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India set to drop US gun purchase

An M777 slung under a helicopter

New Delhi, July 12: The Indian government looks set to cancel a proposed purchase of heavy guns from the US, further delaying the army’s field artillery modernisation programme that has not taken off in 30 years.

“The case for procurement of ultra-light howitzer guns through the US government has not progressed due to cost issues and because the vendor has not been able to come up with a proposal fully compliant to the offset requirements,” defence minister Arun Jaitley told Parliament in reply to a question from Asaduddin Owaisi, MP from the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen.

The government had authorised an outright purchase of 145 M777 ultra-light howitzers made by UK-US firm BAe Land Systems in January 2010. It had decided to procure the guns through the Pentagon’s foreign military sales (FMS) route after BAe’s competitor for the contract, ST Kinetics of Singapore, was blacklisted for suspected corruption in another deal.

The Pentagon had notified the US Congress of the possible purchase of the M777 guns by India for around $647 million. But the contract negotiations have been stalled for nearly a year.

Now, the price negotiations to contract the M777 guns are on the verge of being called off because the government is finding them too costly. Jaitley’s reference to the “offset requirements” means that the defence ministry has found BAe’s proposal to reinvest a percentage of the contracted amount in India inadequate.

The ultra-light howitzers that can be under-slung from certain helicopters and lifted to troops in the mountains were meant chiefly for the army posted on the China frontier in the Northeast and Ladakh. They would be a crucial weapon for the units being raised for the 17 Mountain Strike Corps, the largest force accretion the army has planned.

The army’s field artillery rationalisation plan envisaged the induction of heavy guns in three categories to replace the Bofors — 155mm/39cal ultra-light, 155mm/52cal wheeled and 155mm/52cal towed self-propelled guns.

Former army chief V.K. Singh (now Union minister from the BJP) had said in January 2012 that he expected the first of the M777s to be in the country by December of that year.