Sandeep Dikshit

“Decision to field the MBDL-BDL-DRDO Maitri missile was not easy”

DRDO is seeking outside expertise for seeker and guidance systems

PARIS: India and France plan to co-produce surface-to-air missiles (SAM) on the lines of the Indo-Russian ‘Brahmos’ missile.

Termed Maitri (Friendship), the Indo-French short-range missile will be offered to the Army for replacing the near-obsolete Russian SAMs, said Antoine Bouvier, chief executive officer of MBDA, one of the world’s largest missile manufacturers.

“We have been assured of support at the highest political level by French President Nicolas Sarkozy after he discussed the project with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the former’s visit to New Delhi in January this year,” he told visiting journalists here.

“We initiated discussions with the Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) and the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) in November 2005 on a completely new missile version. The next step is joint development with the DRDO and production by the BDL some of which can also be earmarked for export,” said Mr. Bouvier.

The proposal is in line with the views expressed by Defence Minister A. K. Antony and DRDO chief M. Natarajan. They have expressed preference for taking on board an experienced foreign company instead of Indian defence research and production companies trying to strike out a lonely and time-consuming path of their own.

Termed the Brahmos model in Indian defence circles, the government had attempted a partnership with an Israeli company for a different class of missiles. But the project was put on hold as the Central Bureau of Investigation is probing the company for alleged malfeasance.

The missile will be on its first test when the MBDA and the BDL respond to a multi-billion dollar Army tender for 1,000 quick-reaction SAMs (QR-SAM). These mobile missile units are generally placed near army units and their tactical headquarters for protection against aerial threats.

The missile can strike at hostile aircraft nine km away and could also be used for protection of sensitive government and economic complexes. Therefore, company officials see a sales potential beyond the Army tender and are confident of its use by the other two armed forces as well.

“The decision to field the MBDL-BDL-DRDO Maitri missile was not easy. We could have responded with products here. But want to give priority to our long-term vision. The intention is to offer systems produced entirely in India rather than those that are partly made,” said Mr. Bouvier.

As is well known, the DRDO is seeking outside expertise for seeker and guidance systems, an area in which India is weak, while offering its indigenously developed launch and platform integration abilities to the project. “We are in discussions at the highest level on seeker and guidance systems. This would be the most significant component of the project,” acknowledged Mr. Bouvier.

The MBDA has had a two-decade-old relationship with the Indian defence sector. The company will also be involved in upgrading the French origin Mirage-2000 fighter fleet by supplying new missiles. Its missiles are also likely to be the preferred option for the French Rafael, the Swedish Grippen and the European Aeronautics Defence Space (EADS) company, all of which are bidding for the lucrative $10 billion Indian tender for 126 fighter aircraft.

“We follow a different approach. It is not our intention to keep the expertise within the company. We have Indian partners with autonomy of operations and that has developed their expertise,” Mr. Bouvier pointed out.

Other company officials claimed that the MBDA is the only company in the world to make an entire suite of missiles. “Even Lockheed Martin and Raytheon do not have the range we possess,” they said.