Procurement: No One Likes A Nag

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July 28, 2019: In June 2019 it was déjà vu all over again as India announced it was again canceling an order for Israeli Spike MR ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). Instead, India was going with the locally made Nag ATGM. The army leadership and the troops who use ATGMs prefer the Spike while Indian politicians and procurement bureaucrats prefer the locally made Nag. The Spike deal had been canceled before but was revived in January. Then in April, the Indian Army used its new “emergency purchase” authority to order 240 Israeli Spike ATGMs and twelve launchers for delivery as soon as possible. The recent cancellation of the larger Spike contract does not change the emergency order for Spike, which is meant to provide effective ATGMs to deal with the growing crises with Pakistan over Kashmir. The army emergency purchase will get the Spike launchers and missiles direct from the Israeli firm while the larger contract had the Spike systems being built in India and providing local jobs. For DRDO (the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization) and many Indian politicians that is not enough, these weapons must be developed and built-in India.

The army has long sought the Spike missiles but the usual procurement process failed. Back in late 2017 political pressure caused India 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. After lots of quiet protests from army leaders that was reversed in January only to be revered once more in June. India may eventually get all the Spike ATGMs the army wants but will first have to go through of the long process of waiting for the Indian ATGM to reach the troops, fail (especially in comparison with the “emergency” Spike missiles the army could obtain) and become such an embarrassment that the army could get the Spike systems it always wanted. This sort of thing has happened before, is happening again but the troops and the army leadership don’t have the political clout to get what they need. Instead, they often get what DRDO and Indian politicians need.

The army has been warning for over a decade that without a new ATGM India would be at a serious disadvantage in a war with Pakistan or China. Spike MR was an obvious choice. But the procurement bureaucracy and DRDO said it could develop and build a comparable ATGM in four years. Based on past DRDO performance that would be a miracle. No one in the military believed the DRDO but this was not about what DRDO could do but about the incompetence, corruption and political clout 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 and cash for that.

Despite that Spike/Nag fiasco, Israel remains a major military supplier for India. Since 2000 Israel provided India help to deal with Islamic terrorists that Pakistan began using aggressively against India in the 1990s. India noted that Israel was a major supplier of military equipment worldwide and was especially good when it came to border security and dealing with Islamic terrorism. The alliance between Israel and India has grown stronger since 2001 and now India is quite open about it. There are more and more signs of shifts in long-established alliances involving Israel.

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 was 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.

To make matters more complicated the original Nag missile was not a lightweight system for infantry but much heavier missile, like the American Hellfire, to be used by aircraft. DRDO insisted it would be a simple matter to magically shrink Nag to produce Nag Lite. That was unlikely and the soldiers this missile was being created for will need more than a miracle if they have to wait for Nag Lite. The original Nag was reported to have successfully passed its second round of tests in September 2018. In 2019 DRDO claimed that the Spike ATGM had encountered problems operating in the desert heat. Spike has been around for decades and was originally designed mainly for use defending Israel, whose southern border is desert. Israeli troops have never complained of heat problems and when there are such problems the Israeli media quickly gets hold of it and keeps any problems in the headlines until they are fixed. For Israel, this is a matter of life and death.

But for India, which does not face the same immediate military threat, DRDO and Indian politicians know they can get away with poorly performing Indian made weapons for a long time before the complaints of India troops become too obvious to ignore. Indian army generals have a long tradition of not playing politics. This is in sharp contrast to the Pakistani military. Indian politicians, generals and voters prefer the Indian way, where the elected officials are supreme. On the downside, that means DRDO often gets its way even though that means the Indian troops are armed and equipped with inferior equipment.

The original Nag ("Cobra") ATGM is a 42.3 kg (93 pound) missile. Nag has an 8.2 kg (18 pound) warhead and is "fire and forget". That means the operator gets the target in the crosshairs and fires and the missile remembers where the target is. DRDO says this feature 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 while DRDO is not. The weight and size of the original Nag required that DRDO develop a man-portable version. This became known as the MPATGM (Nag Lite) and this version of the missile weighs 14.5 kg and has a range of 2,500 meters. There are two problems with the Nag. The first is that the original, heavy Nag, is theoretically ready for service but none are in the use by the troops yet. Like many DRDO projects that “successfully complete development and testing”, Nag is still not ready for use by the military and it is unclear when it will be. The lighter MPATGM is even less ready for the troops and Indian army leaders know from experience that the usual “unexpected delays” could keep MPATGM from actual use for many years.

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 for the new ATGM 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 launcher/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. And so it goes.

While Indian troops would have preferred Javelin they found that the 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 the 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) warhead 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). The infantry loved the fire and forget feature 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 the 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 by implementing fire and forget.

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, DRDO 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. Even France is replacing the Milan but it may be a while before India is able to do that.

 


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