Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Boom of guns and business battle

Somewhere in Sikkim this week, the hills are echoing with the thunder of American "flying cannons" firing volley after volley of Indian ammunition — not to start a war with China, but in the hope of winning a Rs 2,900-crore ($650 million) order. In the Indian Army's high-altitude firing range, artillery officers are supervising what they call "confirmatory trials" of the BAE Land Systems 155mm/39cal M777 ultra-light howitzers even as the foreign and defence ministries in New Delhi look for a big idea — such as a multi-million-dollar cheque — to add zing to Barack Obama's India visit.

The deal for the "flying cannons" — so-called because the ultra-light howitzers weighing just about 4.2 tonnes each can be underslung and flown by some helicopters — is already a minor victory for the Pentagon. The M777 uses titanium and aluminium alloys to keep its weight low. Whether the contract is signed during the presidential visit or not has become secondary. The Singaporean rival vying for the order has complained and cried foul but both the Indian defence ministry and the Pentagon have decided the deal will be pushed through. The army wants the guns to equip six new Indian artillery regiments — the initial order will be for 145 howitzers — being raised especially for the China border. Last week, a senior US government official confirmed, two of the BAE Land Systems-made M777 ultra-light howitzers landed in Delhi. They were then flown to Sikkim.

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