India may finally exorcise its Bofors ghost of 30 years. After several years of hard-nosed negotiations, which also saw the proposed deal being stalled for a couple of years, the US government on Monday finally submitted an over $700 million offer for India to acquire 145 M-777 ultra-light howitzers.
Sources said the Pentagon’s “letter of offer and acceptance (LoA)”, submitted to the Indian defence ministry under the American foreign military sales (FMS) program, is now likely to lead to a government-to-government contract within 180 days.
“We are also at an advanced stage of mutually deciding the Indian partners in the deal, who will establish the AIT (assembly, integration and testing) facility here. While the first lot will be delivered directly, the bulk of the 145 howitzers (manufactured by BAE Systems) will be assembled in India over three years,” said a ministry source.
The contract will entail a 30% offset clause, under which around $210 million will be invested back into India. The LoA for the M-777s comes at a time when India is incensed with the US decision to sell another eight F-16 fighters to Pakistan for $700 million.
But that is unlikely to impede the howitzer deal, with US having overtaken Russia, Israel and France to turn India’s largest arms supplier over the last four years. Just since 2007, US has bagged Indian arms deals worth over $13 billion.
It was almost a decade ago that the 1.18-million strong Army had first demanded the induction of 155mm/39-calibre light-weight howitzers, which could be airlifted swiftly to “threatened high-altitude areas” along the 4,057-km LAC with China.
The air-mobile M-777s, partly made of titanium, have a strike range of over 25-km. They will help the Army somewhat address the stark military asymmetry with China, which has the infrastructure in place to swiftly mobilise troops and equipment to outnumber Indian forces 3:1along the LAC.
The ultra-light howitzers are meant to equip the new 17 Mountain Strike Corps, which is to be fully raised with 90,274 troops at a cost of Rs 64,678 crore by 2021.
The Army has not been able to induct even one modern 155mm howitzer for over 30 years now because of recurring scandals, which began with the Swedish Bofors in the mid-1980s and was then followed by South African Denel, Israeli Soltam and Singapore Technology Kinetic’s (STK) in later years. The M-777 is set to break the jinx.