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Artillery Booms Again

   by:  Col ( Retd) A K Sharma


The ghost of Bofors appears to have been exorcised finally. Nearly 27 years after the controversial acquisition of 410 pieces of Bofors FH77, India's MoD approved purchase of 145 ultra-light howitzer guns valued at Rs 3,000 crore ($660 million) to add fire-power to its ageing inventory. The M777 BAE Systems guns will be bought through the Foreign Military Sales(FMS) route from the US government. The deal was cleared by the Defence Acquisition Council(DAC) headed by Defence Minister AK Antony. The final nod from DAC was obtained following a favourable report submitted by a committee headed by DRDO chief VK Saraswat that studied the suitability of the weapon system. The committee was constituted after certain observations were raised during the field trials. 

Approval to acquire the howitzers marks a first in the long wish list of artillery guns and armaments under the ambitious Artillery Modernisation plan. As per some estimates the total cost of artillery modernization will cost around 30 billion USD at the current levels. Overall requirements are likely to increase as the army is in the process of raising new mountain divisions. Coming close on the heels of MMRCA selection, the clearance to buy the ULH is likely to provide succour to the industry as many a cynics were beginning to mock India's seriousness in buying military hardware. Although the purchase is through the FMS route and not the elaborate DPP process, it does underscore India’s resolve to modernize the armed forces. The proposal now awaits approval from Ministry of Finance and Cabinet Committee on Security. However, with the DAC having accorded approval after due deliberations, it is unlikely to face any hurdles.

Another significant development is the making of Indian Bofors FH77 by Ordinance Factory Board, India (See Box). It bears testimony to India's growing prowess in military technology which will realize the nation's dream of self reliance in defence. Although the ToT happened more than a decade ago, the defence industry in the country was apparently not ready to take up a project of such dimensions. But we can derive immense satisfaction in the fact that the indigenous gun is a reality today and is undergoing field trials at different firing ranges in the country.

The FH 77 [Field howitzer 77] is a towed 155 mm artillery piece with 02 versions - A and B. The FH 77 B has a longer maximum range and can fire standard NATO artillery rounds. The Bofors FH 77 is still one of the world's most revolutionary towed field artillery systems. It has an on-mount auxiliary power unit (APU) that gives the system its self-propelled capability and supplies power to the hydraulically supported operations, making it easy to handle. It also has the unique advantage of having a fully integrated land navigation system that gives the coordinates of the gun position and automatic alignment of the barrel.

Bofors delivered 410 FH-77BS towed howitzers to India from 1986 to 1990 but, following allegations of kickbacks, India froze plans to put the weapon into production and blacklisted the company. Under the $1.3 billion Bofors gun deal signed by the government on 24 March 1986, the Swedish armaments company was to supply 410 field howitzers, spare parts, ammunition of six types, fire-control equipment, and technical literature to India.

The stock of ammunition that India received along with the 410 Bofors guns was exhausted within a few years. Subsequently the Indian Army tried to resurrect the guns for operational use by marrying an indigenously built barrel with the howitzer's chassis. But the attempt failed as it was found that no reverse engineering could be done on the guns. In October 1998 the government decided to reopen negotiations with the Swedish firm A.B. Bofors, to ensure transfer of technology and spare parts to the 410 field howitzers lying unused in the India army's artillery units.

The FH77 B is now integrated with a 6x6 all-terrain vehicle making it an extremely powerful, highly mobile artillery system. Its into-action time is less than 50 s. An artillery sequence: into action; fire 8 rounds; out of action and move 500 m takes less than 3 minutes. The gun has a range of 30 km, it can fire 3 rounds within 13 s and a has sustained rate of fire of 8 rounds/minute. On the move the gun crew is transported in an armoured cabin. The on-mount ammunition boxes, in effect magazines, have the same level of protection as the crew compartment. The FH77 B has its own land navigation system, eliminating surveying and alignment and the complete system has very low LCC.

'Made in India' Avatar of the Bofors guns promises to deliver the same deadly punch that its Swedish version is famous for. Ironically, BAE Systems Land and Armaments, the manufacturer of M777 ULH is the one that now owns Bofors Defence renamed BAE Systems Bofors.

The M 777

The M777 is a 155mm, 39 calibre, towed gun and is the world's first 155mm howitzer weighing less than 10000 lb. The M777 began as the Ultralight-weight Field Howitzer (ULH), developed by VSEL's armaments division in Barrow-in-Furness, United Kingdom. In 1999, after acquisition by BAE, VSEL was merged into the new BAE Systems RO Defence. This unit became part of BAE Systems Land Systems in 2004. BAE System's original US partner was United Defense. However in 2005, BAE acquired United Defense and hence is responsible for design, construction and assembly (through its US-based Land and Armaments group). The M777 uses about 70% US built parts including the gun barrel manufactured at the Watervliet Arsenal.

The M777 is smaller and 42% lighter, at under 4,100 kg (9,000 lb).  Most of the weight reduction is due to the use of titanium. The lighter weight and smaller size allows the M777 to be transported by MV-22 Osprey, CH-47 helicopter or truck with ease, so that it can be moved in and out of the battlefield more quickly. The smaller size also improves storage and transport efficiency in military warehouses and Air/Naval Transport. The gun crew required is an operational minimum of five, compared to a previous size of nine in M198.

The M777 uses a digital fire-control system similar to that found on self-propelled howitzers such as the M109A6 Paladin to provide navigation, pointing and self-location, allowing it to be put into action more quickly than earlier towed and air-transported howitzers

The M777 is also often combined with the new Excalibur GPS-guided munition, which allows accurate fire at a range of up to 40 kilometres. This almost doubles the area covered by a single battery. During field trials in the US, fired from up to 24 kilometres, rounds hit within 10 meters of their target, suggesting a circular error probable of about five meters.

Indigenous Bofors FH-77 Gun

Another significant development is the production of 'Indigenous Bofors FH-77 Gun' which is currently under field trials.

Two types of indigenously manufactured howitzers for the Indian Army will be ready for trials by December 2012 and by June 2013,  Rajya Sabha was informed recently. In a written reply to the House, Defence Minister AK Antony said, "As per the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) decision of October 2011, Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) is to manufacture 155mm howitzers." The OFB have been asked to manufacture "two prototypes of 155mm/39 calibre FH-77-B02 guns" and the "upgraded version of 155 mm/45 calibre howitzers guns” added the Defence Minister.

Even though the Transfer of Technology (ToT) was effected almost a decade ago, non availability of specialized materials and lack of adequate technological skills in the Indian industry prevented us from exploiting the ToT. It was in 2010 when several rounds of discussions took place between the current DG Artillery, Secretary Defence  Production and Chairman OFB to exploit the ToT and produce the gun in India. Gen VK Singh, Chief of Army Staff, whole heartedly supported the initiative. Indian Bofors is a near reality today  an achievement that we can justifiably be proud of.

Indian Artillery: Brief History

Historically, Mughal Emperor Babur is popularly credited with introduction of Artillery in India, in the Battle of Panipat in 1526, where he decisively used gunpowder firearms and field artillery and defeated the much larger army of Ibrahim Lodhi, the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, thus not just laying the foundation of the Mughal Empire but also setting a precedent of all future battles in the subcontinent. However evidence of earlier use of guns by Bahmani Kings in the 'Battle of Adoni' in 1368 and King Mohammed Shah of Gujarat in fifteenth century has been recorded.

The East India Company raised the first regular company of Artillery in 1748, with a small percentage of Indian Gunners called Gun Lashkars, Tindals and Serangs. A few Indian mountain artillery batteries, officered by the British, were raised in the 19th century and formed part of the Royal Artillery. The Royal Indian Artillery (RIA) of the British India Army was raised on September 28, 1827, as a part of the Bombay Army, a presidency army of the Bombay Presidency. It was later renamed as 5 Bombay Mountain Battery, and participated in the First Anglo-Afghan War (18391842). Following the mutiny in 1857, all Indian artillery units were disbanded except mountain artillery batteries.

The Regiment of Artillery was raised on 15 January 1935, when the first three Indian Field Regiments, originally numbered A, B, and C were authorised. Originally called the 'Indian Regiment of Artillery', the corps later became 'The Regiment of Indian Artillery' on 1 November 1940 and 'Royal Regiment of Indian Artillery' in October 1945, after its success in World War II.

After the partition in 1947 RIA was divided between the newly formed artillery regiments of India and Pakistan. In the following years the artillery took part in all the operations fought by the Indian Army, the latest being the Kargil War.

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