Armor: An Unreliable Nag


August 29, 2012: India is determined to develop an effective anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) for its troops. For most of the last decade the locally developed Nag ATGM has been touted as almost ready. But a recent test of the Nag failed, and the troops who conducted the test had nothing nice to say about the Nag either.

It was three years ago that, after two decades of development, India's DRDO (Defense Research and Development Organization) declared work on the Nag ("Cobra") ATGM complete. The 42.3 kg (93 pound) missile has an 8.2 kg (18 pound) warhead and is "fire and forget" (the operator gets the target in the cross hairs and fires, the missile will remember where the target is). The Nag moves at 230 meters a second for up to 6,000 meters (8,000 if air launched). The Nag is a top attack missile that detonates its tandem (to defeat reactive armor) warhead when above the vehicle and thus easily penetrates the thinner top armor. The main problem with Nag is that, so far, it will not consistently perform as advertised.

The Indian Army is ready to buy 4,000 Nag missiles and an air-launched (from aircraft or helicopter) version is being developed. The Nag is very similar to the U.S. Hellfire. Nag will mainly be mounted on armored vehicles (two, four missile launchers). The missile is really too heavy to be used by infantry, while the current Milan is light enough.

India is also looking for a Milan replacement and there is no suitable local candidate. Two years ago India bought some American Javelin ATGMs to evaluate as a possible replacement for French Milans they have been producing under license for decades. The Javelin, introduced in 2002, weighs 22.3 kg (49 pounds, with disposable launch tube and battery/seeker coolant unit) and is fired from a 6.4 kg (14 pound) CLU (command launch unit). The CLU contains a 4x day sight and a 9x heat sensing night sight. The missile has a tandem (two warheads, to blast through reactive armor) that can hit a target straight on or from the top. This latter capability enables the Javelin to use its 8.2 kg (18 pound) warhead to destroy any existing tank (including the U.S. M1). Maximum range is 2,500 meters. Best of all, the seeker on the missile is "fire and forget." That is, once the operator gets the target in the CLU crosshairs and fires the missile, the computer and seeker in the missile warhead memorizes the target and homes in on it. The infantry love this because it allows them to take cover once the missile is fired.

Some 30,000 Milans have already been produced in India, under license from European firm MBDA, over the past 30 years. They have also produced nearly 3,000 launchers. This is in recognition of the fact that, against the main enemy (who is likely to use a lot of armored vehicles) Milan still gets the job done.

The basic Milan is a 1.2 meter long, 125mm, 7.1 kg (16 pound) missile. It has a minimum range of 400 meters and maximum range of 2,000 meters. At max range the missile takes about 13 seconds to reach its target. The missile is guided to the target by the operator via a thin wire. The launcher weighs 21 kg (46 pounds). The missile can penetrate about a meter of armor, making it effective against all but the most modern tanks (M-1, Challenger, Leopard II). That means Milan will still destroy all the tanks Pakistan has aimed at India.

The Indians pay about $30,000 per Milan missile and have had good success with them in combat. The Javelins cost more than twice as much but are much more effective. Since the 1970s, over 350,000 Milan missiles, and 30,000 launchers, have been built worldwide. More modern ATGM are wireless and require much less effort on the part of the operator but they are more expensive. India has been negotiating with the Javelin manufacturer to buy a license to build them in India. This would lower the cost but probably not down to what the Milan's go for. The Javelin uses more advanced technologies than Milan, which is another reason India wants a manufacturing license. You learn by doing and eat your mistakes along the way.

Since ATGMs first saw action three decades ago, operators quickly discovered that in the time it took (up to 15 seconds) for the missile to reach its target, enemy troops would often shower them with machine-gun fire, and the most recent ATGM designs seek to deal with that. Another Javelin feature is "soft launch", where the missile is popped out of the launch tube by a small explosive charge, small enough to allow the Javelin to be fired from inside a building. Once the missile is about eight meters out, the main rocket motor ignites. The minimum range is, however, 75 meters. It takes about 20 seconds to reload a CLU after a missile has been fired. Indian troops got a chance to fire Javelins three years ago and were very impressed. Not just because of its ease of use and accuracy but because the missile is combat proven and is known to be very effective at non-vehicle targets. The CLU also performs well as a night vision device, which is how many American troops use it in Iraq and Afghanistan.




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