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The Indian Air Force and Indian Army Apache fleet need NLOS missiles

Source : ORF Online

The Indian Air Force and Indian Army Apache fleet need NLOS missiles
Boeing Apache Attack Chopper firing Israeli Spike NLOS (File Photo)

In a highly consequential technological development, the AH-64E Apache attack helicopter is likely to see its lethality increase significantly with the introduction of a new Israeli developed Spike Non-Line of Sight (NLOS) missile. The United States Army’s heliborne aviation wing, which operates the AH-64 Apache is gearing up to equip and integrate this capability for its fleet. How does the Spike NLOS work? It is integrated with an electro-optical guidance system or camera that gives the Spike NLOS day and night vision.

The missile has a 25-kilometre range, which is connected by a wireless datalink system to the Apache from which it is launched. The Israeli manufacturing entity Rafael says: “The Spike NLOS system is a member of the world renowned Spike Family”. Its additional features include being able to attack targets at stand-off ranges without line of sight.

According to the manufacturer, it can be employed in a whole range of battlefield scenarios such as in anti-armour or tank operations, counterinsurgency missions, stand-off attacks geared for supporting Special Forces (SF) operations and small unit missions. The US Army’s decision to proceed with the integration of this state of technology developed by an Israeli company is both instructive and revealing as it demonstrates the extent to which Israeli defence firms have historically provided key technological inputs that boosted the performance, effectiveness and lethality of American weapons systems. However, unlike the US Army, which is the only service among the US armed forces that operates the AH-64, the same is not true with regards to the Apaches in the Indian military. Both the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Army (IA) are custodians of AH-64E, albeit the latter is yet to be delivered its batch of the attack chopper, which is why there are likely to be hurdles ahead with the integration of the NLOS missile.

Equipping the existing IAF fleet of Apaches as well an additional order that has been placed by the IA is an imperative. Unfortunately, the acquisitions of Apaches by the two services has been the subject of intense inter-service rivalry and dispute. The IAF has secured its share of 22 Apache AH-64 Longbow attack helicopters, which was part concluded under the former United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which was unable to assert its authority over the IAF and the IA to prevent dual contracts for the same type of chopper. 

The final batch of the attack helicopters, which was delivered in July 2020, has already undergone deployment at key sectors on the Line of Actual Control (LaC) dividing India and China. Inter-service dispute between the IAF and IA over possession of the Apache choppers meant that the cost of the Apaches significantly escalated. In 2015, 22 Apaches now completely delivered to the IAF cost INR 14,910 crores or US $2.1 billion, but now for the follow-on IA contract of six choppers, which is a pitifully small number, India will shell out INR 6,600 crores or roughly US $890 million. Indeed, a platform which should have cost an estimated INR 678 crores per chopper ended up costing INR 1,100 crores for the IA because the IAF and the IA did not make the buy collectively, which would have kept the price of each AH-64E well under INR 1000 crores and saved the Indian exchequer good money.

Now with the latest Israeli development of a cutting-edge technology in the form of the NLOS, it should not be plagued by the same set of problems that initially afflicted the acquisition of the Apaches. All the Apaches in the existing inventory of the IAF and the prospective procurement of the same platform by the IA should not be condemned to the acquisition woes that marred the IAF’s possession of the AH-64E. The 22 Apaches already in service with the IAF and the additional six choppers that the IA is slated to procure, making a grand total of 28, should all be equipped with the same NLOS missile system rather than be acquired through two separate contracts, which is likely to turn out to be more expensive.

Moreover, since the Apache NLOS is part of the Spike class missile systems, India should double down not just in a quest to integrate what promises to be a highly lethal projectile, but also negotiate a reasonable common price. Dual contracts will only drive up costs.

The Indian armed services are not new to Israeli missile technology. They operate several of them from some of the Indian Navy’s (IN) surface vessels to the IA’s ground forces. The IA, for instance, already operates the Spike Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM), which is a shoulder-fired or infantry based 4 km range missile system and the NLOS missile launched from the Apache, as noted earlier, is part of the Spike missile family. Since the Spike ATGM is already in service with the IA, there is an opportunity for getting a reasonable bargain if the IAF and the IA through the Ministry of Defence (MoD) negotiate a common price. Following the Balakot air strikes in 2019, the IA ordered 12 launchers with 250 missiles under emergency procurement sanctioned by the Government of India (GoI) and in 2020 the IA again under a repeat order is likely to gain the same number of launchers and missiles occasioned by the ongoing Sino-Indian boundary crisis along the LaC precipitated by the Peoples Republic of China (PRC).

However, separate contracts by the two services and the MoD with the manufacturer Rafael Advanced Defence Systems will only lead to the same procurement blunders that marred the chopper acquisitions as part of two differential service contracts with unnecessarily high expenditure. Although both the IAF and the IA have yet to officially express any clear interest and intention to acquire the NLOS, the MoD and the services should gear up to equip their AH-64Es with this very deadly piece of missile technology. It will significantly boost their operational effectiveness and combat power.

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