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PM Modi's US Visit: India, US plan for long-range ultra-lightweight Howitzer

At the moment, the Indian Army has strategically positioned all of its M777 howitzers along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), with a specific emphasis on the Northeast region. Although the M777 has been used in Afghanistan, the current war between Russia and Ukraine has highlighted some significant problems with this artillery piece, says Girish Linganna

PM Modi's US Visit: India, US plan for long-range ultra-lightweight Howitzer
First Published Jun 22, 2023, 3:29 PM IST

The Indian Army had purchased the original cannon to be used against China along the tense Line of Actual Control (LAC) and, now, India and the United States are looking at the prospect of working together to design and manufacture a variation of the M777 ultra-lightweight howitzer with an increased range. The M777 howitzer has a maximum range of 24.7 kilometres with unassisted rounds and 30 kilometres with rocket-assisted rounds. Additionally, it has the ability to fire specialist ammunition, extending its range to around 40 kilometres. According to sources, the plan is to create longer-range explosives, while also extending the gun’s true range as a separate entity.

National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and his American counterpart, Jake Sullivan, discussed the matter in Washington earlier in February during the former’s visit, according to defence and security establishment sources.

Insiders say the two parties are in discussions to create a new M777 extended-range (ER) artillery gun variant. According to information, the 145 howitzers the Indian Army now deploys may, possibly, be upgraded to have a longer range. The Indian side has been quite clear that it is necessary to take focused steps in a time-bound manner in order to translate intent and concepts into actions and precise deliverables.

The 155mm/39-calibre M777 howitzer, designed for use in mountainous terrain, was expressly requested by India. All of the M777 howitzers that the Army now deploys have been placed along the LAC with a focus on the Northeast, which is replete with steep terrain and several passes that make it difficult and laborious to move artillery systems on a regular basis. 

Twenty-five howitzers were shipped off the shelf, but Mahindra Defence, which has a partnership with BAE Systems, constructed the remaining 75 howitzers in India.

While India and the US are on the verge of signing several sensitive, high-cost deals on the purchase of high-altitude drones and jet engine technology, several other key military and security-related projects and agreements are being fleshed out during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ongoing visit to the US.

Regarding defence matters, sources stated that, while an agreement on joint production of the GE F414 engines is in the works, for high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) drones, there are other crucial issues, such as joint development of the next generation of M777 lightweight howitzers, long-range, specialized artillery munitions and the potential for manufacturing Stryker armoured personnel carriers in India.

What is the M777 Howitzer?

The cannon was created in 1997 for the US Army and Marine Corps to replace the M198 towed 155-mm howitzers. Unlike conventional artillery systems, the gun is suited for quick transit due to its weight. Each of its components, which are primarily constructed of titanium and titanium castings, weighs less than 4,000 kg. The M777 has a burst rate of four rounds per minute and a sustained rate of two rounds per minute.

Although the M777 has been used in Afghanistan, the current war between Russia and Ukraine has highlighted some significant problems with this artillery piece. At least 142 M777s from the US had been delivered to Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been making heavy use of them to attack Russian positions.

Ukrainian soldiers are reportedly launching between 2,000 and 4,000 artillery projectiles every day, according to a report by The New York Times. Over time, that pace has given Ukrainian soldiers operating the M777 several issues, such as shells not launching as far or as precise, according to the article. The design of the howitzer, it was stated, could be partly blamed for some of the problems.

The weapon is easier to transport on the battlefield and quicker to set up than earlier guns. This was an obvious benefit for the US when it started employing the M777 in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early-2000s. Titanium is extensively used in its construction and is lighter than steel, but just as strong. 

The M777 was typically deployed in past wars, as opposed to the Ukraine conflict, to fire sparingly spaced shells in support of the infantry, according to the research. The M777 howitzers also require frequent repairs and, because of their powerful firepower, a barrel change is frequently required.

The author is a defence and aerospace analyst

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