Modern ATGMs

In a day and age when “Make in India” is the official buzzword one would legitimately expect that a concentrated and sustained effort would be in the scheme of things to upgrade and improve an indigenously developed anti-tank guided missile (the Nag) and the technology demonstrator Very Short Range Air Defence (VSHORAD) Trishul missile and perceptibly shift India from overdependence on foreign sources for these requirements.

With the recent signing of a contract with the Israelis for their Spike anti-tank missile the inventory for this kind of weapon includes 12 different types of missiles acquired from three foreign sources with the indigenous fire-and- forget Nag fighting a rearguard action to stay within the stable with measly orders.

In the VSHORAD category India has both the Russian Igla as well as the American Stinger missiles in man-portable, shoulder-fired configuration. These are complemented by a range of vehicle-mounted quick-reaction missiles intended to ensure protection to mechanized forces from aircraft and helicopters. Point defence has been handled by towed ancient Bofors L-70 guns and several variants of ex-Soviet/Russian double-barrel and quad-barreled weapons both towed and track-mounted.    

Licensed production

Since the early 70s, India has been manufacturing under license from France the Milan anti-tank missile and produced nearly 40,000 of the missiles in the Defence Research and Development Organisation laboratories in one of the early forays into licensed production based on foreign designs and transfer of technology. These are man-portable but tripod mounted for stability.

A follow-on direct purchase order of 4,100 missiles as recently as 2013 was placed with the French MBDA firm for its improved capability to defeat explosive reactive armor (ERA) and penetrate the tank superstructure. This happened even as India was bargaining with Israel for the Spike and the Americans for the Javelin.

Even as reports were circulated that India is lagging behind anti-tank attack capability several different types of anti-tank missiles were acquired, mainly from Russia, which showed an incremental improvement in penetrative power, weight of warhead and range of missile. Thus the Kornet was acquired in 2003-2006. It is a laser beam riding missile with a range of 5.5 km. Shortly thereafter the At-6B Spiral Shturm missile with a longer range (6 km) was acquired. Its distinctive feature was that the missile trajectory was spiral and that made it difficult to pinpoint the source of the attack. A whole family of about six missiles of this ‘Spiral’ type were produced. India later acquired the Ataka variety.

Apart from these, several different types of vehicle- mounted (tanks, infantry combat vehicles, helicopters) the semi-active command to line of sight (SACLOS) Konkur missiles were ordered in 2008. About 25,000 were acquired in two installments and quickly fitted to Indian Army BMP-2 ICVs, giving them a formidable bite. The Konkurs were also license-produced in India.

The AT-11 Sniper (Svir) and the Invar (M) are meant to be fired from the 125 mm smooth bore barrels of the T-72 and the T-90 tanks. Laser guided, these missiles can hit targets at nearly twice the distance that a normal gun shell travels (at 5000 meters) thereby giving the tank a stand-off range and better ‘first shot kill’ capability.

Similarly, the AT-16 Scallion  from the Russian stable was acquired to arm the Mi-17 to convert the logistics support platform into a helicopter gunship. It enables the helicopter to engage enemy tanks at a range of 8 km and 10 km if fired from a fixed winged aircraft in daytime and five km at night.

Indigenous programs

Under the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program launched in 1982-83 under the stewardship of the late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was a national mission to create a family of missiles indigenously. The objective was to create two surface-to-surface (short range and long range), two surface-to-air missiles and an anti-tank missile. All the missiles have been a resounding success story of self-sufficiency in some of the most difficult military technologies. The short-range Prithvi was followed by the longer range Agni missiles of six different ranges. Simultaneously, two surface-to-air missiles the Akash of medium range of 19 km and the Trishul (9 km) were produced. The former has been inducted into service and 3000 have been ordered. The latter has languished for decades as a ‘technology demonstrator’. The last in this series was the anti-tank missile named Nag for the peculiar inbuilt propensity to rise above the intended target and strike like a cobra (Nag) at the most vulnerable portions of a tank- the turret and engine cowling.

One does not have to be a rocket scientist to understand the implication of only a 500-piece order for the Nag missile by the Indian Army while orders for foreign missiles are in the thousands. If the missile is of not much use then why place an order at all. Does it serve any national purpose to have a faulty and inadequate equipment in the arsenal?

India has placed orders for about 8,350 Spike missiles with the Israeli firm Rafael. True to type this original equipment manufacturer (just as the French Dassault did in the Rafale MMRCA contract) has distanced itself from quality control obligations and imposed an automatic price escalation clause. Given these experiences the Government of India has no option but to make sure that all efforts are made by a consortium of public sector (DRDO laboratories) and those from the private sector to bring the Nag missile up to the mark in its command and guidance area. The cost will be a fraction of what is being paid out to foreign suppliers. Incidentally, the Nag missile has been successfully tested on board  helicopters in the Helina variant and will be used on the Rudra attack helicopter that has been derived from the indigenous Dhruv.

In the very short range air defence (VSHORAD) segment too it is time that the Trishul technology demonstrator is resurrected and its shortcomings redressed. This will bring about a large measure of self-sufficiency (as different from self-reliance based on licensed production) in the missile requirements of the nation. India has moved into joint development programs for the Barak missile for both ships and land operations. Some of what has been learned in target acquisition and command and control can be diverted to the Trishul project and brought up to date. The Trishul has proved to be an effective anti-sea skimmer missile to protect naval warships from attack by very low-flying missiles like the French Excocet during the Falklands war.

The Barak-8 with a range of up to 70 km does not come within the category of VSHORAD. It is a beyond-the-horizon weapon. The Trishul is a last ditch defensive weapon.