US Defence Bait is Potent But Impractical Symbolism

The American defence secretary Ashton Carter drops into Delhi next week bearing ideas for joint military projects and things to sell in government-to-government (G2G) deals—Foreign Military Sales (FMS) in Pentagonese. The apparent absence of middlemen and corruption makes G2G/FMS the politically safe method of purchasing arms.

Seeking to enlarge its scope as defence supplier, the US has apparently settled on a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it is offering the manifestly cutting-edge electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) to equip the new generation indigenous aircraft carriers. This offer is impractical but symbolically potent, meant to still Indian criticism about the US not parting with advanced technologies. FMS of traditional hardware constitute the other prong, and the M-777 ultra-light howitzer (ULH) tops the list. Let’s briefly examine these two offers.

At one level EMALS is irresistible. A sort of electromagnetic rail gun to launch aircraft, EMALS is a clean, high initial cost-low maintenance system that takes up less space than steam catapults, can be recharged quickly, and is easy on aircraft frames because the tow-force can be instantly adjusted to the weight of the plane being launched. In the three seconds it takes to get an aircraft airborne, EMALS generates as much as 60MW of power—enough, as it is noted, to light up 12,000 homes. And that’s the problem.

On US nuclear-powered super carriers it is not an issue. With EMALS in the picture, the Indian Navy, however, faces a dilemma about the energy pack. Washington hopes the 65,000-tonne Vishal-class carrier, now at the conception stage, will be nuclear-powered, fly the Lockheed F-35C, and India will accept technical advice and assistance from the US in designing and constructing the ship. Ashley Tellis persuasively makes this case in a Carnegie Endowment monograph. Tellis, however, made it clear at a recent event that, despite the proven incapacity of the Arihant submarine reactor to drive Vishal, the US will render no help in producing a more powerful and efficient highly enriched uranium-fuelled nuclear power plant. Naval stalwarts, however, see eight General Electric LM2500 gas turbine engines on-board as an alternative solution. But these engines will fill a lot of the ship’s innards, need vast oil tanks that will jostle for space with aviation fuel storage bins, making for severe design compromises and tradeoffs.

The navy’s aircraft carrier designing competence and the industry’s complex shipbuilding skills will undoubtedly be enhanced by collaborating with the US Naval Systems Command and American companies. The Narendra Modi government has to make a risky, step-up, decision. It has to consider, other than the nuclear reactor, two other critical factors. One is the $10 billion-$13 billion cost of a nuclear carrier (CVN), compared to the $3 billion for the Kochi-built Vikrant. It will leave little money for everything else. Secondly, a CVN with 6-7 ship and submarine escort will substantially reduce the “maritime density” the 50-capital ship-strong Indian Navy (by 2030) will be able to muster. This will diminish the country’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean at a time when the fast-expanding Chinese Navy is increasing its maritime footprint. So, more of the smaller, conventionally-powered flat-tops, with compact steam catapult systems secured from the US, would seem the sensible option.

Carter’s pitching the ULH involves the usual skulduggery, questionable practices and procedures. The M-777 gun is produced by the Bofors Company, which was bought out by British Aerospace Systems (BAeS), thereby ostensibly converting this gun into a British product. London believes Washington (for a 3.8% commission) can more effectively sell it to India.

But ULH is prime candidate for the cleaver as defence minister Manohar Parrikar has promised to trim the “fat” from the military spend. Here’s why. Based on reports by the theatre Commands concerned about the border (roads) infrastructure and the artillery requirements, the General Staff, Artillery Branch, a decade ago recommended the standardisation of the fine, locally-produced, Dhanush 155mm/45 calibre howitzer across categories—towed, self-propelled, wheeled, tracked, and truck-mounted. This recommendation was endorsed by the army’s Northern, Eastern, Central, and Western Commands who vouched for this gun’s employability in the remotest areas.

However, the different howitzer categories permitted wily vested interests to seek, under the rubric of artillery modernisation, different guns possibly from different sources, each with different stocking and maintenance regimes, and differing “make” programmes—an imaginative way of multiplying gainful opportunities! This budding scam is reflected in the army’s obtaining only 114 Dhanush systems. Besides bad economics and compounding of an already difficult logistics problem, this approach paints a wrong picture of the artillery arm. The obsolete 120mm gun (8 regiments) apart, the 97-odd artillery regiments are pretty up-to-date featuring, besides the sensor-fused Dhanush, the Grad, Pinaka, and Smerch multi-barrel rocket launchers, the Brahmos (Block II) cruise missile, and the extraordinarily destructive point and area weapon—the Prahar missile. If ULH is deemed a dire need the answer is not the pricey M-777 but the locally-made, accurate, 105mm light field gun with range of 20km available at a third of the cost.

ULH entered the picture because the army chief General J J Singh in August 2005 conceived this spurious need, forced it on the artillery directorate, and manipulated the qualitative requirements (QRs) to fit M-777, which move got traction because the competing gun from ST Kinetics of Singapore that had beaten the BAeS item in every performance parameter, was sidelined by “corruption” allegations. The fact is the M-777 does not meet seven operational requirements, and an apprehensive BAeS refused permission for its field testing in India, and even the use of Indian-made ammunition. To bypass Indian QRs, this gun was routed by London in 2008 into the FMS channel. India even paid for transporting two M-777 units from the US for user trials, which confirmed its shortfalls.

Many revealing details are left out of this unavoidably shortened account. Parrikar can verify the entire tale by calling for the relevant files. He will see how military requirements are tailored and eased through the flawed procurement system to benefit foreign suppliers. The ULH deal is a minefield the Modi government best avoid stepping into. For Carter the M-777 is simply the wrong thing to peddle.
Published in the New Indian Express, May 29, 2015; at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Defence Industry, domestic politics, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Military Acquisitions, Missiles, nuclear industry, nuclear power, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, United States, US., Weapons, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to US Defence Bait is Potent But Impractical Symbolism

  1. Satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    Is the Prahar in service currently? As far as I know, it has had only one test, though it’s relative the AAD has had a few tests.

  2. Shaurya says:

    Two points:

    1. An interim solution would be to let the Vishaal be a conventional powered but about 65,000 ton carrier with no catapults, steam or EMALS and be funded through the 12th and 13th defense plans. Let the US assisted carrier be the next one and be funded i the 14th defense plan and let India in the meanwhile perfect its reactor designs that can go on ships/submarines of varying capacities. It will buy us some time and China is not deploying a catapult driven carrier anytime soon.

    2. Disagree with you on the ULH. A 155MM gun is no match compared to the destructive power or range of the 105MM IFG. While the 155MM standardization for the Dhanush should be undertaken, we also need a light quick transportable fire power that can move with the men. For the MSC, for example, the ability to move this fire power to some locations on the LAC and LOC, where there is no road transport available, would make a difference. The heavier arty, MBRL’s and tactical missiles can follow, where we have roads.

    • You are perhaps aware that the M-777, as many stalwarts claim, will pull the artillery back to WW-II days in that, other than the titanium barrel, to reduce weight, it is a gun as of yore requiring 10 jawans to manhandle into place, all the loading, etc is manual rather than in the Dhanush system, in which such functions are mechanized for rapid fire. Indeed, the Bofors/BAeS gun is bit of a joke, really.

      • Shaurya says:

        What it comes down to is a tradeoff between cost and need for enhanced and mobile fire power. Can the 105MM IFG do it? The recently raised infantry divisions in 3 & 4 corps each, have ordered the 105MM, but really wanted the ULH. The 105 has no chance against fortified structures. What is the sustained rate of fire for the IFG? There is no apples-apples compare for the M-777 in the Indian context, but has to compare to what it replaced, the M198. Even the M198 did not have an APU, keeping the weight down to keep it heli transportable is the prime reason. It is certainly not designed for a high and sustained rate of fire but will still provide more fire power for the buck. Para dropping a ULH from the belly of a C130 is possible, it is not for a Dhanush. It takes at least twice the number of sorties to deliver the same load in the mountains as opposed to the plains.

  3. Shaurya says:

    To clarify the earlier point, do see a need for the ULH, not disputing that things are manipulated with the MOD. BTW, the M-777 had an operational stint in Afghanistan and Iraq, seems the US Army is happy with it.

    • The US experience of this gun in Afghanistan means nothing, in the main, because the American army always creates semi-permanent fire stations to direct fire, and has never used this gun in a genuinely mobile fashion. In any case, it is incapable of mobility as it is- not equipped with APU that the Dhanush, incidentally, is.

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