Armor: Picture Perfect


March 10, 2010: Although it won’t complete all its acceptance tests for another three months, the Indian Army has already ordered 443 of the new, Indian made Nag ("Cobra") anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM). The last tests will confirm (or not) that the missile can hit targets at its minimum rage of 500 meters. In these situations, the missile guidance system has only two seconds to lock on to the target and hit it.

It was only last year that, after two decades of development, India's DRDO (Defense Research and Development Organization) completed work on the Nag. The 93 pound missile has a 18 pound warhead and is "fire and forget" (the operator gets the target in the cross hairs, and fires the missile, that will remember where the target is.) The Nag moves at 230 meters a second for up to 6,000 meters (8,000 if air launched.) The Nag is a top attack missile, that detonates its tandem (to defeat reactive armor) warhead when above the vehicle, and thus easily penetrates the thinner top armor. The Indian Army plans to buy 4,000, and an air-launched (from aircraft or helicopter) version is being developed. The Nag is very similar to the U.S. Hellfire. Nag will mainly be mounted on armored vehicles (two, four missile, launchers). The missile is really too heavy to be used by infantry, while the Milan is light enough.

Nag will mostly be on vehicles, to provide mobile anti-tank units. The Nag was designed for this, with a  larger warhead and longer range. Nag uses a thermal imager, and at the press of a button, the operator gives the missile guidance system a picture of the target. The missile is then fired, and automatically homes in on the target, using the thermal imager picture as a reference. The air launched version will eventually have an upgrade that will enable the aircraft to launch the missile first, and find the target later, transmitting the target picture to the missile, which will then go after the target. At maximum range, Nag is in flight about 30 seconds.

Since ATGMs first saw action three decades ago, operators quickly discovered that in the time it took (up to 15 seconds) for the missile to reach its target, enemy troops would often shower them with machine-gun fire. This would often disupt the aim of the operator for missiles, like Milan, that required the operator to keep the target in the cross hairs.

India's state run DRDO is a network of 51 weapons and technology laboratories, employing over 30,000 people (20 percent of them scientists and engineers.) DRDO has been late in completing weapons development programs for half a century. Efforts to shape up DRDO have consistently failed. It's all about politics (DRDO provides jobs for well connected people) and nationalism (India wants to produce its own high tech weapons.) DRDO has failed in most all areas (small arms, tanks, missiles and warplanes). The failures have grown over the years, and created louder calls for reforms.

 DRDO has had some successes, which it publicizes as energetically as it can. It tries to play down the failures, or simply tout them as partial successes. But compared to defense industries in other nations, DRDO is an underperformer, and highly resistant to reform.

Nag was threatened with cancellation several times, but DRDO finally got it right. The Indians are quite proud of their locally designed fire-and-forget thermal imager fire control system. But the U.S. Hellfire entered service 25 years ago, and got the job done with laser guidance. To the DRDO, this is not a problem. That's because DRDO is part of an effort to create a world class arms industry. To do that, you sometimes have to reinvent the wheel while you are catching up to the front runners.





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