A US Army soldier fires an FGM-148 Javelin automatic infrared guided fire-and-forget ATGM

The flip-flop over the purchase of Spike anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) from Israel is symptomatic of a larger battle between Make in India proponents and those who argue that waiting for the wheel to be reinvented makes no strategic sense. Particularly when the reinvention involves the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), renowned for its inordinate delays. In October 2014, months after the Modi government came to power, India’s Defence Acquisition Council cleared the purchase of at least 8,000 Spike missiles and more than 300 launchers. Just before Modi’s historic visit to Israel, the deal was finally firmed up, much to the disappointment of the US, which was lobbying to sell Raytheon-Lockheed Martin’s Javelin ATGM—some argue it’s a better weapon. The Israeli ATGMs were to be co-produced in collaboration with Bharat Forge’s Kalyani Strategic Systems in Hyderabad.

Then, barely days after Modi’s return from Israel, rumours surfaced about the deal being scrapped in favour of indigenous production of the MP-ATGM, a derivative of the Nag missile. Days before the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India, Rafael admitted India had indeed cancelled talks to close the deal. This led to howls of protest from the Indian Army, with Army Chief General Bipin Rawat pointing out that the DRDO missiles would not be ready till 2022, which would impact India’s operational capabilities at a time when both its western and northern borders were heating up.

Now it appears that New Delhi might execute part of the terminated tender by directly importing 5,500-odd missiles and 275 launchers via an inter-governmental agreement, instead of a commercial deal with Rafael. India needs to get over its dependence on imported weapons, which constitute almost 70 per cent of its inventory at the moment. But last-minute scrapping and reworking of deals not only undermine our credibility in the defence market, they also highlight the lack of a think-through by our defence ministry.