Amid the controversy swirling around the performance of M777 lightweight howitzers, which India plans to buy from the US, BAE Systems has dismissed suggestions that its gun has fallen short of the army's requirements.
In its first public comments on the M777 howitzer issue, BAE Systems said, "This is a government-to-government process and as such it is not one we can comment on. Nonetheless, in terms of capability, nothing matches the M777. It is the world's lightest 155mm howitzer and the only one proven in battle."
The army had last week ordered a probe into the leak of a classified report pertaining to the recent trials of the howitzer, which is half the weight of a conventional 155mm gun. The report said the gun had failed trials on several key parameters.
There are murmurs in the South Block that a disgruntled vendor, knocked out of the race for the artillery contract, might be trying to put a spanner in the works. Defence minister AK Antony declared last week that no one would be allowed to manipulate the military's weapons procurement programme. In a potential deal worth more than Rs. 3,000 crore, India plans to buy 145 M777 howitzers to sharpen the offensive capabilities of its mountain divisions. Made of titanium and aluminum alloys, the lightweight gun (4,220 kg) can be swiftly deployed in remote theatres of operation.
A BAE Systems' spokesperson said, "The weapon system has performed admirably in operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan in service with the US Army and the US Marine Corps."
But the latest controversy could further delay the army's artillery modernisation programme. The army has not inducted any new gun since the Bofors controversy erupted in 1987.
The leaked report said the howitzer had fared poorly in direct firing and air portability trials. Non-compliance on parameters such as barrel life, minimum range and anti-skid mechanism was also recorded in the trial report, mailed anonymously to army chief Gen VK Singh with a warning that the deal could cause trouble for him.
Being the only bidder, Singapore Technologies Kinetics (ST Kinetics) had emerged as a strong contender for supplying its 155mm Pegasus lightweight howitzer to India two years back.
However, the defence ministry froze business with seven defence firms, including ST Kinetics, in June 2009 after their names cropped in CBI investigations into corruption charges against former Ordnance Factory Board chief Sudipto Ghosh. This paved the way for BAE Systems to toss its hat in the gun race again.