signed during the presidential visit or not has become secondary. The Singaporean rival vying for the order has complained and cried foul but both the Indian defence ministry and the Pentagon have decided the deal will be pushed through.
The army wants the guns to equip six new Indian artillery regiments — the initial order will be for 145 howitzers — being raised especially for the China border.
Last week, a senior US government official confirmed, two of the BAE Land Systems-made M777 ultra-light howitzers landed in Delhi. They were then flown to Sikkim.
The aircraft carrying the guns overflew Gwalior where a gun of the same category — called the Pegasus, after the winged horse of Greek mythology, has been idled.
The Pegasus is made by Singapore Technologies Kinetics (STK) that is swinging in the grey area of a blacklist and a ban after the defence ministry asked the CBI to probe its links with former chief of the Ordnance Factory Board, Sudipto Ghosh.
STK’s chief marketing officer, Brigadier General Patrick Choy, has written to the defence ministry more than twice asking for an opportunity to be heard. Now, he does not mind going public.
“Our gun was on the firing line for the trials last year when suddenly it was asked to be withdrawn,” he told The Telegraph over phone from Washington DC. “We have not been given an explanation and our gun is still in India and now we hear that the M777 is being tried,” he said.
“I have written to the MoD (ministry of defence) expressing my frustration — there doesn’t seem to be a level playing field. Why have I been blocked from the competition? But there has been no response,” said Patrick.
But Indian Army officials — and BAE sources — say that the M777 has been ready for trials for long. Last year, one of the trials got deferred after the Indian Army said the Pegasus was yet to be calibrated to fire Indian ammunition.
The government then re-tendered but earlier this year the defence secretary, Pradip Kumar, said India was considering procurement of the M777 through the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route, a direct government-to-government transaction that effectively bypasses competition.
Even now, as the gun is being evaluated, senior officers call it a “confirmatory trial”, a phrase that conveys both a confirmation of the order and the testing of the guns.
Asked why the test if the order is confirmed, an official said: “We wanted to check its performance in Indian conditions.” The guns were also tried in the Rajasthan desert in summer.
The M777 is used by the US Marine Corps, Canadian and Australian armed forces and is currently deployed in Afghanistan. The Indian Army projected the need for ultra-light howitzers from a lesson learnt in the 1999 Kargil war — to deploy big guns faster in high altitude.
Despite the controversy dogging the process of the selection, the army is simply relieved that the government is inclined to place the order because it has not added a single big gun to its arsenal since the Bofors FH77 in 1987.
In a notification to Congress, the Pentagon’s sales wing has said: “The (M777) howitzers will assist the Indian Army to develop and enhance standardisation and to improve interoperability with US soldiers and Marines who use the M777 as their primary means of indirect fire.”
Needless to say, the Indian order will also generate jobs in the M777’s assembly plant in Mississippi.
BAE Land Systems, that has a joint venture in India with Mahindra & Mahindra, is also in competition with STK for an order of towed howitzers of the 155mm/52cal. BAE has fielded the FH77B05, a modernised version of the Bofors gun that was seen in action in the 1999 Kargil war, and STK was in the competition with its iFH 2000. But a frustrated STK, whose Indian partner is Punj Lloyd, has flown-out the gun that it had brought for the trials to India.