Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria (r)
This article has been prompted by an interaction with a young founder after attending a seminar on Atma Nirbharta. The matter concerned the test and certification of a product that they had developed for military applications. The utter lack of transparency and support for the industry players at this fledgling level was so apparent, and a quick scan across some industry players further solidified the impression of this being a critical area that would impede the success of any effort in the private industry, except in cases where the involvement of the industry partner is as a production partner to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) or Defence Public Sector Undertaking (DPSU).
The lack of guidance and support by government institutional bodies at the functional level is clearly evident, despite clear government directions and policy provisions to permit and promote critical support to the private sector, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) and start-ups. The DRDO and DPSU leaderships have often emphasised these issues in seminars and exhibitions, but it is not happening, quite clearly, at the functional level. The implementation is lacking across the board, and historically unsympathetic and occasionally uncooperative approach towards the private sector and start-ups is largely intact in the DNA of these organisations. This has to change if we have to walk the talk towards truly becoming Atma Nirbhar.
The crucial path to energising private sector MSMEs and start-ups’ participation in the aerospace sector would largely depend on the level of support and space provided by the DPSUs and DRDO labs. As aforementioned, this support has been much talked about in seminar after seminar, however the pace and intensity on the ground is lacking and could be much better. This article aims to spell out some important critical aspects of action required at the institutional and functional level to promote the indigenous industry.
DRDO and DPSUs play the most crucial role in the entry of the private sector and while a lot of steps have been taken by the DRDO towards transferring technology (ToT) to the private sector and choosing concurrent production partners in the private sector/MSMEs, the overall impact would only be significant once the private sector gets big projects. The C-295 project under Make in India is an excellent example of a contract that will genuinely contribute directly towards setting up the industry ecosystem in the private sector. Similar efforts of direct orders have started in the field of radars, avionics and Electronic Warfare (EW) systems, weapons, sensors etc., but the overall impact on indigenous industrial bases is still minuscule.
The DPSUs have a vast manufacturing base with extensive infrastructural and testing capabilities. The support of DPSUs and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), in particular, would be critical towards any success. They must go beyond the slowly expanding outsourcing model to place large orders with the private sector of major airframe parts like wings, fuselage and tail planes, subsystems and aggregates. HAL needs to move towards an integrator role, and most of their tier II, III and tier IV level activity should rapidly transition to the private sector. This would directly contribute towards stepping up the production rate also. The DPSUs need to make their test infrastructure accessible not only to their vendors or production partners but to the entire private sector. The mechanisms and costing should ensure timely availability, hand holding and affordability, keeping in mind that the entire infrastructure has been built and paid for against MoD contracts for three Services. Therefore costing needs to be minimised.
At the level of DRDO, some essential steps should be taken to give the required boost to this drive. The research and development (R&D) action plan of DRDO should undergo a review. All technologies and R&D that can be undertaken in the private sector must be left to the concerned players. The DRDO in turn should shift attention to all niche technologies, futuristic high investment/high risk, disruptive technologies and research in the Strategic zone. R&D is the very bedrock of any indigenous weapons system and associated systems in the future; only then will Atma Nirbhar manufacturing result.
The next area of proactive support required from DRDO agencies and their labs for the private sector would be in the field of testing and certification. Given the rigid standards and certification requirements, this area has been a feared zone, even by DPSUs in the past for their own products. However, given the success and learning curve based on successes in the DRDO projects like Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Netra, Uttam, ground-based radars and indigenous weapons/sensors, including their subsystems in the private sector, the certification process has evolved tremendously in both confidence and capability. The challenge now is to handle the private sector and start-ups, with their budget limitations, human resources and lack of in-depth knowledge of the testing requirements. This is the most critical challenge facing indigenous capability development attempts today.
Despite the policy provisions and leadership directions towards the DRDO and their labs, the functional level is mainly unaffected by the changing scenario and the requirements of the private sector. The certification requirements and process itself are challenging enough. There is no credible process today to guide, support and implement project testing if it results from indigenous R&D in the private sector. The whole system of certification inherently rests on established Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) test certificates, foreign airworthy certificates, etc., and immense unseen resistance exists towards new developments by new players in the private sector. This often leads to industry seeking ToT from foreign OEMs to expedite the end product readiness.
It must be said that the caution/concerns at functional end is understandable, given the safety issues involved, but the tendency for being overcautious/risk averse and lack of ownership towards new developments will directly hurt the indigenous industry. This gets further complicated by the conflict of interest whenever a piece of similar equipment and technology is being developed in the DRDO labs itself. This has to change. This subject needs urgent attention at DRDO if we have to rapidly evolve the indigenous industrial base in the coming years. There is a need for certification agencies to share knowledge and hand hold the private sector, and deal with them at same level as they deal with a DPSU or a product from DRDO labs.
There must be a mechanism set up to promote and actively support testing and certification for the private sector, MSMEs and start-ups. An Independent monitoring mechanism should also be set up, preferably at the MoD, including experts from the private sector, to closely monitor these aspects.
It is essential to address important upcoming big projects and the actions that can be planned to channelise and energise indigenous defence manufacturing from now itself. The design and development of the LCA Mk2 has been cleared, leading to the manufacturing and induction of six squadrons into Indian Air Force (IAF). After LCA and Mk1A, this will be the next big opportunity on the indigenous front. The concurrent production plan should begin now, and DRDO and Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) should plan a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) approach with the involvement of HAL, and its infrastructure, in the SPV, along with a chosen private sector player as the lead integrator.
A carefully crafted plan to disseminate technology (new development and ToT of already developed systems/subsystems) and production to players in the private sector and MSMEs should be drawn up. LCA Mk 2 provides an opportunity for many new technology developments, be it in avionics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), sensors, weapons data fusion, mission systems, etc., which should be opened to the private sector and start-ups. In due course, many technologies of The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) will be tested on LCA Mk 2, and a similar approach should be initiated now, which will be hugely beneficial.
Many AMCA technologies and weapons/sensors would be in niche areas where DRDO can concentrate on rapid research and development so that the AMCA project itself gets expedited. Once the SPV of HAL and the private sector succeeds towards Mk2 production and the ecosystem gets established and evolves in the private sector, we will be in a position to target the AMCA production substantially in the private sector.
In parallel to the future fighter projects, the helicopter field, where HAL has had huge successes, should also transition towards HAL in the lead integrator role with similar evolution of industrial partners and production in the private sector. Also, the helicopter field provides a huge futuristic opportunity for developments towards civil requirements. This the private sector should target in conjunction with HAL through SPV as an initial step and subsequently as independent production partners. The transport aircraft production lead in the private sector with C-295 would directly contribute to the evolution of the production ecosystem in the private sector.
To summarise, the success of developing the industrial base in the indigenous defense and aerospace industry would directly depend upon the involvement and proactive support by DRDO and DPSUs. This would require a massive shift in orientation and role at every level of these organisations. Atma Nirbhrata is a national effort and the implications of this must seep in. It demands that DRDO and DPSUs, our custodian of almost the entire infrastructure, R&D and knowledge base, must now become accessible and directly accountable towards evolving the entire ecosystem in the private sector.
For DPSUs and some DRDO labs this would be challenging because they would virtually be supporting their competitors. But it must be done. We cannot allow the Atma Nirbharta drive to stall, therefore, the need for DRDO labs and DPSUs to evolve maturely to tackle emerging responsibilities. If these agencies are found wanting in this metamorphosis the alternative is harsh, which would undoubtedly result in a reduction in DRDO labs and large scale privatisation in DPSUs [with possibly majority stake with private sector] over next 5 to 10 years. Therefore the urgency to take ownership of these emerging responsibilities, reform rapidly and be the primary change makers towards becoming Atma Nirbhar.
ACM RKS Bhadauria (r) is a former IAF Chief and is presently the Chief Nodal Officer of UPDIC