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New Delhi: Nearly 26 years after India acquired the Swedish Bofors guns for the army in a controversial deal, the defence ministry on Friday cleared the purchase of 145 ultra-light howitzers from the US, said two people with direct knowledge of the matter. Neither wanted to be identified.

To be sure, cost negotiations on the deal are yet to be completed and only after that would the cabinet committee on security consider the purchase.

A defence analyst said that while the cost of the basic equipment is around $660 million (around 3,540 crore today), ammunition is likely to increase the cost significantly. “The final deal could still take at least up to a year from now," he said.

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More than quarter a century after India bought artillery from Bofors, the defence ministry has cleared the purchase 145 howitzers from the US. Mint’s Aman Malik looks at the deal.

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Another defence analyst, C. Uday Bhaskar said that if the two countries applied “enough political traction", the deal could be finalized within a few months. “Moreover, since it is between two governments, there is no transfer of technology or offsets involved, so it should not take very long," he said.

This clearance for the M777 guns comes just a day after the cabinet committee on security cleared the purchase of 75 Pilatus PC-7 Mk-II basic trainers of Swiss origin to train air force pilots. The Indian Air Force had been without a basic trainer plane since July 2009, when its fleet of HPT-32 Deepak trainers was grounded after several trainee pilots died in accidents involving the ageing aircraft.

One of the two persons cited earlier said that the defence acquisition council on Friday had also cleared significant amounts of missiles and other ammunition for the army’s T-72 and T-90 tanks. Mint, however, could not independently confirm this.

These approvals are significant since outgoing army chief General V.K. Singh, in a 12 March letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, had raised an alarm over the depleting levels of ammunition and other weaknesses in the 1.3-million-strong force.

The army chief had asked the Prime Minister to “pass suitable directions to enhance the preparedness of the army".

He had written a similar letter to defence minister A.K. Antony in February.

“Almost all armies have a degree of obsolescence in their systems," said Rumel Dahiya, a retired brigadier and defence analyst. “In India’s case, a slow pace of modernization just meant that this was of a slightly higher degree."

India had last procured guns for the army in March 1986, when it bought 410 155mm howitzer field guns from Bofors for an estimated $285 million. In April 1987, Swedish Radio had first alleged that key politicians and military officials in India had been bribed in connection with the transaction. Since then, the army has not bought howitzers.

A committee headed by V.K. Saraswat, director general of the Defence Research and Development Organization, had recommended that the army procure the M777 guns.

aman.m@livemint.com

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