India has chosen the Russian firm Rosoboronexport for its Very Short-Range Air Defence System.

New Delhi: India’s decision to choose a Russian air defence system has triggered a controversy, with two other European competitors asking why their bids were rejected.

The defence ministry confirmed Monday evening that Russian firm Rosoboronexport has been declared the lowest bidder in an over Rs 27,000 crore order for short-range air defence missiles.

The Russian IGLA-S system will now most likely be contracted for the Indian forces’ immediate requirement of 800 launchers and more than 5,000 missiles under the VSHORADS (Very Short-Range Air Defence System) programme.

These missiles are meant to counter low-flying aircraft at the weapons line of delivery, meaning that they would be used as the last of the defences against flying objects in a layered air defence system.

A layered air defence system envisages short-range, medium-range and long-range missiles that would be able to target enemy aircraft at different ranges.

The Indian forces have been using an older version of the IGLA-S, called the IGLA-M.

Raising a stink

The France-led consortium MBDA, with its Mistral system and the Swedish Saab Group’s RBS-70 were the other players in the running in the selection process.

They have complained to the Indian defence establishment that the Russians were given too many chances.

This was done, they allege, even after the Russians sought to replace the system on offer, IGLA-S, with one called Verba in the middle of the evaluation process.

However, a defence ministry spokesperson sought to defend the choice, saying, “We have gone through the process of selecting the IGLA-S according to the defence procurement policy.”


Also read: India’s S-400 advantage: IAF in Delhi can shoot down Pakistani missile near Amritsar


For the changing aerial threat

The procurement process for the VSHORADS began shortly after the Kargil War in 1999, after India learnt a bitter lesson from Pakistan.

At least two of its aircraft, a MiG-21 and a MiG-27, were possibly shot down during the war by a Pakistani close-in weapon called the Anza (probably the derivative of a Chinese system).

Even earlier, the Raytheon (US)-made Stinger used by the mujahideen against Russian Hind helicopters was seen as the single-most effective weapon that drove the invaders out of Afghanistan and set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eventual end of the Cold War.

In one famous account, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the then US national security adviser, stood at the Khyber Pass, the Quran in one hand and a Stinger in another, and told the mujahideen in 1979 that the two together were the formula to drive the Soviets out.

The VSHORADS

The VSHORADS may be man-portable and shoulder-fired, or fired from a pedestal at low-flying threats from the air.

The current close-in weapons systems (CIWS) with the Indian Army are legacy platforms such as the L-70 Bofors and the ZU-23, both of which have been kept going with upgrades.

But the original makers have stopped their assembly lines for these weapons, and spares are almost impossible to procure.

Since the nature of aerial threats has changed – apart from planes and helicopters, there are now remotely-piloted drones and cruise missiles – and the system in use was more than 40 years old, the Indian Army has been desperate to replace its obsolete systems.

This need was flagged by General V.K. Singh (Retired), now minister of state for external affairs, in a letter to the PMO towards the end of his tenure as Indian Army chief in 2012. In his letter, he said 97 per cent of the Army’s air defence systems were outdated.

For all three services

In India, the VSHORADS project has been pitched as a requirement for all three services, beginning with the Army.

Field evaluation trials were conducted in 2010, 2012 and 2017, in the extreme hot and cold weather conditions of Pokhran in Rajasthan and Leh in Jammu & Kashmir.

In the first two trials, all three competitors were found to be technically non-compliant.

The evaluators found that MBDA’s Mistral system was not immune to electro-magnetic signals that could compromise its position and also allow enemy aircraft to evade its missile. There was a weight issue with the Swedish RBS-70 system because one of its components was heavier than what was prescribed in the tender. The Russian system was found to be faulty in both tracking and targeting of adversarial aircraft.

But the defence ministry decided to hold a re-trial to avoid a single-vendor situation that would violate a competitive process.

In the summer of 2017, in the third trial, the Russians failed to prove the efficacy of their missile in tracking targets in the Pokhran ranges. The Russians had also not participated in at least one of the field trials.

In this light, MBDA and the Saab Group have asked how the Russians could be selected despite being “technically non-compliant”.

There have also been questions from within the Indian establishment on why the government selected the Russians, especially on account of concerns that the purchase may attract sanctions under the US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which India is said to have barely dodged for the S-400 long-range missile defence system deal.

It has also been pointed out that it may not be politically prudent to make a questionable choice in an election season already marred by charges over the 36 Rafale fighter jet deal.


Also read: Indian Air Force wants to buy second lot of S-400 missile systems from Russia


Order may be scaled up

The initial order for 800 launchers and 5,100 missiles may be scaled up because the request for proposal (global tender) said the VSHORADs should be capable of not only being used by ground forces, but also for installation on warships and helicopters.

The winning Russian bid for the initial lot is estimated to be about Rs 9,500 crore (about $ 1.4 billion). This order is likely to be expanded and, taking cost escalations into account, may go well over the Rs 27,000 crore budget envisaged initially.

The missile is stated to have a range of 6-8 km up to a height of 3 km. One of the configurations that was required was that it should be MANPAD – man-portable (essentially, shoulder-fired).

Another requirement was that it should be capable of being vehicle-mounted and remote-controlled, and operated day and night, in all weathers.

The VSHORADS is not just meant for fixed-point defence, meaning immobile establishments like buildings, but also for mobile defence. For example, in a situation where the Indian ground forces are advancing, it is meant to provide defence to camps, convoys and/or other missile systems.

Modern VSHORADS, unlike those of previous generations, guide their missiles through laser and infrared beams to the target or to multiple targets.

Despite the complaints by the losing competitors, MBDA and SAAB, military procurements from Russia have traditionally got bi-partisan support in India and have therefore been politically less controversial.

But the VSHORADS procurement process, going on for nearly two decades, has been so tortuous that there is always a lurking fear that the procurement could be put off.

Adding to the confusion is a claim by the DRDO that it can make the VSHORADS in India.

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  1. The Russians are not saints, but it gives a reassuring feeling that they have won. Twenty years is far too long to finalise a weapons procurement deal. The product itself could have fallen behind in terms of technology during this period. The Rafale, for example. It has been knocking around for twenty years, many advanced countries have given it a miss, finally it could only snag India, Egypt and Qatar.

  2. DRDO claims they can make anything… if they are given 3 or 4 decades to do so. The only exception maybe a jet engine. Thirty five years after they were entrusted development of the Kaveri engine for the Tejas LCA, it was decided to use a General Electric F404 engine to power the LCA.

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