At the ritual press conference ahead of Air Force Day last year, then IAF chief Air Chief Marshal SP “Bundle” Tyagi announced that the IAF had been compelled to decide on a purchase of 18 SpyDer (Surface-to-air Python and Derby) LLQRM batteries from Israel’s Rafael/Elta/IAI, the same team that builds the Barak and partners DRDO in the development of the Barak-NG. Following approval from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) earlier this year, the IAF has chosen to purchase the SpyDer-SR (short-range) variant, which involves four cannisterised missiles — two each of the Python 5 and Derby — mounted on a Tatra-truck launcher. Other components of the package include (for each battery) a truck-mounted NBC-protected command and control unit (CCU — comprising Elta EL/M 2106 ATAR 3D Surveillance Radar), a service vehicle and a missile supply vehicle (MSV). The system is built as a quick-reaction surface to air missile defence system against aircraft, UAVs, even PGMs, according to the makers. Both the Python-5 (IIR guidance) and Derby (active radar guidance) are originally air-to-air missiles, tweaked and cannisterised for the SAM role by Rafael and IAI — similar to what the Americans did with the AIM-120 and AIM-9, and the French, with the MICA. The Derby, incidentally, in its original air-to-air avatar is being fitted on the Navy’s Sea Harriers as part of the upgrade announced in early 2005.
It was in mid-2005 that the IAF floated its requirement for 18-20 LLQRM batteries as an immediate SHORAD requirement. From the start, there were only two contenders — the other being the French MBDA VL-MICA (the air-launched version is almost certain to be part of the Mirage-2000 upgrade). The IAF’s original QR was for 12 such systems, and the outline was drawn out for systems specially configured for Indian deployment and terrain considerations. This was subsequently increased to 18 systems and a precondition for transfer of technology — three systems purchased off the shelf and 15 built in India by a consortium encompassing BEL, BDL and a few others. This plan was finally dropped and it was decided that all 18 systems would be bought off the shelf. Despite strenuous lobbying by MBDA, including myriad memoranda including a technology tie-up with BDL for the Milan-ER, it appears that the deal fell through. The Israelis of course won’t be seen organising press conferences. Their procedures are far more concealed, which is probably why they’re always large and always a surprise. Anyway, following firing and targeting demonstrations in Israel and France in early 2006, the IAF chose the SpyDer and forwarded its choice to the Ministry of Defence. And this is when the trouble began.
Now, the juice:
The Integrated Defence Staff had a huge run-in with the IAF in early 2006. Headed at the time by missile and gunnery expert Vice Admiral Raman Puri, the IDS’ opinion was sought by the MoD Acquisitions Wing following the IAF’s decision on the SpyDer and the IDS made an impassioned response, even going as far as to orally debunk IAF Deputy Chief at the time, Air Marshal AK Nagalia, who, as the head of acquisitions at Vayu Bhawan, was fully behind the immediate purchase of LLQRM systems. In its observations, the IDS called the IAF’s intentions short sighted and lacking in long-term perspective on modernisation. In its opinion, there was no reason for the IAF to use the Trishul or the Akash SAM’s delays to push it’s own case for yet another import. It further noted in observations that the SpyDer system was not battle-proven (it cited the example of the Barak as a parallel), was basically an air-to-air missile ensemble, implied no transfer of technology or spin-offs for local industry and would be a blackhole as far as inventory upgradation management and serviceability went. It further indicated that with the OSA-AK flights being upgraded (this was recently indicated by the Defence Minister in an action taken report submitted to Parliament), the urgency of needing precisely 18 new LLQRM batteries was overstated. Admiral Puri was also a staunch supporter of the Trishul programme, and it did not go down well with him that the IAF had repeatedly turned itself away from the programme, while parallely debunking the Akash SAM.
Well, make what you will of this! All I can say is that we’re buying a helluva lot of munitions from the Israelis: Delilah II precision loitering attack missiles, Crystal Maze bombs, PopEye BVR missiles and a whole lot else.