M-777 ultra-light howitzers are the first artillery guns imported by the Indian army in more than three decades. The new guns were being put through field trials in Pokhran in Rajasthan desert using ammunition made by the Ordnance Factory Board or OFB, which is run by the Defense Ministry.
According to reports, India received two M-777 ultra-light howitzers in May, each worth around Rs.35 crore. However, when the barrel of the brand-new ultra-light and long-range artillery gun exploded during a field trial a few days ago, the damage was attributed by army sources to home-made ammunition.
But on Wednesday, in a statement to Indian paper NDTV, the state-owned manufacturer which supplies at least 90 per cent of artillery shells in use with the Army, seemed to suggest that the failure was not unusual. “The number of rounds successfully fired during user trial with ERFB BT ammunition from [the] M-777 howitzer gun were more than 1,100 and the round in which malfunction occurred was [the] 1164th round,” said Dr U Mukherjee, a spokesperson for the manufacturer.
When asked if this failure rate was acceptable, Mr Mukherjee said “Ideally, this is not acceptable.”
The gun, which can be slung under a helicopter, is meant to be deployed at high-altitude locations along the China boundary.
Senior officers of the army told the paper that the manufacturer’s explanation was unacceptable and that they expect consistency in the quality of ammunition supplied to them. Experts from the Ordnance Board have visited the site of the trials and interacted with executives from BAE Systems, the manufacturer of the M-777 to determine what went wrong, the paper said.
The Indian army has received two howitzers as part of an order for 145 guns for nearly 5,000 crores. Three more guns are to be supplied to the army next year for training. The guns will be introduced in 2019 in stages. The order is to be completed by the middle of 2022.
While 25 guns will come in off-the-shelf condition, ready for use, the rest will be assembled in India by the BAE Systems in partnership with Mahindra Defence as part of Modi’s “Make in India” initiative.
This is not the first time that the Ordnance Factory Board and the Indian Army have openly disagreed on the quality of weaponry produced by the public sector company. In July, the OFB said its indigenous new assault Rifle “functioned flawlessly without any stoppages” despite an army report stating that the weapon “requires comprehensive design analysis and improvement.”
US military sales to India went from zero to $15 billion
Meanwhile, India plans to spend a whopping $30 billion in military modernization over the next seven years, and the United States (its defense and strategic partner) hopes to get a major share, says a senior American official amid reports that US military sales to India went from zero to $15 billion in the last 10 years.
Also, at a recent hearing, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells told a congressional panel that US desires to sell nuclear components to India.
“The $10 billion in US export content in the potential nuclear deal, we believe would generate 15,000 jobs” in the US, said Ms Well in a testimony before the South Asia panel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“With India as a major defense partner, we are able to now offer advanced technologies.”