Last week, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman castigated the UPA government for pushing military modernisation to the back-burner through tardy decision-making. She was responding to the Congress’s allegations on the Rafale fighter jets deal signed with France last year. She highlighted the NDA government’s commitment to meet the urgent requirements of the armed forces. Now reports of her ministry cancelling the nearly-done deal for Spike Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM) with Israel raise questions about her claim. The defence ministry had accepted the need for a modern ATGM for the army in 2009, and the process had progressed with a single-vendor, Israeli defence firm, Rafael, bidding for the tender estimated to be worth Rs 3,200 crore. Post-trials and the evaluation report, the ministry had completed price negotiations with Rafael early last year. Because of issues raised during the trials, then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar instituted an expert committee to study the process and explore options for indigenous development. With the DRDO promising to provide a Man-Portable Anti-Tank Guided Missile (MPATGM) in the next four years, the ministry decided to retract the tender, thereby bringing the process to an end.
The withdrawal of the tender leaves the army in a precarious state. The MPATGM is one of the major weapons of the infantry and is also being employed effectively in the current operational scenario on an active Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir. While Spike is a third-generation ATGM, the current missiles in the army’s inventory are of the second-generation which are wire-guided and offer limited night-firing capabilities. Even there, the army is short of nearly 68,000 missiles and has zero stocks in the War Wastage Reserves (WWR) against a government stipulation of a minimum of 10 days of WWR stocks. This is the latest in a series of setbacks for the army’s modernisation programme, wherein it has been forced to withdraw its tenders for a basic rifle, LMG and carbine for its foot-soldiers. Similar has been the state of modernisation of other arms of the army, whether it be Air Defence or Army Aviation or Engineers. As the armed forces are tasked to prepare for a two-front collusive threat — and with tensions with China rising after the Doklam face-off — such deficiencies cannot be allowed to continue.
There is, however, a more fundamental question inherent in the decision to scrap the Spike ATGM deal. Should India go for indigenous weapons development and production, or should it continue to import high-end defence equipment to maintain the level of preparedness of its armed forces? In case of the Rafale fighter jets, the government chose to import 36 aircraft in fly-away mode without any transfer of technology while it has cancelled the Spike deal in favour of indigenous development. The situation is complicated by the DRDO’s uninspiring track record in producing high-end weapons. Whatever be the course of action decided by the government, it should meet India’s national security goals.