Forgive the relapse, for sentimental reasons, to journalistic jargon of yesteryear: to the days of “hard copy” when an item deemed unworthy of publication was thrust on a metal spike ~ a sign of rejection. Pardon also the pun on the name of the Israeli anti-tank guided missile which India has opted against purchasing although the matter had been progressed to so advanced a stage that initial work had begun at an industrial unit in Hyderabad where the Spike missile was to be domestically produced. Scrapping defence deals is nothing new in India ~ during UPA-rule it had become virtually standard practice as AK Antony had placed higher emphasis on his personal squeaky clean image than military preparedness ~ but the junking of the $ 500 million plan to enhance the efficacy of the Armoured Corps is unique in that no allegations of kickbacks etc have surfaced.

Whether buying 131 Barak surface-to-air missiles to protect warships against sea-skimming missiles suffices to compensate the Israeli principal (both Barak and Spike hail from the same stable) is not easy to determine: it hopes to revive the deal during the Israeli prime minister’s upcoming visit. Once again has India’s credibility as a reliable defence “customer” come under the scanner.

At first glance there might be cause for satisfaction, some pride too perhaps, that a less-expensive indigenous anti-tanks missile system is being preferred over the Spike. That argument would have been more convincing had top Army experts articulated such a professional evaluation. In the absence of any such public endorsement a feeling could spread ~ in military circles anyway ~ that once again the interests of the soldier are being sacrificed at the altar of “indigenisation”.

The ‘Nag’ series of anti-tank missiles have a poor reputation, the latest version has yet to “sell” itself to the troops. This could be another chapter in the story that takes in the MBT Arjun, INSAS rifle, and some critics would contend the Tejas LCA too. It is an open secret that the state-run defence production units ~ the DRDO, Ordnance Factory Board, HAL etc ~ are very apprehensive over the comparative ease with which new-found economic prosperity makes “got-abroad” military hardware available to the forces, and have been working overtime to boost the prospects of their own products. That is perhaps understandable; what is not acceptable is that the “industry” ~ for long a monopoly catering to a sellers’ market ~ has done little to make itself competitive, in both economic and technological terms. To avoid the soldier feeling short-changed, the Army would do well to have the domestic anti-tank missile evaluated and certified afresh ~ statements from the minister, ministry, scientists and bureaucrats will not suffice. A soldier’s life is too precious to be “spiked”.

Views expressed are those of the author(s)