As Netanyahu arrives, will Spike missile go the Rafale fighter route?

Rafael’s Samson advanced remote weapon station with Spike anti-tank missile. Photo courtesy: Rafael
The defence industry is watching to see if the Indian government will go the same way with the Spike anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) as it did with the Rafale fighter – which is to abandon half-way a competitive global tender and instead conclude a government-to-government contract, for smaller numbers, using the logic of “operational necessity”.

Two weeks before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s five-day visit to India which began on Sunday, Rafael Advanced Defence Systems – the Israeli firm that makes the Spike missile –announced it had “received an official statement from the Indian Ministry of Defense on the cancellation of the Spike missile deal”.

The tender that New Delhi cancelled was for 321 ATGM launchers and 8,356 missiles, worth an estimated $500 million (Rs 32 billion). Rafael was required to dicharge offsets worth 30 per cent of that value and to transfer technology to Bharat Dynamics Ltd (BDL) for building an estimated 30,000 more Spike missiles in India.

The tender was cancelled, as revealed by army chief General Bipin Rawat on Friday, because the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) is going to develop and supply an indigenous ATGM. Since the DRDO missile would be manufactured in numbers only by 2021-22, Rawat’s concern is: “How do we bridge the gap between now and 2021-22?”

To do so, the army has recommended buying “lesser numbers” of a foreign ATGM, which could by default be Spike. Rawat says: “Whether it is going to be Spike or somebody else [we don’t know]. But we have tested the Spike; we haven’t tested the other missiles. So if we have to go in for a faster procurement, we may have to go in for a G2G (government-to-government buy). That is the issue being discussed.”

Defence industry experts say, if India restricts itself to Spike in bridging this gap, it will deny itself the opportunity to buy more advanced and capable ATGMs that were unavailable in 2010, when New Delhi issued a global tender. These are: the American FGM-148 Javelin, and the Missile Moyenne Portee (MPP, or “medium range missile”), built by MBDA of France.

The Javelin, produced by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, is a true “fire-and-forget” missile, whose inbuilt seeker locks onto targets up to 4,000 metres away, steering the missile autonomously and allowing an infantryman to quickly take cover after firing the missile. This capability is also referred to as “lock-on-before-launch”.

In contrast, the Spike, which has a range of only 2,500 metres, requires the infantryman to remain exposed for almost 30 seconds, while he guides the flying missile towards the target.

The MPP, like the Javelin, it is a true “fire-and-forget” missile with a range of 4,000 metres. 

Furthermore, the Spike trails an optic-fibre cable behind it as it flies towards the target, through which guidance commands are given to the missile. This cable can snag on trees and power lines, disrupting the missile. In contrast, the Javelin and the MPP missiles trail no cable, since the missile is guided by on-board software.

The Javelin and MPP are also superior in their capability for “soft launch”. When a missile is fired, a gas canister propels it forward for the first ten metres, after which its on-board rocket motor ignites. This allows the missile to be launched from closed spaces, like bunkers. In earlier missiles like the Spike, the rocket motor ignites on launch, creating a “back blast” that would destroy a bunker or room from which it is launched.

The army’s motivation is clear: it wants an ATGM without delay, to equip its 350-plus infantry battalions. Senior generals say they would choose the less capable Spike missile now, over years more spent in evaluating the Javelin and the MPP.

When asked if this meant that a sluggish procurement process was denying the army state-of-the-art and potentially cheaper weapons systems, the general nodded agreement.

Netanyahu’s 130-member delegation includes the chief of Rafael Advanced Defence Systems.


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