Artillery: One For The Troops, One For The Bureaucrats


April 17, 2019: In March 2019 India finally approved mass production of the locally developed Dhanush (“Bow”) long-range 155mm howitzer. This was bad news for Indian Army commanders and artillerymen because they did not want Dhanush. The government noted that attitude and years of opposition from the military. So only about 114 of the Dhanush will be built and they will, in effect, become the heavy towed 155mm howitzer for the army, which prefers the British developed M777 155mm howitzers that are already in use by India, the United States and many other NATO countries. India has already made arrangements to build the M777 in India.

Arranging local production of Dhanush was more difficult because the Dhanush developer was the government DRDO (Defense Research Development Organization) and OFD (Ordnance Factories Board). Both of these bureaucracies have a reputation for being more bureaucratic than efficient. Hoping to overcome that it was decided to base the Dhanush design on the Swedish Bofors howitzers that were imported by India in the 1980s. The 21st century Indian version became Dhanush. It is a towed 155mm howitzer with a longer barrel (and longer range) than the Bofors design and the M777. Three prototypes were turned over to the army for tests in mid-2017 and failed.

The Indian OFB built the prototypes and had a contract to produce 114 of them with the first 18 to be delivered by the end of 2017. But that only happens if the Dhanush passes army acceptance tests and it is common for OFB built weapons and ammunition to fail acceptance tests, often repeatedly. The 2017 failure involved a shell exploding in the barrel and at first, the culprit was thought to be a defective barrel design (by DRDO) or defective manufacturing (by OFB). Eventually it was discovered that the problem was defective ammunition, which also suffered from DRDO and OFB involvement. Another problem was weight. At that point, Dhanush weighed 20 tons and the upper limit for Indian towed artillery was 18 tons. That limit was established because in some parts of the country many bridges are limited to that weight and the standard 6x6 army heavy truck cannot effectively tow more than 18 tons. The weight of Dhanush was reduced (barely) to 18 tons but getting Dhanush approved for purchase and mass production took another two years. Meanwhile the army hopes (if the procurement bureaucracy can be overcome) to buy far more of the four ton M777, which uses ammo from commercial firms and has performed well for the Indian army.

The government has managed to fix the defective ammo problem, which has been an issue for years, by allowing commercial firms to produce ammo for the army. The OFB has long had a monopoly for producing military ammunition. In 2016 that began to change. There were several sound reasons for the change. Civilian firms have long demonstrated that weapons and ammo can be made cheaper, of higher quality and faster if state-owned manufacturing is not involved. But the OFB has more powerful allies in the government than any foreign supplier, no matter how superior their product may be.

The OFB began in 1775 as part of the British East India Company (which colonized, unified and industrialized India) which sought to create a local source of gunpowder and other munitions while also controlling who had access to it. When British India became independent in 1947 it inherited the OFB, along with a nationwide bureaucracy, a common language (English) for government and commerce and a preference for socialism (in the form of state-controlled monopolies). Britain got rid of its own state-owned firms in the 1980s and India, for much the same reasons, followed suit in the 1990s. But there was one major difference in India and that was the long established use of government jobs as a form of patronage (to help get elected). This exists in many other democracies but India had a particularly nasty addiction to this sort of thing. Thus Indian primary education is still a shambles (because teaching jobs often go to incompetent or non-existent people) and state-owned defense industries were perpetually overstaffed and inefficient and there was no viable cure.

The OFB knew it was facing local competition for building 155mm howitzers. In 2016 an Indian firm (Mahindra) and BAE (a major British arms manufacturer) agreed to jointly produce 145 M777 howitzers for the Indian Army. It was only in mid-2015 that India and BAE finally settled all their contract differences and confirmed the M777 sale. One of the conditions was BAE finding an Indian firm to assemble the howitzers in India. The Mahindra M777 facility will begin production in late 2018 and delivered their M777 howitzers to the Indian army before the OFB obtained clearance to build and deliver Dhanush howitzers. The first 18 Dhanush howitzers are to be available to the army by the end of 2019.

India first approached BAE about buying the M777 in early 2010. Selling weapons to India is a very complicated process, made more complex since 2006 because of an escalating Indian crackdown on weapons procurement corruption. Thus Indian procurement bureaucrats became even more troublesome and obstinate. The M777 deal was almost completed in 2013 but more problems kept showing up. The army was determined to get these howitzers and made a major effort to deal with the obstacles. This sale went through the BAE American subsidiary, which because of its size, ownership and track record basically operates as an American defense firm.

With this purchase, India was joining the many Western nations in using the M777. India is buying the lightweight (3.4 ton) M777 howitzers for about $5 million each. India is particularly attracted by the fact that the M777 can be slung under a helicopter, and thus quickly moved to inaccessible areas near the Pakistani and Chinese borders.

The M777 is, at four tons (for the standard version), the lightest 155mm towed howitzer ever fielded. M777 fire control is handled by a computerized system that allows faster response time and more accurate shooting. The M777 can use all current 155mm ammunition, including the Swedish/American Excalibur GPS guided shell. The guided round cuts ammo use enormously. India already uses a similar Russian guided shell called Krasnopol. The helicopter is the preferred method of moving the M777 across rough terrain. An M777 on a mountain top, with a few dozen Excalibur or Krasnopol rounds, provides precision fire support for troops within a 30-40 kilometer radius. Indian land borders are largely mountainous, and difficult to reach by land routes, especially for artillery that could not be flown in. The M-777 changes that.

The M777 is also the first new artillery for the Indian Army since the late 1980s. Currently, most Indian artillery is either obsolete or soon to be. All these guns are also quite worn and less reliable as a result. Decades of pleas to parliament to speed up the acquisition of new weapons. Until 2010 nothing much happened, but since then public pressure and the rapidly deteriorating (and publicized) state of Indian artillery led to some action.

The Dhanush howitzer is inferior in every way to the M777, but the Dhanush is of more value to the Indian procurement bureaucracy and that counts for a lot even in the 21st century.


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