India’s ambitious Very Short Range Air Defence System (VSHORADS) contest, which aims to replace legacy vintage Igla MANPADS systems in service stands at a critical cross-road that has a steep sense of deja vu washing over the Indian Army. Six years after the contest began (for the second time), chronic ambiguity continues on where things are headed.
The $6 billion VSHORADS programme looks to equip the Indian armed forces with brand new three-man portable short range air defence systems: the three way contest has Saab’s RBS 70 NG, MBDA’s Mistral and Russia’s KB Mashinostroyeniya Igla-S squaring off to license build and supply 800 systems and over 5,000 missiles making it one of the largest short-range air defence programmes in the world.
Here’s the state of play and a list of forward possibilities:
- Another (final) round of trials is a distinct possibility: even with the several rounds of trials so far, the VSHORADS programme has had the usual surreal twists that afflict many Indian procurement efforts, particularly Russia’s bizarre refusal to field its systems in some of the trial rounds. With the contest documentation failing to specify the consequences of such an act, the Igla-S hasn’t been disqualified — usually the global default for such instances. The Indian MoD could conceivably call a ‘final’ round of trials and stipulate that non-attendance means instant disqualification.
- Continue with the data it currently has on the three systems across the trials already conducted. While the Igla-S hasn’t attended all trial rounds, there are issues of non-compliance with Saab’s RBS 70 NG and MBDA’s Mistral too. For instance, on Saab’s system, while the overall weight of the system complies with the stipulated limit, the distributed weight of each system has a few kilogram over/under. If the government wishes to proceed with deliberations past the technical trials, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) would need to provide waivers.
- A full abort & re-tender of the contest. There were reports late last year that the MoD was contemplating a full abort of the contest, given the many twists and turns. This would be a body blow to a programme that is currently very much a ‘Make in India’ effort, and one that has taken six years (and counting) in its second attempt. The VSHORADS procurement programme begin in 1999, was aborted for the first time in 2005 and was rebooted in 2010. For a full abort 17 years after the requirement was first articulated would make the VSHORADS go down as a record in India’s contracting history.
As things stand, the VSHORADS programme is both crucial to the Indian forces, and has been configured to be a largely Indian manufactured product: Saab has partnered with the Kalyani Group, while MBDA has partnered with the well-established L&T in the country, both firms very much part of the defence industrial firmament.
The current Indian MoD has shown intelligence in dealing with difficult situations — actions that go beyond knee-jerk plug-pulling. It has also shown it is willing to think beyond the books to make decisions that lead to efficient calls that won’t hamper the progress of modernisation. It remains to now be seen just how acquisition managers and the MoD leadership push this one forward.