Media headlines on January 28, 2018, read “Critically short of anti-tank missiles, Army sounds alarm”. The news report goes on to elaborate that the Army, with an alarming shortage of 68,000 anti-tank gun missiles (ATGMs) and 850 launchers of different type, has sounded the alarm of this critical deficiency crucial for the infantry to halt advancing enemy tanks and infantry carrying vehicles (ICVs), and has asked for emergency import of ‘some’ ATGMs and launchers. According to media, “Army is now even ready for the fast-track procurement of 2,500 shoulder-fired ATGMs and 96 launchers, with no transfer of technology (ToT), as an “interim measure” through a government-to-government contract. It has been left to the government whether it should be the Israeli Spike ATGM or the FGM-148 Javelin ATGM from the US”.
This appears to be a slick cover up by the bumbling MoD, and above a script perhaps handed over to the Army to obfuscate the reality from the readers. The public, anyway is ladled with the daily dose of media blitz of issues like ‘Padmavat’, Kasganj riots, rapes, kilinsa, accidents, and Mehbooba Mufti recently crying blue murder to the Defence Minister without any concern to lives of security forces and damage to government property. That she released hundreds of stone-pelters (as she did just before killing of Burhan Wani) is another issue, unmindful of what they would do and without bothering to put her state intelligence on their tail, which could have avoided the Shopian incident. But why would the Army raise the alarm of criticality of ATGMs and launchers just three days before the next defence budget is to be announced? Surely, the Army did not spring this surprise suddenly after so many years? These criticalities have been multiplying year after year with full knowledge of the government, with the MoD receiving monthly, quarterly, six-monthly and yearly equipment holdings reports, in addition to briefings.
The fact that the government was fully aware of critical shortages of ATGMs and launchers in the Army can be gauged from the fact that the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) to procure these items was accorded by the MoD in 2009 – some eight years ago. In November 2017, India scrapped the Rs 3,200 cr deal with Israel for 8,356 medium-range Spike ATGMs, 321 launchers and 15 simulators, and asked the Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO) to indigenously develop and produce a Man-Portable Anti-Tank Guided Missile (MPATGM). The Spike deal for 8,000 missiles, 300 plus launchers and technology transfer with requisite ToT had been cleared by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) in 2014 after extensive trials by the Indian Army. Price negotiations with Rafael Advanced Defence Systems were completed in 2016 and deliveries were expected to be completed 48-60 months thereafter. Rafael had even entered into a joint venture with Kalyani group to produce missiles in India and with the first facility opened in Hyderabad, would have been able to deliver 200 missiles in a month.
What went behind closed doors is not known but it was ridiculous to task the DRDO to develop an ATGM, in 2017 and not in 2009 when government accorded the AoN. It was doubly stupid knowing that DRDO would take few years before a requisite alternative – surely MoD did not expect the Army to pelt stones at enemy tanks and arnoured vehicles in the interim? The responsibility of this faux pas cannot be blamed on the bureaucracy alone, but must be accepted by the Defence Minister also notwithstanding the fact that the hawkish Finance Minister has not relegated any decision above Rs 100 cr to the former. Even the announcement of cancellation of the Spike deal with Israel just before the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should have been considered a diplomatic embarrassment, with completion of successful Army trials way back in 2014, DAC clearance given same year and price negotiations completed in 2016. Mercifully, during his recent visit to India, Prime Minister Netanyahu told Israeli media that the deal for Spike Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) with Israel that India had scrapped in November 2017 has been revived. This was reported in Israeli media quoting PM Netanyahu after he had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Wonder if realization dawned on Indians or PM Netanyahu had to drop a hint that if this is the manner in which deals are handled then Israeli cooperation too should be expected on reciprocal basis.
Obviously, MoD has taken the best course by firing the gun from the Army’s shoulder because the uniformed cannot open their mouths. But this is hardly a singular case. The MoD-DRDO combine has been specializing over the years in creating criticalities and then going for bulk purchases for very obvious reasons. The main reason being floated in media for scrapping of the Spike deal in November 2017 is DRDO’s contention they could deliver a more technologically advanced man-portable ATGM within two years is laughable, given the DRDO’s track record. Media also quotes COAS General Bipin Rawat “declaring that the ‘operational gap’ between now and 2021-2022, when the deliveries of the indigenous ATGMs are likely to begin if the trials slated for mid-2018 are indeed successful, needs to be bridged as a matter of top priority”. This proves the DRDO’s lie as to how they can produce an indigenous ATGM for trials within 2018 when in November 2017 they contended they could develop an ATGM in two-years (a doubtful claim itself). The COAS’s statement obviously is being used to confuse the whole issue. Besides, who is the Army to say they are prepared for imports without ToT, when the government policy emphasizes no import without ToT?
The indigenous ‘Swati’ weapon locating radar (WLR) paraded during Republic Day Parade 2018 is good but is yet to be produced in required numbers to meet the Army’s requirement. Besides, it was promised by DRDO in late 1990s. DRDO’s inability to meet the target date left a critical void during the Kargil Conflict in 1999. Consequently, India was forced to import the ANTPQ-37 radars from the US, which was 25 years old technology, and US had already sold them to Pakistan before India contracted them for import. Similarly, the ‘Akash’ missile project commenced in 1980s and DRDO was required to develop a replacement for the Russian Kvadrat system for providing air defence cover to mechanized forces on the move. But, when DRDO fielded the ‘Akash’ for trials in 2006, it failed in both mobility tests and in acquiring even slow moving rotary aircraft on the move. It was then given for static role to the IAF. Subsequently, the system with “improved mobility” has been given to the Army over last two years, albeit it continues to be better suited for static role.
It is about time the government looks holistically at critical shortages of the Army, refrain from politicizing the issue to cover own failings, and goes for systemic modernization of the Armed Forces.
Prakash Katoch is third generation army officer hailing from Himachal Pradesh. He is former Lieutenant General from Special Forces and post-retirement has published over 2100 articles on international affairs, geopolitics, military, security, technical and topical issues besides authoring two books. He is active in seminars at both national and international levels.