We now know that on September 2, an M777 light howitzer undergoing tests at the Pokhran firing range in Rajasthan was damaged because of faulty ammunition. According to news reports, the shell shattered in the howitzer’s barrel and its fragments exited from the muzzle end.
No one was injured in the accident; however, the weapon’s barrel is damaged, presumably rendering it inoperable.
A joint team comprising of personnel from the army and the manufacturer, BAE Systems, is reportedly investigating the incident.
Going by available details of the accident, it seems clear that ammunition produced by the government-run Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) is the culprit. In response to a query from NDTV, a spokesperson for OFB, Dr U. Mukherjee stated that the shell that broke up was the 1,164th fired from the howitzer, but also admitted that this was ‘not acceptable.’
The round that malfunctioned was an extended range full-bore boat tailed (ERFB BT) 155mm shell. OFB has been making these shells for years- they’re used in the army’s workhorse howitzer, the Bofors FH-77B.
The September 2 accident is only the latest in a string of mishaps where faulty shells may have been involved. In May and July, prototypes of the Dhanush, a locally developed 155mm/45-calibre howitzer, also suffered damage after firing similar rounds.
India has 39 ordnance factories with around 100,000 employees, but they generated only INR15,252 crore in 2016-17 despite having what amounts to a captive customer.
On August 31, the defence ministry reportedly fired 13 OFB employees for ‘non-performance’. Whatever the merits of these unprecedented sackings, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman will have to initiate far more fundamental reforms to change the functioning of the OFBs.
Alleviating the drought?
For three decades since the Bofors scandal, Indian governments have struggled to procure artillery, always wary of the slightest whiff of irregularity. Congress-led governments have had to be particularly cautious, though the NDA has only fared marginally better.
This has not stopped the army from making ambitious proposals for buying artillery. Its Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan (FARP) envisages buying more than 3,000 guns by 2027. These will include 155mm/39 calibre howitzers like the M777 as well as 155mm/52 calibre pieces, both towed and self-propelled.
The pair of M777s being test fired in Pokhran were the first howitzers imported in the three decades after the Bofors scandal. They’re part of a $737 million government-to-government deal with the US for 145 howitzers. The first 25 are to be bought as finished products and the remainder are to be assembled locally by the Mahindra Group.
The ultra-light M777, which uses titanium and aluminium alloys in its construction, weighs just 4,200 kilograms and can be transported by helicopter. It’s intended to equip the Indian Army’s Mountain Strike Corps that guards the country’s north-eastern frontier with China. The manufacturer’s literature stresses the M777’s portability and battle-proven ruggedness- it’s been used by US forces in Afghanistan since 2006.
Besides the M777, the army is also evaluating prototypes of the OFB-developed Dhanush, itself a local variant of the Bofors howitzer. It has placed an order for 114 of these guns. More promisingly, the army will order 100 155mm/52-calibre tracked self-propelled howitzers from South Korea’s Hanwha Techwin. The first 10 of these K9 Vajra-Ts will be imported, the rest will be jointly manufactured with Larsen and Toubro at a plant in Hazira, Gujrat.
These weapons will only go some way in meeting the army’s FARP goals. Out of the 410 Bofors FH-77Bs imported in the 1980s, only about 200 are believed to be operational today. Besides these, the army possesses locally made 105mm howitzers and Soviet-era pieces, 180 of which got a pricey Israeli upgrade. The Indian Army’s artillery drought is likely to persist for many years to come.