Global demand for the M777 A2 and K9 artillery systems could provide India an opportunity
The Indian Army is slated to make a greater push towards procuring Self-Propelled Guns (SPG) as it takes in the lessons from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, which has reinforced the continued relevance of artillery as a battle-winning asset.
However, the use of armed drones, loitering and precision munitions by Russia and Ukraine to target artillery has made fixed artillery positions vulnerable to enemy attacks. This is said to be one of the reasons for the Indian Army now having a marked preference for wheeled and tracked SPGs.
But being more complex, wheeled and tracked SPGs are not only more expensive to acquire, but are also costlier to operate and sustain over their lifecycle. Hence these acquisitions will place a further strain on the army’s already stretched budget. There is also the matter of ensuring sufficient indigenous capability in producing the artillery shells needed for these howitzers in large enough quantities to cater to any future conflict.
The Indian Army’s Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan (FARP), which was first conceived in the late Nineties, is now expected to be completed in entirety only by in the early 2040s. Much of this artillery hardware will be produced in India under license from the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) or indigenous designs. The army had plans to acquire 1,580 Towed Gun Systems (TGS), 814 Mounted Gun Systems (MGS), 180 wheeled Self-Propelled Guns (SPG), 145 Ultra-Light Howitzers (ULH) and 100 tracked self-propelled guns.
Over the years, two of these requirements have been completed with BAE Systems M777 A2 ULH and Hanwha Techwin—L&T K9 ‘Vajra’ tracked SPGs. These new artillery pieces now equip seven and five army artillery regiments respectively.
India concluded the USD 542 million foreign military sales (FMS) contract for 145 M777A2 ULH in January 2017. The 155 millimetre/39 calibre M777 A2 has proven to be of immense utility in the Eastern Sector, conferring a dramatic improvement in the army’s mobile firepower capability. BAE Systems has also offered India a 52 calibre 155 millimetre barrel for the ULH. This would result in a 155 millimetre, 52 calibre platform weighing under 5,800 kilograms, which BAE Systems has said it is willing to manufacture in India.
In January, BAE Systems inked an agreement with the US Army for M777 lightweight howitzer major structures, under an Undefinitized Contract Action (UCA), limited to USD 50 million, that allows BAE Systems to start delivering on the programme, even as it is finalizing the details of the contract and its total value with the customer. BAE Systems’ supply chain in the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) is expected to deliver the first major titanium structures for the gun in 2025.
The company also says that it has seen an increase in interest from across Europe, Asia and the Americas in the M777 gun system. The US, as well as Canada and Australia, have also donated M777s to Ukraine and will need new artillery guns to replenish their stocks. This new contract will result in a restart of M777 production in the UK and provides India with an opportunity to gain a greater workshare in new M777 production and take advantage of the benefits of a hot production line and economies of scale. The advanced M777A2 is in use with only five countries—the US, Ukraine, the United States, Australia and India, with over 1,250 M777s in service.
The army has 100 K9 Vajra 155 millimetre/52 calibre guns in service, which by all accounts have performed well. The army has indicated that it will acquire additional numbers of this highly successful artillery system. The K9 Vajra contract also shows the challenges with procurement delays for Indian firms.
Hanwha Aerospace–Land Systems Business Group of South Korea and its Indian partner Larson & Toubro (L&T) bagged the order for 100 K9 Vajra-Ts in May 2017. Delivery of all 100 self-propelled guns were completed ahead of schedule in February 2021. L&T set up a green-field manufacturing cum integration and testing facility called the Armoured System Complex (ASC) in Hazira, near Surat, in Gujarat. While the first 10 K9s for India were assembled from Semi Knocked Down (SKD) by L&T, the remaining artillery systems were made in India with 14 critical systems, developed indigenously including the Fire Control System, Direct Fire System and Ammunition Handling System.
Other India-specific modifications included those for desert conditions such as Auxiliary Power Pack (APU), Air Conditioning, Fire Fighting Systems and Nuclear Biological Chemical (NBC) Protection Systems. However, despite all these achievements, L&T’s Armoured System Complex has been largely idle since the last K9 Vajra-T was delivered. This February marks the third year that the production line has been idle. The K-9 SPH (self-propelled howitzer) has been a massive success for the South Korean defence industry with over 1,800 units of different K9 variants in service today, accounting for more than 50 per cent shares of the global SPH market.
In both the M777 A2 and K9 artillery programmes, India has an opportunity now to place timely orders for additional guns and negotiate a greater share of in-country production and place in the global supply chain for these weapon systems, which are unlikely to be overtaken in the next two decades.
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