The 30-year gap between India’s last purchase of artillery and its buy last week of 145 M777 ultralight howitzers from the United States has its roots in the trauma of the infamous Bofors scandal of 1986, which rocked the Indian political establishment and resulted in the fall of the government of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The scandal reverberated as far away as Sweden, the Bofors manufacturer, which bribed the Indians, and Singapore, where the managing director of the state-owned Chartered Industries was convicted of forging end-user certificates to route weapons to India surreptitiously.
Since that time, India’s defense establishment has been effectively paralyzed in its purchase of artillery, although a long series of other procurement scandals has been made public. Analysts have long argued that India has paid a heavy price for its overprotective and rigid defence policies, resulting in a freeze on equipment vital for national security. Worse, since the scandal, almost all the top artillery manufacturers around the world were banned at some time or the other by the Indian government.
However, in a dramatic departure from past defence policy, which sought to minimize foreign arms purchases, the Indian government issued a directive last month stating that it will no longer impose blanket bans on armament companies suspected of corruption or bribery. This easing of blacklisting norms marks the end of a 10-year blanket ban imposed earlier on erring firms.
The purchase of the howitzers is significant for other reasons. The recent Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) guidelines mandate that the country opt for foreign defence goods only as a last resort and in cases where the required technologies are not available within the country. However, the Indian Army's plummeting gun stock has touched an all- time low. The situation has been getting worse over the years with non-procurement due to political issues and scams.
The lack of basic defence equipment even led erstwhile Army Chief General VK Singh to shoot off a letter to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2014 to highlight the dire state of Indian military preparedness.
The howitzer deal is thus being viewed with optimism by global arms companies eyeing the lucrative Indian market. They see this transaction as a possible opening for their own future business prospects with a country that remains the world’s largest arms importer. India accounted for 14 percent of global imports between 2011 and 2015 according to the global think-tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The institute’s data also shows that India’s arms imports remain three times greater than those of its rivals China and Pakistan.
Defense analysts say that what drove the Indian government towards the big-ticket purchase was primarily its need to beef up its military preparedness following tensions with neighbors, especially Pakistan and China. There have been a series of attacks by Pakistani militants in Kashmir lately resulting in a loss of over 100 civilian and military lives. A perpetually tense situation also permeates India's eastern border with China, especially along the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh parts of which China claims as its own.
"The induction of the howitzers is a top priority for the Indian army," a senior Army official told AS. "India has fought four wars with Pakistan and one war with China in 1961. The latter ended in a clear Indian defeat, with territory ceded and territorial disputes still unresolved. In addition India has border disputes with Bangladesh while Nepal and Sri Lanka consider India as an assertive Big Brother. In such a fraught geopolitical scenario India needs to watch its back."
According to Rakshit Pandit, a policy expert at the Indian Defense Studies and Analysis, a Delhi-based think tank, India's next major conflict is likely to be with Pakistan or China. "Its most likely to be fought in Kashmir or Arunanchal Pradesh in the Himalayan Mountain ranges, at high altitudes. And the key to vanquishing the enemy will be to use howitzers effectively. And currently, the most nimble machine among all guns for such rugged terrain is the M777. "
The new guns, adds the expert, weighs less than half of the 155 mm gun the Indian Army currently uses. "In a country with as many mountains along its border as India, using artillery easier to transport can make the difference winning or losing a war."
Delhi-based editor & journalist Neeta Lal (email@example.com) is a regular Asia Sentinel correspondent. Tweet him at @neeta_com