The Indian Army is preparing to deploy its new M777 ultra-light howitzers in eastern Arunachal Pradesh for accurate artillery fire support in the mountainous terrain that could prove to be a “game-changer” in the sector, two officers familiar with the move told HT. The 155 mm/39-caliber howitzers, which can be sling-loaded to helicopters and swiftly deployed to high-altitude areas, are likely to be inducted by the year-end, the first officer said. India ordered 145 howitzers from the United States for $750 million in November 2016.
“The M777s will be a game-changer in the eastern sector. The highly portable guns can be swiftly deployed and redeployed for missions using the Boeing CH-47F (I) Chinook helicopters. The howitzers will be part of light artillery regiments,” the second officer said.
The howitzers have a range of 24-30km.
The tactical mobility will enable quick insertion of the howitzers in areas close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, which can move weapons, equipment and troops at a swifter pace because of better infrastructure, he said.
“It’s certainly a much-needed capability upgrade. Moving heavier guns around is not easy. Even soldiers take two days to reach the forward posts from Tezu (headquarters of the 82
Mountain Brigade),” he added. Tezu is located 250km south of Kibithu, which is along the LAC and accounts for the army’s eastern-most deployments.
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 army will raise seven new regiments with the 145 howitzers deployed in the northern and eastern sectors, the two officers said. M777 manufacturer BAE Systems is supplying 25 ready-built howitzers and the remaining 120 guns will be built locally in collaboration with Mahindra Defence under the Modi government’s Make in India initiative. The army is likely to get all the howitzers by 2021-end.
“The M777 is truly an advanced piece of artillery and it will meet the operational requirement of the formations deployed in the eastern sector. It stands out for its mobility, precision, rate of fire, and ability to hit targets in difficult mountainous terrain,” said former army vice chief Lieutenant General AS Lamba (retd), who was commissioned into the artillery and has served in the east for more than a decade.
The M777s were the first artillery guns to be ordered after the Bofors scandal unfolded in the late 1980s. Last December, then defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman dedicated the M777s to the nation. These howitzers have superior tactical mobility as they are made from titanium alloy and weigh only 4,218kg, which is half the weight of conventional artillery guns deployed in the northern and eastern sectors.
The CH-47F (I) Chinook and the M777 howitzer are a deadly combination, said former Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Major (retd). “The load-carrying capacity of the Chinook and the capabilities that the M777 brings will certainly be a game-changer for the forces deployed along the eastern borders,” he said.
India ordered 15 Chinook helicopters from the US for $1.18 billion in September 2015. Six of them have already been delivered.
The army’s artillery arsenal in eastern Arunachal Pradesh includes the Bofors guns and the 105mm field gun. “Transporting these guns is quite tricky due to terrain and the infrastructure that is still a work in progress. It requires a lot of horse power and willpower,” said the first officer cited above.
The IAF plans to deploy US-made Apache AH-64E attack helicopters in the eastern sector in two years after a base there is fully ready to support the choppers, two senior IAF officers said on the condition of anonymity.
The helicopters are part of a $1.1-billion deal India inked with the US in September 2015 for 22 Apaches to modernise its assault capabilities to counter ground-based armoured targets and aerial threats.
The 22 Apaches will be split between Pathankot and Jorhat, where support infrastructure is being created. The IAF has already inducted eight Apaches into its fleet at the Pathankot airbase.