(This was originally posted in Swarajya)
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has deployed over 100 long-range PCL-181 light, truck-mounted howitzers along the frontier with India in Tibet, a South China Morning Post report says. Citing sources in the PLA, the report says that the deployment of PCL-181 howitzers has been done in response to India’s deployment of three regiments of M777 ultra-light howitzers in the region.
The source quoted in the SCMP report claims that the range of China’s PCL-181 gun is more than double that of the M777. “The PLA has deployed more than 100 PCL-181 light, truck-mounted howitzers along borders with India. The firing range of this Chinese-developed launcher is double that of the M777,” the source said. PCL-181 is a 155 mm wheeled self-propelled howitzer developed by the China North Industries Group Corporation or Norinco. The gun weighs only 25 tons, which makes its transportation easy.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported in August this year that China had deployed PCL-181 guns at the border. In April, CCTV had claimed that the PCL-191 vehicle-mounted howitzers had been deployed at an elevation of above 5,200 metres (17,000 feet) above sea level in Xinjiang. According to Chinese military magazine Modern Ships, PCL-191can carry bigger rounds, extending its firing range up to 500km, the SCMP report says. Last month, after reports of India deploying M777 howitzers along the LAC made headlines, China has reacted to it, saying the two sides have been locked in a military standoff since May last year.
Responding to a question from Russia’s TASS news agency, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying accused India of pursuing “forward policy” and said that China “opposes any arms race”. The Indian side has long pursued the “forward policy” and illegally crossed the LAC to encroach on China’s territory, which is the root cause of tension in the China-India border situation,” Hua said. “China opposes any arms race in the disputed border areas for the purpose of competition over control. We have always been firm in safeguarding national territorial sovereignty and security, and committed to peace and stability in the China-India border areas,” she added.
India deployed three regiments (18 guns make an artillery regiment) of M777 howitzers on the LAC to deter Chinese misadventure of the kind seen last year, when the PLA had diverted a large number of troops and equipment to the Indian border after an exercise. “As the BRO [Border Roads Organisation] further takes the road network to forward areas, we will be able to deploy our guns in more locations,” Lieutenant General T K Chawla, Director General Artillery, said at a press conference on 27 September, a day ahead of the Gunners’ Day.
Due to their light weight, 155mm/52-caliber M777 howitzers can be airlifted to frontline locations using helicopters, including the Chinook heavy-lift, tandem rotor helos of the Indian Air Force. Lieutenant General T K Chawla, Director General Artillery, said at a press conference on 27 September, a day ahead of the Gunners’ Day, that training is “going on in moving guns [M777 howitzers] from one sector to another with the Chinook helicopters.”
India had signed a deal with the US in 2016 for 145 M777 howitzers. Under the deal worth $737 million (Rs 5000 crore), 20 guns were to be delivered by manufacturer BAE Systems while the remaining 120 were to be assembled in India Mahindra Defence in Faridabad, Haryana. Almost half of the 145 guns contracted for have been delivered. India also deployed a regiment of K9 Vajra self-propelled howitzers in eastern Ladakh, the Army revealed earlier this month.
“These guns can also work in high-altitude areas, field trials were extremely successful. We have now added an entire regiment, this will be really helpful,” Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane, who was in Ladakh recently to review operational preparedness, said. The K9s have a maximum range of 28-38 km and can fire three rounds in 30 seconds in ‘burst’ mode, 15 rounds in three minutes in ‘intense’ mode, and 60 rounds in 60 minutes in the ‘sustained’ mode.
The 155mm/52-calibre K9s were built by L&T at Hazira in Gujarat with technology transfer from South Korean defence major Hanwha Defense. Under a deal signed in 2017, L&T supplied 100 of these guns to the Indian Army. The howitzers were delivered ahead of schedule, with the last one handed over to the Army in February 2021.
Apart from M777 howitzers and K9s, the Indian Army has deployed a large number of older 105mm field guns at the LAC with China. “The 105mm field guns are still very much robust with very high angle of firing which is so very essential in the mountains. Bulk of the deployment in Eastern Ladakh is largely of this calibre,” Lieutenant General Chawla has said. He added that the 105mm field guns would be replaced when new howitzers have been inducted in sufficient numbers.