Leadership: India Survives On Unpredictably but Eventually


December 2, 2017: In mid-November the Indian procurement bureaucracy won another victory and persuaded the government to cancel a half billion dollar deal worked out in 2016 for an Israel firm to set up a factory and team with an Indian firm to produce Spike ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). The army has been warning for over a decade that without a new ATGM India would be at a serious disadvantage. But the procurement bureaucracy and DRDO (the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization) said it could develop and build a comparable ATGM in four years. This was an absurd claim, even by DRDO standards.

To justify their ATGM claim DRDO cited its recent success in developing the Nag missile. Citing Nag was a bad joke to anyone familiar with that project. The Nag, like most DRDO efforts was supposed (sometimes even “promised”) to enter service several times over the last decade but there was always another problem to fix. In development since the 1990s the first “successful” Nag test (just the rocket motor) was announced in 2001 and more successful tests (of other components but never a complete system) were announced periodically since then. This is how DRDO operates when it comes to weapons development, especially guided missiles. Nag had several more “successful tests” in 2017 but is still not quite ready to enter production. Yet the government cited the Nag as proof that DRDO could produce an ATGM comparable to Spike in less than five years. That would be a miracle and the soldiers this missile is being created for will need a miracle if they have to wait for Nag Lite. Which is what the ATGM version would be.

The Nag ("Cobra") ATGM is a 42.3 kg (93 pound) missile that is too heavy to carry. It is more similar to the American Hellfire. Nag 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, and DRDO says it will work eventually). 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. Nag is attempting to duplicate the American Hellfire, which was introduced in the early 1980s and has since been successfully copied by China, Russia, Turkey, Israel and Iran. All these missiles are laser guided but some have had “fire and forget” capability added. The Israelis are very good at that sort of thing, but not DRDO.

No one in the military believed the DRDO could develop anything like Spike but this was not about what DRDO could do but about the incompetence and corruption that has characterized DRDO for decades. DRDO may not be of much use for the military but for Indian politicians it is a vital part of getting elected and staying in power. DRDO provides jobs, credible (but false) promises and cash for that. Meanwhile Israel remains a major military supplier for India and may yet get to deliver the ATGMs Indian soldiers need.

It was not supposed to work out this way but there were signs. When the Spike purchase details were all agreed to India had still not signed a contract in 2017 when that was supposed to happen. The army keeps complaining about this sort of thing especially since procurement bureaucrats selected the Israeli Spike ATGM in 2014 and agreed to terms of the $525 million deal (for 8,356 Spike ATGMs and 320 control units) after two years of negotiations. The main competitor for this contract was the American Javelin missile which was rejected as being too expensive. The Spike contract was almost signed in 2013 but was withdrawn at the last moment when it was suspected that some bribery was involved. There was no corruption but that delayed the process another year. What apparently pushed the contract towards signing recently was a planned trip by the new India prime minister to Israel in June and the potential embarrassment if he showed up with another procurement disaster still unresolved. The historic visit of the Indian prime minister to Israel got everyone’s hopes up but in the end DRDO did what it does best, and that does not include developing weapons on time or ever. The Indian prime minister agreed to several other new deals but explained he could not sign the Spike contracts just yet. The Israelis understood as they have been dealing with the Indian procurement bureaucracy for more than two decades and know how this works; unpredictably but eventually.

While Indian troops would have preferred Javelin they found that the Israeli missile Spike MR was widely considered as effective as the Javelin. Entering service in the late 1990s the Spike MR missile, with the container it is stored and fired from, weighs 14 kg (30.8 pounds), while the CLU (with thermal sight and battery) weighs 12.8 kg (28.3 pounds). Like Javelin, Spike MR has a range of 2,500 meters and is "fire and forget." France recently went looking for a MILAN replacement and the two finalists were Javelin and Spike MR. Javelin won. The result would have been the same in India were it not for inability to reach an agreement on technology transfer.

Javelin entered service in 2002, it 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 loves this because it allows them to take cover once the missile is fired and shows the enemy where they are.

Meanwhile Indian troops are stuck with a 50 year old French design. Since the 1970s some 30,000 Milans have been produced in India, under license from European firm MBDA. India has also produced nearly 3,000 launchers. India believes that against Pakistan (the enemy that is most likely to use a lot of armored vehicles against India) Milan can still get the job done. But more modern ATGMs get the job done better and at the loss of fewer Indian infantrymen. This is a popular attitude, and the army was not happy with all the delays in selecting a new ATGM. Then there is China, which has more modern tanks and is actively developing new armored vehicles. Against China Milan had outlived its usefulness and China is the principal weapons supplier to Pakistan.

The basic Milan is a 1.2 meter long, 125mm diameter, 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 currently 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. However the more modern ATGMs are wireless and require much less effort on the part of the operator.

The main problems with the Milan are time in flight and the need for operator guidance. 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 force the ATGM operator to miss the target. The most recent ATGM designs sought 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, while Spike MR needs only 15 seconds. Indian troops got a chance to fire Javelins in 2010 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 used it in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Spike was tested as well and was considered a satisfactory alternative to the Javelin. India already has a lot of Israeli military gear and Indian users are pleased with it.

This ATGM disaster goes back a long way and demonstrates a major flaw in the Indian armed forces. After several years of testing and negotiation, in early 2013 the Indian Army decided on a supplier for a new ATGM for its 356 infantry battalions. The deal was about to be awarded to an Israeli firm when the entire process was cancelled over fears that corruption may have been involved. No one was accused of taking a bribe but so much of that had occurred in India that the politicians overruled the generals and ordered them to run the search again and come up with at least two finalists not tainted by any corruption. The politicians were under a lot of pressure to curb corruption, and this move made it look like someone was making an effort. The selection process was repeated and the results were the same. This time the contract went through, or so everyone thought.

Another example was how the Indian army had originally wanted to buy the Javelin and the Americans were willing to allow production to take place in India. That deal fell apart because Indian procurement officials were unwilling to guarantee that U.S. technology would not be stolen. Israel pitched its similar Spike missile and did not consider potential technology theft to be a deal breaker.

India has been building the French designed Milans since the 1980s but there had long been calls to replace it with a more modern design. There was also growing pressure to use Indian designed weapons. In the 1990s India decided to develop their own ATGM. Despite a two decade effort to develop an effective ATGM to replace Milan, the Indians came up empty. The Milan design was updated several times since it first appeared in 1972 but there are several other more recent designs that are more effective and army leaders wanted one of these.