The defence ministry has cancelled a negotiated USD $500 million deal with Israel for the Spike Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) and has tasked the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to indigenously develop a man-portable version of a similar system. The Spike missile is a third generation, fire and forget, top attack ATGM. This implies that once locked on, it tracks its target and strikes enemy armour from the top where it is the weakest. The army had planned to equip all infantry and mechanized infantry battalions, operating in plains and deserts, with it.
As per reports, the deal was to be inked soon and in anticipation the Israeli company, Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, had even set up a missile sub-systems manufacturing unit near Hyderabad in partnership with the Kalyani group. Rumours are that the deal was cancelled to push indigenous development.
The DRDO claims that since it has developed the Nag missile system it could also produce this in the next three to four years. The fact is even if it delays development or fails, there would be no action taken, nor would the original deal be revived; hence the only losers would be the army and its operational preparedness. It would lose a capability which is essential for operations solely to fulfil a development attempt by the DRDO.
The Nag had undergone two test firings this year, the last being in October, which the DRDO claimed were successful. A DRDO statement released after the trials stated, “With these two successful flight trials and the flight test conducted earlier in June in the peak of summer, the complete functionality of the Nag ATGM along with launcher system NAMICA (Nag Missile Carrier) has been established and marked the successful completion of development trials of the Nag Missile.”
The army on the other hand commented, “The developmental trials of the Nag ATGM carried out earlier this month have only proven partial success and many more user trials would be needed. The entire exercise of hot-and-cold region trials of the Nag missile will take more than a year to complete, after which the missile could be ready for production.” Thus, it appears that the army still has doubts on the functioning of the missile. It is essential that soldiers operating equipment in battle have complete faith on its functionality.
The army’s main objection to the missile remains its prohibitive cost and multiple technical shortcomings, including thermal sensors. Though the army’s overall demand is for 8,000 Nag missiles with an immediate requirement of 2,000, however it is only willing to place an initial order for 500 pieces.
The cancellation of the Spike deal has invited adverse comments from strategic experts. Operations in plains and desert sectors would involve mechanised formations. Thus anti-tank weapons will be an essential equipment with forces operating in the region. The cancellation of the deal puts Pakistan in an advantageous position. Pakistan employs a locally manufactured variant of the Chinese designed HJ-8 missile alongside US manufactured TOW missiles which can strike tanks and bunkers at a range of 3-4 kms, while missiles in service with India presently have a maximum range of two kms.
This decision by the MoD may have been prompted by two major factors, though no official announcement has been made. The first is hesitation on the part of the army to enhance orders for the Nag missile system in its present form, unless it clears trials planned in the future. Second has been a visualisation that by cancelling the contract, yet to be inked, the army would be compelled to accept future indigenous systems despite shortcomings, as against its desire to import battle hardened and tested equipment, as these options would be closed.
However, this decision by the defence minister is wrong. The reliability of the DRDO to produce a similar product within the desired time as also capability remains unconfirmed. Whether the Nag system itself would undergo the balance tests successfully and be suitable for introduction into service, only time would tell.
The army has a reputation of not accepting low quality equipment, as once inducted it would remain in service for decades, preventing any purchase of technically advanced systems. Further, as history has proved, dependence on DRDO has rarely paid off. Ideally, purchase with technology transfer would have been ideal as the DRDO could have a better base technology for further development of systems.
Giving the DRDO an opportunity with a time factor may imply giving undue support to home production. However warfare is not a game, since national prestige and lives are involved. The DRDO receives government funding and has immense laxity in research and development hence must be able to stand its ground on proven capabilities with comparable products from the world market. Only by facing open competition and securing contracts will it be able to enhance its development capabilities. Protectionism in any industry has led to its collapse, as has clearly been the case with DRDO, through the decades.
India has maintained reservations in every field and academic institutes of the government, except the army. To commence reservations even in defence manufacturing, by blocking imports, sets a wrong precedent which must be avoided. If maintaining a white elephant like the DRDO is beyond the government’s capabilities, then its assets should be sold to large business houses now venturing into the defence field.
While rumours are resurfacing that the government may consider limited procurement of the Spike ATGM, it will be a haphazard decision as the army will be saddled with multiple equipment for the same task. The defence minister needs to realise that she cannot push reservation into defence production. A wrong decision forced down the military’s throat can cause loss of lives; hence she needs to rethink before accepting advice from her non-military staff. The government must understand that it is responsible to ensure that the army always remains prepared for war and possesses requisite equipment.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)