Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Defexpo – Path To Pride

Vaibhav Agrawal

India in the last decade or so has witnessed many success stories in the defence sector. Stories that were in the making since a long time, stories that have the potential to exponentially drive India’s growth in the defence sector. It has been a culmination of years of hard work and toil as well as investment of time and money. Defence systems and equipment including the entire missiles ecosystem like Aakash, Pinaka and BrahMos, aerospace platforms like the LCA Tejas, land systems like the Arjun tanks and ATAGS as well as naval platforms like the INS Vikrant – all have showcased the increasing depth in India’s defence industries. 

Both the public and the private industries with support of DRDO as the key R&D organization have contributed towards the milestones. This has required a synergistic approach whereby industries have met, interacted, identified opportunities and executed them over the years. It has been a gradual exercise of increasing capabilities and capacities towards higher indigenisation levels across segments and sub segments. The Defexpo(s) and the Aero India(s) have played a very significant role in the entire storyline.

Defexpo as an industry event has grown from strength to strength over all its last editions. Today collaboration is key for progress – nothing happens in silos. Especially in areas of exponential technological advancements, it becomes imperative to join hands. Defexpo, over the last couple of decades across its 11 editions till date, has evolved into a platform where research meets intent, domestic meets international and potential meets opportunities. This, the 12th edition of Defexpo, holds promise to be bigger, better and more dynamic. With 17 zones and each dedicated to one particular segment, DRDO during this edition of the Defexpo  with the theme of 3D Ecosphere will showcases the developed technologies, Indian defence industry and academia collaboration. 

Some of the most critical and forward-looking products indigenously developed by DRDO are on display – including aero engines and propulsion systems, drones, sensors and advanced electronics, missiles, dual use technologies as well as soldier support accessories including exoskeletons and BPJs. Live demos of the more recent and critical developments will add further credence to the entire workload that DRDO currently shares with the industry towards R&D for the sector.

In a first ever four-venue format, numerous static displays, live demonstrations, seminars as well as immersive experience zones will be spread across multiple locations including the Sabarmati River Front, the Mahatma Mandir Convention & Exhibition Centre, Helipad Exhibition Centre, and Naval display at Porbandar. The key objective of the event is to bring out the synergy between various stakeholders. This year, the exhibition is also set to observe the largest drone show piloted by an iDEX winner, an indigenous IIT Delhi start-up M/s Botlab Dynamics. 

The core theme of this edition is ‘Path to Pride’ and the idea is to invoke nationalistic pride which will also encourage every citizen to further contribute in nation building. How do we define ‘pride’ and how can this translate in further contributions from the population of the country. ‘Pride’ in the aerospace and defence sector glossary could mean (1) having technological IP that other countries do not have and want to utilize, or (2) exporting state of the art products and equipment and being one of the few countries to be able to design, develop and manufacture that, or (3) being self-reliant to the extent that a supply shock similar to COVID or Russia-Ukraine crisis does not throw the industry into disarray, or (4) having co-operation agreements with the developed countries and also supporting the less developed countries in fighting for a just cause, or (5) having strategic independence whereby the value of annual imports is less than value of annual exports. 

All the above cases require significant investments in research and development as well as production and MRO. In all of the above cases, is Defexpo a path towards pride for India in the defence sector. The answer is a resounding Yes! In all of the above cases, has DRDO played a critical role over the last few decades. This again is a resounding Yes!

Defexpo 2020 witnessed DRDO handing over 15 licences for ToT to 17 industries on DRDO developed technologies, adding to the 114 technologies transferred to industries between 2019 and 2020.  Technologies transferred included among others, mine field marking equipment, bi-modular charge systems, 500kg general purpose bombs, 250 kg fragmented bombs, electronic fuses for 81mm mortar bombs, optical target locators and high-power Li-ion battery technology. UPEIDA signed a MoU for knowledge partnership with DRDO. The Bandhan program where these ToTs are handed over has now become a flagship event at Defexpo. Providing the above technologies and ToTs with a free patent to industries coupled with making available the test facilities and also providing technical and hand holding support to industries – DRDO has not left any stone unturned in enabling the industry in India to further manufacture and work on new technologies.

Similarly, Defexpo 2018 witnessed an exclusive Indian pavilion showcasing the combined strength of both the public and private sector as well as DRDO. With more than 400 indoor and outdoor exhibits, this 10th edition of Defexpo was a huge success coming on the heels of a record 200 ToTs having been transferred by DRDO to industries in the last three years between 2015-18. This Defexpo clearly put India on the global map as an emerging defence manufacturing hub.

India’s progression in the defence segment has historically been slow because of dominant imports offset by some licence production and some built-to-print activities. However, in the last decade or so, there has been a realization that indigenous R&D is key. Surviving on built-to-print or imports leaves the country vulnerable to supply chain shocks with a dependency on foreign vendors. Defexpo, along with other such events, has ensured that every company at every strata in the country gets an opportunity to showcase their products, learn from others experiences, understand the customer needs as well as benchmark against current and potential competitors. 

Such primary interactions provide a wealth of experience and the learning curve especially for MSMEs and start-ups is very steep. Being the core of the R&D ecosystem in the country, MSMEs and start-ups have benefitted tremendously through these events. And the increasing participation strength as well as both the indoor and outdoor displays are testimony to the success that (1) these events have brought about for companies and (2) the policies have brought to the ecosystem – they being the key drivers.

And the growth of the sector reflects the same. Defence production has increased with a CAGR of almost 5% in the last 5 years from INR 74,000cr 2016-17 to reach almost INR 94,000cr in 2021-22 while defence exports have grown more than 8x during the same period to more than INR 12,800 cr in 2021-22. More importantly, the share of the private sector in defence production has increased to more than INR 19,700cr in 2021-22 from ~INR 14,000cr in 2016-17. The defence corridors in UP and Tamil Nadu have witnessed almost INR 5500 cr invested till August this year. With increased indigenization efforts and more focussed policy initiatives, there is enough scope for the private sector to grow in parallel with the industry.

Separately, there is a huge impetus on designing and developing products and equipment in house thereby ensuring that the IP rights remain within the country. This is very critical for matters pertaining to national security and the interests of the country. Hence there have been many policy initiatives as well as on the ground execution of activities that are gradually ensuring that IP laws in the country are robust enough to protect interests. 

With IP rights remaining in-house, there is enough and more freedom with domestic industries to modify and leverage the technology as appropriate for the country. This also acts as an incentive for the domestic industry to invest in R&D so that IP remains vested with them. Competitive outreach programs like the iDeX which is a start-up challenge for defence innovators in India wherein companies through accelerators and incubators compete and seek funding for furthering their projects. Defexpo also acts as a launchpad for such programs.

To summarize, the Indian defence industry is evolving at a fast pace and R&D in futuristic technologies will further push the industry towards becoming global leaders. Events like Defexpo provide the avenue for DRDO and the industry to showcase their capabilities with pride and march forward on the path to becoming global innovative leaders.

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