India All Set For First Howitzer Buy Since Bofors

This is history. Except I still don't want to say it until there's a contract award. The US Government has been sent a formal Letter of Request by the Indian MoD for 145 BAE Systems M777 ultra-light howitzers, which, along with associated equipment, could be worth upwards of $650-million. The Indian MoD formally declared its interest in the system to the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency in January 2006.

Apart from the guns themselves, the deal includes "Laser Inertial Artillery Pointing Systems (LINAPS), warranty, spare and repair parts, support and test equipment, publications and technical documentation, maintenance, personnel training and training equipment, U.S.Government and contractor representatives’ technical assistance, engineering and logistics support services, and other related elements of logistics support."

It's been a typically Indian ride. In February 2008, BAE fielded an M777 for the first time at the Def Expo 2008 trade fair, a month after the Indian Army had put out its requirement for light guns. Seven months later, the company declared that the qualitative requirements (pertaining mostly to ammunition) made it impossible for the M777 to be fielded, creating a single vendor situation involving the ST Kinetics Pegasus ultra-light gun. New requirements were formulated and both guns were invited to pitch. Trials followed, and then things steadily went straight to hell.

In late 2009, allegations of financial malfeasance rocked ST Kinetics -- leading to an indefinite period of suspended animation (the company's guns were still in country for trials etc), and finally ending with the company's formal blacklist by the Indian government in March 2012. With BAE's only competitor on the road to a ban, the MoD knew that there was no competition to be had. On Republic Day (Jan 26) 2010, the Pentagon revealed to US Congress (as part of due paper process) that the Indian government wanted 145 BAE M777s as part of a direct government-to-government deal. This was quickly cleared. In Feb 2011, press reports indicated that the Army had sought concessions for the government to push through the M777 since it had failed certain firing tests. This followed a brief controversy where an anonymous letter with xeroxed copies of sections of the M777 Indian trial report, landed on Indian Defence Minister AK Antony's table, forcing an internal inquiry. That inquiry apparently found the involvement of "suspected vested interests" (surprise, surprise).

If the Indian government manages to conclude this deal -- and there's no reason why it shouldn't now -- it will be historic. The first procurement of field artillery for the Indian Army since the infamous Bofors episode. Then again, 145 artillery pieces in a blackhole that's hungry for thousands of heavier howitzers, is a bit of a lark. It's a start. 

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