by Gp. Cap. Anupam Banerjee (r.), Senior Consultant-SIDM
IADB: Tremendous progress has been made in the last few years to develop indigenous defence capability for design, development and production through the promulgation of the two Positive Indigenisation Lists and significant policy reforms.
However, despite the effort towards gaining self-sufficiency, India still imports a significant amount of raw material required for manufacturing. Moreover, recent disturbances in supply networks due to the pandemic have emphasised the critical necessity for self-reliance in strategic sectors, including indigenous military materials production.
Military materials are classified as essential metallic and non-metallic raw materials utilised in the production of defence equipment. India is heavily reliant on countries like Australia, Brazil, Russia, the USA, few African nations and significantly China to supply military materials.
Success in replacing import with local production has not made much headway, and a large segment of manufacturers are left with little choice but to import. This does not auger well for a country aspiring to make its mark in the world’s defence manufacturing landscape with plans to turn into an export hub. Before we focus on the areas of concern we can briefly have a look on the major military materials and its uses.
Aluminium and its alloy requirements in the Indian defence and aerospace sector are substantial. It is widely used in making various ammunition components, tanks, armoured vehicles, fuselage bodies, bulkheads, wing skins and engine components of aircraft, naval vessels, space and missile structural components and satellite parts. Its ability to withstand high and low temperatures, vibration load and radiation finds wide acceptance in the defence and aerospace sectors. Moreover, a growing number of emerging applications in both these sectors make it a metal of choice.
Steel & its alloys are also used to manufacture essential aerospace and defence items such as cabin components of aircraft, landing gears, aircraft fittings, fasteners, actuators, jet engine shafts, structural tubing, ballistic tolerant components, motor and fixing parts; structures for land vehicles; systems for ships, armour etc. It is especially in demand in the sector due to its unique strength characteristics, compatibility with different temperatures, good corrosion resistance ability, most extended product life, and favourable life-cycle costs amongst materials.
Titanium, which is 30% stronger than steel and almost half the weight, is much sought after. To improve strength, endure high temperatures, and lighten the alloy, titanium is alloyed with aluminium, manganese, iron, molybdenum, and other metals. These alloys are used to manufacture aircraft structural items, panels, fastening systems, fan and compressor blades in aviation, tank armours in the army, rigging equipment, shipboard cooling systems, submarine ball valves and heat exchangers in naval vessels.
Superior properties of high strength, density, radiation absorption, and good wear resistance makes tungsten and its heavy alloys a promising material for a wide range of applications in the defence and aerospace sectors. Equipment like radiation shields, kinetic energy penetrators, and counterbalance weights are made of tungsten alloys. Nickel, iron, copper, and cobalt are typically added to tungsten which acts as a binder and gives the material good ductility.
In recent times great strides have been made in the field of composites which combine great strength, durability, and stiffness with low weight, corrosion resistance, ease of maintenance, and the flexibility to create complicated structures. Carbon, glass, and aramid fibres are commonly employed in composites, while the resin matrix might be epoxy, phenolic, polyester, thermoplastic, and so on. Some areas where composites are used include wing skins, forward fuselage, aircraft control surfaces, and numerous structural elements of modern helicopters.
Lastly, ceramics have become the material of choice for nuclear, aerospace, defence, and industrial applications due to their unique properties such as lightweight, high hardness, corrosion resistance, and high melting temperatures. Engine and exhaust components, thermal protection shields, structures for flying objects that fly at very high speeds, lightweight turbine components that require less cooling air such as vanes, nozzles, seals and valves are some of the applications of ceramics.
India has rich mineral resources, and its mines house a large variety of ores of different metals, including those in demand in the defence and aerospace industries. However, we are still import-dependent due to various challenges, some of which are enumerated in subsequent paragraphs.
Military materials are utilised in various applications, but demand for any specific material grade is generally low. These order numbers are typically lower than the minimum order quantity needed to do economically viable business. Very little or no dual-use potential is a significant reason for this. This hampers prospects of establishing indigenous capabilities for these critical minerals.
Private Industries are hesitant to engage in R&D since it is capital intensive. Alternate options to seek licence technology is subject to end-use limitations and unavailable without government involvement. The government has started encouraging technology transfer from DPSUs and DRDO institutes to tide over the problem.
FOEMs do not pass on technical specifications for foreign defence platforms as per instead of Indian norms and specifications. As a result, Indian material manufacturers cannot substitute imported raw materials using Indian standards, even if both materials have similar physical and chemical properties, resulting in a perpetual reliance on imported raw materials.
Last but not least, India’s testing facility infrastructure to create unique materials is grossly inadequate. Lack of testing facilities impedes the creation of novel materials, making the country reliant on imported resources.
The Govt. of India is sieged of these issues and has identified Military Material indigenisation as a significant focus area. Accordingly, the DAP 2020 has included a path-breaking provision for using indigenous material in platforms offered to the Defence Forces with incentives. The condition requires the defence forces to identify the possibility of using indigenous material in their projects while submitting their Statements of Cases for obtaining AONs. Also, for future requirements, DPSUs, R&D establishments, and Services carry out environmental scans to identify various materials that can be developed in the country. These are significantly enabling provisions, and if all stakeholders ensure that these provisions are taken forward in letter and spirit, it can potentially change the country’s military material landscape.
To achieve this, government and manufacturers must work in close association; MoD has already constituted a task force to synergise efforts of all stakeholders. Additionally, incentives, such as minimum order guarantees, exclusive and long-term agreements with DPSUs, should be assured. Industry players must also identify the critical materials and their dual-use applications. This will ensure the scale of demand to be able to sustain the R&D.
Rationalising the standardisation process for technical and functional specifications in defence and aerospace manufacturing and documenting equivalent standards to convert other prevalent global standards without recertification is an urgent necessity.
Certification standards also must be suitably aligned towards global practices where certification is to be done for materials to be used and not the product made from the material. Thus the need for recertification of platforms will be obviated, and the designers will have the freedom to choose from an extensive range of certified materials.
Import dependency of each DPSU and OFB facility on imported raw materials must be monitored by the MoD periodically. Putting the data in the public domain can create healthy competition. It remains an urgent priority in the national interest to indigenise military materials. The challenges are many, and solving them is not an easy task. Still, a synergised effort by all concerned players in both the public and private domain can make the dream of indigenisation true in not so distant future.