It was in 2006 that the Indian Army (IA) had zeroed in on the need for air-portable ultralightweight 155mm/39-cal howitzers (UFH) and had even drafted a GSQR for its procurement. At the same time, the Indian Air Force (IAF), taking a cue from the IA, too finalised its ASQR by 2007 for heavylift helicopters required for airlifting such UFHs. The Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Defence Acquisitions Committee (DAC) had approved procurement of an initial 145 UFHs for equipping an initial six artillery regiments on June 19, 2006 and an RFP was issued to ten manufacturers on January 14, 2008.
ST Kinetics was the only one to submit a technical and commercial offer for its Pegasus UFH on June 30, 2008. The report of the Technical Evaluations Committee (TEC) was next submitted to the MoD’s Director General (Acquisitions) on March 23, 2009. Since this was, again, a single-vendor situation, the process was put on hold, which was around the same time that ST Kinetics got blacklisted by the MoD. The MoD subsequently tried to initiate procurement of such UFHs from the US through the direct Foreign Military Sale (FMS) route, with a Letter of Request being issued by the MoD to the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) on May 19, 2009, asking for the BAE Systems-built LW-155/M-777 UFH. An IA delegation next visited the US between January 9 and 16, 2010 for further evaluations of the LW-155/M-777. Following this, the DSCA offered to despatch two 4.2-tonne LW-155/M-777 UFHs for ‘confirmatory trials’ to India and requested 84 rounds of 155mm ammunition of different types made by the MoD’s Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) for the purpose. The trials were completed in a haphazard manner in Pokhran, Ladakh and Sikkim.
Back in 2007, it should have become obvious even to someone with below-average IQ that regardless of which howitzer would be ordered (the LW-155/M-777 or the Pegasus from Singapore’s ST Kinetics), the only available heavylift helicopter that is certified to airlift both these howitzers in an underslung configuration is the CH-47F—meaning while the howitzer could be selected after a competitive bidding process, the helicopter would have to be procured under a sole-source contract. This in turn meant that, in order to avoid corrupt practices while procuring the CH-47F, it was preferable to order the 15 CH-47Fs not by the direct commercial sale route, but via the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route. Instead, exactly the opposite was allowed to happen, i.e. Boeing and Russia’s Rosoboronexport State Corp were invited to: present their commercial bids in July 2009 and send their respective platforms—CH-47F and Mi-26T2—to India for in-country flight-trials on a no-cost-no-commitment basis. At the same time, the MoD conveniently forgot to coordinate matters with IA HQ and IAF HQ for the sake of killing two birds with one stone, i.e. requesting BAE Systems to send the LW-155/M-777 to India so that the IA and IAF could create a combined evaluation team for conducting competitive firepower/mobility evaluations in which both the CH-47F and Mi-26T2 too could have participated.
However, all this was not to be. Consequently, this is how matters played out in a dysfunctional manner: while both Boeing and Rosoboronexport State Corp submitted their respective proposals to the IAF in October 2009, the DAC cleared the proposal for buying 145 LW-155/M-777 UFHs via the FMS route only on May 11, 2012 through the FMS route (even though Army HQ had forwarded all paperwork to the MoD as far back as July 2010 when the UFH deal was estimated to cost only Rs.30 billion (US$477 million). In addition, an Army ‘maintainability evaluation team’ had visited the US from February 8 to 25, 2011 to examine the LW-155/M-777. However, it was only on August 2, 2013 that the MoD officially requested the US for the sale of 145 LW-155/M-777 UFHs, whose price had then escalated to $885 million. Subsequently, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSAC) on August 7, 2013 notified the US Congress of a potential FMS of the LW-155/M-777 worth $885 million along with SELEX LINAPS Digital Gun Management Systems (DGMS) using the FIN3110 inertial navigation units (INU), warranty, spare and repair parts, support and test equipment, maintenance, personnel training and training equipment, as well as engineering and logistics support services and other related elements of logistics support.
When the LW-155/M-777 was deployed to Sikkim for in-country high-altitude firepower/mobility trials, the absence of the CH-47F was direly felt and consequently, the trials could not be conducted in the areas specified by the IA due to the absence of in-theatre certified heavylift platforms. It is due to this reason that the LW-155/M-777 was: unable to demonstrate its direct firing capabilities by day and night; unable to demonstrate its compatibility with the IA’s Firing Tables (because the IA had not yet ordered BMCS modules and 850,000 modules were ordered in only early 2016 from URENCO and Nexter Systems); unable to demonstrate its air-portability in underslung mode; unable to demonstrate its sighting system at nighttime; and unable to demonstrate its built-in communications system at high altitudes.
The IAF too refused to airlift the LW-155/M-777 in underslung mode with its existing Mi-26Ts in Sikkim and Ladakh simply because A) the IAF’s existing Mi-26Ts are not certified to carry this weapon underslung and consequently the IAF does not have SOPs in place to carry out such a heavylift operation; and B) the IAF therefore did not have in its possession the hooks and cables required for rigging the LW-155/M-777 to the Mi-26T in underslung configuration.
It was only on February 15, 2016 that the DSCA finally submitted a $737 million offer for India to acquire 145 LW-155/M-777 UFHs, following which the Cabinet Committee on National Security cleared the November 30, 2016. The contract entails a 30% direct industrial offsets clause, under which around $210 million is now being invested back into India b y BAE Systems in the form of an UFH assembly, integration and test (AIT) facility in India in partnership with Mahindra Defence. In future, another 500 UFHs are likely to be ordered, if the options are exercised. The first two LW-155/M-777 UFHs were air-freighted to India in fully assembled condition on May 18, 2017 and this will soon be used for compiling the ballistics chart (using OFB-made ammunition and imported BMCS modules) for usage in the plains and mountains. This chart will subsequently be uploaded into the LINAPS. Three more UFHs will be delivered in September 2018. The delivery schedule will gather pace from March 2019 onwards, with five UFHs being delivered every month till all 145 are inducted by June 2021.
Meanwhile, the final round of ‘confirmatory trials’ of the first three production-batch OFB-built Dhanush-45 155mm/45-cal towed howitzer are now underway, with successful conclusion of such being expected by mid-June 2017.
Next in line is the procurement of 814 155mm/52-cal motorised mounted gun systems (MGS).
This will be followed by the procurement of 1,850 ATAGS 155mm/52-cal towed howitzers.