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What the Poor Performance Record of the American M777 Howitzer's and its Failure in the Indian Army Indicate Regarding India's Military Acquisition Strategy

September 14th - 2017

In its effort to diversify its weapons sources India's military is becoming a fast growing customer for U.S. arms, particularly in the Army and Navy. The Indian Army contracted 145 M777 howitzers from America's BAE systems. With two of the contracted artillery pieces having already been delivered, severe technical issues with the weapons have already been reported. During Indian field trials for the M777 Howitzer at the Army's Pokhran firing range in which the new weapons were tested, one of the two newly purchased M777s reportedly disintegrated causing a serious accident. This failure was acknowledged by the U.S. producer BAE, but with these weapons having been set for deployment to the Chinese border their unreliability is likely to compromise India's capabilities.

According to leaked Indian army documents the underperformance of the M777 howitzers was entirely predictable, and the guns had failed to meet critical performance requirements during previous field evaluation trials. According to the Hindustan Times, the Indian army had reported the M777 "had fared poorly in direct firing and air portability trials." Severe shortcomings with the barrel life, minimum range, and anti-skid mechanism were also recorded. The reasons why the military proceeded with the purchases despite this can only be speculated, but they are likely linked to New Delhi's recent moves to strengthen defence ties with Washington - for which increased arms purchases would be a key facilitator of military cooperation. US artillery do have a remarkable history of barrel bursts and accidents, and as recently as August 12th 2017 two U.S. soldiers were killed and five more injured when firing the M777 against Islamic State positions in Iraq due to a malfunction. Similarly to the Indian case, the shell exploded. This was just the most recent of a history of many similar such incidents for the M777. Some examples include the three Australian soldiers injured March 2014 when an M777 malfunctioned. The month before a U.S. soldier had been killed and two more were seriously injured during a live firing of the M777 at Fort Bragg - and three years before ten more personnel were injured in a similar incident with the same weapons system at the same place.

Should India continue to knowingly make costly purchases of flawed weapons systems, it could seriously undermine their military capabilities and leave their armed forces vulnerable to disaster in times of war. The fact that the purchases of the M777 went ahead despite the fact that the military was fully aware of its record for failures is a worrying indicator for the country's acquisition strategy indicating that factors other than a weapons system's performance - be it corruption or currying political favour with Washington. If the M777 is indicative of the acquisition strategies of Indian military as a whole, it could prove to be a highly compromised military force. If on the other hand a lesson can be learned regarding the dangerous consequences of purchasing weapons based on factors other than their capabilities and reliability, the failure of the M777 may well serve as a a wake up call for the Indian military and lead to better planned defence spending in future.

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