Thursday, June 13, 2024

‘SPRINT’: A Boost To Defence Innovation

By Vice Admiral S N Ghormade (r)

Inducting new defence technology into the Armed Forces takes years! Or at least it used to. This is the story about how things are changing. This is due to the changed environment and the thrust given to the Atmanirbharata by our Hon’ble Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. This is the story of ‘SPRINT’. This is a story that needs to be told.

The ambitious commitment by the Naval Innovation & Indigenisation Organisation (NIIO) to induct at least 75 indigenous technologies or ‘products’ into the Indian Navy as a part of Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav which was unveiled by the Hon’ble Prime Minister during the ‘Swavlamban’ seminar in July last year has, arguably, forever transformed defence innovation in the country.

The results will, I am sure, be showcased during this year’s edition of the NIIO seminar – but all of us involved were aware even while it was being launched that we were witnessing history in the making. The initiative named ‘Supporting Polevaulting in R&D through iDEX, NIIO and TDAC’ (SPRINT) has shown what can be done.

In this article, I shall cover some aspects of how things could be accelerated to hitherto unimaginable levels. Let me put things in perspective, 75 technologies over a year mean – on average – more than one new product every few days! This includes not only the selection of the winner, agreement/contract signing, actual product development and the trials. Each of these steps itself takes many days. The pace at which work progressed obviously meant that people were multi-tasking, and the status was changing not every day but every hour.

The cases currently being handled by a very small team of officers at NIIO exceed cases that the remaining services and all Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) are progressing – combined! Just examining over 1,100 proposals from the industry and signing a development agreement within 20 days is an achievement in itself. I think it is, therefore, in order that the factors that helped us achieve this are documented so that other stakeholders and future officers benefit.

The primary thrust which helped was collaboration and a positive attitude. This collaboration was not limited within the Navy but included stakeholders such as the Defence Innovation Organisation (DIO) under the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Ministry itself, the academia and the industry. This collaboration was also interspersed with numerous challenges and contestations!

Anything disruptive will understandably have challenges and resistance. Many occasions involved disagreements. The disagreements were, however, never disagreeable. The differences of opinion were professional, never personal and handled with a positive attitude. The discussions never turned acrimonious, even as we ensured that every dissonance was heard, brainstormed and debated. Ultimately, we all came together for a solution towards building a capability for the nation.

The next important aspect that worked was a combination of the Top-down and Bottom-up approaches. SPRINT was simultaneously ‘top driven’ but had enough leeway for the delegation to the lowest rung possible. The intent was made clear by the top naval hierarchy and endorsed by the apex political leadership. The execution was left to the nodal officers at the working level.

Greater Freedom means greater responsibility” is a mantra I believe. Therefore, Nodal officers were to take informed decisions keeping their hierarchy informed if deemed necessary. Periodic reviews at various levels including me ensured adequate checks and balances without any delay and brought in value addition expeditiously. This ensured that youngsters took responsibility whilst also being aware that not only would their actions be monitored but also fully supported as long as the direction was right. While these two overarching tenets have defined SPRINT since its inception, specific actions to make the project successful had to be taken. Again, it was a top-driven approach with a lot of leeway for execution that helped. Let me list some of the actions that were undertaken.

The outreach needed to be effective in increasing awareness to get the industry to participate in such large numbers. Of course, the fact that the initiative was launched by the Prime Minister gave it a head start, but the same had to be followed up by multiple sessions (hybrid as well as in person) across the country where teams from the NIIO and the DIO interacted with the industry and not only explained the procedures but also clarified any doubts. This was done at an unprecedented scale, resulting in a remarkable outcome. Over eleven hundred applications (1106) from the industry were received in response to the challenges!

DIO’s ‘partner incubators’ role in providing administrative support for the outreach was invaluable and must be acknowledged. Effective use was also made of social media for this outreach. Serving officers, traditionally, do not interact with the media and are averse to social media platforms. This needed to change if we were to reach out. The media interaction helped and was undertaken both formally and informally. At the formal level, for example, a curtain raiser press conference was organised before the Swavlamban seminar and was at the level of the Vice Chief. This created a very positive and conducive environment right from the beginning and gave the necessary impetus to the initiative.

The Officer-in-Charge (OiC) Technology Development Acceleration Cell (TDAC) not only gave media interviews but was also active on Twitter. At the informal level, the spokesperson navy ensured that all media queries were answered by TDAC. OiC TDAC had been permitted to be active – in his personal capacity – on social media by my predecessor. I continued and encouraged this.

Another approach which we followed was that once committed, we only moved forward with the DIO and partner incubator and did not look back. In my view, quite a few cases of SPRINT may never have materialised if not for this factor. Resistance (both internal and external) could be overcome as we had – publically and visibly – committed to the cases. As stated, resistance to change and difference of opinion is normal and natural. A healthy and committed approach was found to overcome this.

After the outreach came the challenging task of selecting the winners. Selecting one or two winners for each challenge from so many applicants was again not an easy task. This was enabled by multiple levels of screening. We worked in parallel. Each problem had a nodal officer who shortlisted the potential firms.

The partner incubators similarly made their own list. TDAC then shortlisted a few based on these lists, and the High Powered Screening Committee (HPSC) took the final decision. The task of the HPSC was also difficult but more easily handled in a collegiate manner. Some applicants had terrific technology but a terrible presentation, and vice versa. Most decisions finally came down to a vote. Every screening committee member voted, and the aggregate was taken as the decision, which all concerned agreed to abide by. This was fair and transparent and even helped give the winners a final ranking or order of priority.

Keeping with the spirit of acceleration, the screening was carried out over a continuous sitting of many days so as to not break the momentum. TDAC operated from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (where HPSC meetings were conducted) for ten days, attending presentations by startups from ‘8 to 8’. Even after the gruelling 12 hours of presentations, the team (both from NIIO and DIO) worked late into the night, compiling the results for the day so that the paperwork was sorted before the next day’s presentations started. This continued over many days, including over holidays. This level of demonstrated commitment rubbed an infectious enthusiasm on all.

The first development agreement was signed by DIO within 20 days of the winner being declared. This was an achievement of the DIO and the startup itself and had only a minor involvement of the NIIO. The fact that the need to accelerate had been imbibed by all is, however, certainly a factor of the pace at which the screening was undertaken in a missionary mode whilst keeping the overall aim of capability development for the nation always in mind.

Even after the winners were selected, numerous small actions went into making the initiative a success. Let me list just a few.

The statement that the NIIO sees the startups as ‘partners’ and not ‘vendors’ may be clichéd, but it is true and certainly did help. This was followed in letter and spirit. Small actions like staying back after the Manthan event at DefExpo to interact with our partners by the naval hierarchy made a huge difference. This was appreciated by the startups. A very small gesture, but it helped. During the Aero India exhibition, the entire top naval hierarchy, made it a point to visit every SPRINT winner’s stall.

Given the limited time available, this required some planning, but by the end, the ‘SPRINT winner’ had become a brand in itself and got envious looks from the rest of the industry. We also designed a banner stating ‘Proudly working with NIIO towards Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and encouraged the SPRINT winners to display it at their stalls at various exhibitions – like a badge of honour. They all did, and the pride was mutual. This feeling of being a part of something important was not limited to the naval hierarchy alone – the video of the Hon’ble Defence Minister Rajnath Singh hugging one of the SPRINT winners at Def Expo is available online. These things helped the cause in no small measure. It was also realised that we must ensure that ‘our’ startups grow long-term so that we may get a product at the end of one year.

We may place orders including clauses for five years of maintenance. All this becomes meaningless unless the partner startup grows to be able to support the products in the coming years. Helping tie up venture capital (VC) where required, recommending the firm to other services and indeed for export orders is therefore important.

The second day of the NIIO seminar Swavlamban, it may be recalled, was focused on ‘Outreach to the IOR’. This was not only in keeping with the stated policies of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and Make in India but also important to ensure that our partners grow. It is heartening to see that some of the startups are getting inquiries for exports even as the products are still being developed.

Last but certainly not least, I must acknowledge the stellar role played by the industry bodies. This was not limited to the Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers (SIDM), who not only co-organised the seminar and helped the Navy in monthly outreach to the industry but indeed to many industry bodies, including the local chapters in states. Whenever our officers visited any outstation location, these bodies hosted the event and helped gather the support of the local industry. Once again, the bottom line was that we are looking for ‘partners’.

To conclude, the defining features of SPRINT have set precedence for the future. During the Swavlamban Seminar, Hon’ble Prime Minister echoed that ‘Our Navy must reach glorious heights when India celebrates the centenary of our Independence in 2047’. We will work together to ensure the Indian Navy becomes fully self-reliant by 2047.

VAdm SN Ghormade, PVSM, AVSM, NM, ADC (superannuated on 31 March 2023), former Vice Chief of the Naval Staff, significantly contributed towards creation and sustenance of combat-ready, credible, cohesive and future-proof Navy through focused impetus on integrated planning, innovation, indigenisation, adopting emerging technologies in capital acquisition, infrastructure development and optimising allocated fiscal resources. He also worked on the Theaterisation of Armed Forces, emphasising Tri-service synergy, jointmanship and integrated planning. The Navy has been at the forefront of Atmanirbharta, and as the VCNS, he gave impetus to the Atmanirbhar initiatives with dedicated efforts to encourage Indian industry along with the Defence Research and Development Organisation. Sustained momentum on indigenisation has resulted in a continuous increase in indigenous content in Naval ships. Further, Indian Navy effectively utilised the ‘Make’ and ‘iDEX’ routes to achieve the objective of self-reliance by involving greater participation of the Indian industrial eco-system, including the Private Sector. Under his supervision, Indian Navy propelled towards the induction of more than 75 new technologies/products through SPRINT challenges within a year, some of which would be game changers and even the first of their kind in the world.

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