Aero India 2023 held in February in Bengaluru was reported to have firmed up 266 partnerships, 201 MOUs, 53 major announcements, nine product launches and a dozen transfer of technologies. There has also been some scepticism with regard to focus and outcomes. The mega-event was a good occasion for sombre reflection on Project Aatmanirbharta in Defence (Project AID).
Self-Reliance: Then and now
Self-reliance was always a part of the Indian state’s lexicon in defence. But the manner in which it panned out in practice, was not quite aatmanirbhar. The principal stakeholders – the armed forces were at best onlookers, the private sector was categorically excluded, and the startup experiment had not even been seeded.
DRDO and defence PSUs monopolised the main effort. It was a mixed bag really – dotted with a few successes, but in the main, one of sub-optimality and inefficiencies. It led to a predicament whereby India became one of the largest importer of arms (accounting for 11 percent of global arms sales) while exposing the vulnerability of our supply chains.
The aatmanirbharta initiative of the Modi government, having absorbed the lessons of the earlier experiment, is a well thought through concept, fleshed out in minute detail and roadmapped with practical schemes. Additionally, apex level political commitment is there for the world to see.
Goodbye to sarkari monopolies
The armed forces are integral participants, the DRDO and DPSUs are being restructured to address the new realities, the private sector and the startup ecosystem in defence is enthused. Defence which was once viewed as an unproductive endeavour is now being seen as a tool for acquiring strategic heft and revenue generation. Challenges remain and saboteurs could still surface.
Startups have waded into emerging domains and in a short span of time, are now the beneficiaries of orders in a suite of technologies: Drone swarms, robotics, low-light imaging and electro-optical/infra-red systems. India’s first startup to design semiconductors in defence could soon become a reality.
Zeus Numerix, riding on a Technology Development Fund (TDF) grant of Rs 5 crore, has built composite material water pumps for two frontline destroyers of the Indian Navy – INS Kolkata and INS Delhi. An Indian version of the Bayrakhtar TB-2, built by an Indian startup could find its way into military inventories in a couple of years.
The most significant attribute of Project AID is the respect accorded to “wealth creators”. For years, the private sector was willfully excluded: It could not be trusted with defence secrets and high-end strategic knowhow; so went the established wisdom. Industry-led design and development could soon, hopefully, deliver us an indigenous, light weight tank, the multi-role helicopter, low-orbit satellites and hypersonic glide vehicles.
India’s message to foreign OEMs
The large presence of foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in Bengaluru, was proof enough of a growing belief that India is now a serious player in defence. These OEMs have also developed a healthy respect for Indian companies and startups.
To improve business confidence, bureaucratic delivery on political commitment and foreign confidence needs to improve. Languishing projects and unfulfilled promises – slow movement in the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative for example – key projects in MDA, Space Situational Awareness and Sectoral ISR, continuing to stall in the absence of clarity on budgetary leads and other systemic warps. The great potential of iCET (Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies), must not get lost in bureaucratese.
Foreign OEMs are also no longer in doubt that their business ambitions in India will have to be realised through Indian partners. The commitment of the Defence Minister to earmark three fourths of the defence capital outlay for 2023-24 (more than Rs 1 lakh crore) for domestic defence manufacturers is the surest indicator of the government walking the talk.
When it comes to the associated innovation system, too, it must be made clear that companies that land up with the big orders, must set aside a fixed percentage for local innovators. This will help the smaller, Indian players to integrate with the larger platforms and global supply chains. The way forward may be to do a capability gap survey and chart out a precise plan for vendor building.
Pathways for the future
The central lesson coming out of Ukraine is that precisionary and data are the new engines of war. Data, algorithms and the miniaturisation of combat power (chips) seem to be powering the transition to digital combat. Project AID may like to draw up and focus on ten projects (micro electronic cores, gimbals, connectors, lenses, variety of chips, AI stacks) that will enable the Indian military to make such a transition.
Under the overarching umbrella of IDEX–TDF (Innovations for Defence Excellence, Technology Development Fund), cross-functional teams must be constituted to drive such projects from concept to inventorisation.
Thought leadership to sketch futuristic pathways for Indian leveraging of the growing global defence markets, technology incubation, supply chain statecraft and life cycle costs, is the need of the hour. The larger purpose of Project AID, of course, is to develop a sophisticated strategic–military complex ; one that is tailored to the Indian genius, indigenous in content, global in connect, strategic in purpose and with business at the core.
From the foundational edifice now established, Project Aatmanirbharta can embrace only three trajectories in the future : a slow climb, a graduated rise or an upward zoom. The strategic guidance from the political apex is clear : let us try and reach for the moon. If the competing bureaucracies and stakeholders get the nitty gritties going, at the very least, we shall land amongst the stars.
-This story earlier appeared on www.moneycontrol.com
By embracing the private sector, India’s military-industrial complex is now on the right track (moneycontrol.com)