India is gearing up for the critical and mega projects in defence and aerospace for building next generation submarine under the Project 75I and fighter jets like AMCA, Tejas 2 and 114 MRFA. These are the definitive and ambitious projects for building next generation advance capabilities and laying ground for marine and aerospace industrial ecosystem in India. In an exclusive interaction, Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar speaks with Manish Kumar Jha of Financial Express on such crucial issues which are going to impact and drive military modernization. He also talks about military transport aircraft—C295 and some of breakthroughs in advanced tech like sensors, super semiconductors and military drones through iDEX.
Manish K Jha: The Indian navy’s crucial P75I is still under discussion. While the project is being pursued under the Strategic partnership (SP) model, are you also deliberating to broaden the scope under different category –Buy and make in India? Also, the Indian vendors have yet to finalize on the third strategic partners—a foreign OEM for design and other elements, including critical AIP system. Some of them shown their inability to participate based on AIP clause? Could you clarify?
Defence Secretary: So, the government is taking P75I forward and government is also taking strategic partnership forward. On the specific status, DG Acquisition will know better. As you know, this is the first time that we are doing strategic partnership model which is large in size. It has several connotations where three parties are involved. Here, you have Indian strategic partners, the foreign OEMs and the Services. So, it is different kind of process compared to what we have followed in the past. As I understand, the processes are moving forward. Certain agreements and clauses are required to be tweaked to be able to adjust to such unique situation. And those are under discussion and we expect to finalize it very shortly.
But you see the more important point is, today, increasingly, our main focus is aatmnirbharta. In this process, we are saying– develop our own technology. In this budget, govt has opened defense technology, R&D for the private sectors and other players.
Therefore, from our perspective today, our priority is to see how we can develop more technologies in India. It is an exciting opportunity for all; whether it is DRDO, whether it is DPSUs or the private industry or startups.
Manish K Jha: There are concerns also regarding the Unlimited liability which stretches over the span many years. Could you talk about the recommendation as suggested by the empowered committee?
These specific clauses could not be discussed in open domain. Because, this is a contractual arrangement, which is you know, in some sense private and it would not be proper to talk about specific contract in details.
Manish K Jha: So, what stage are we at it?
Defence Secretary: Yes. Now, it is moving forward.
Manish K Jha: Another key project for the MRFA is under speculation to bring it under ‘Buy Global, Make India’. How do you look at building the aerospace ecosystem for the proposed combat jet? Do you see it as priority?
Defence Secretary: Our top priority is atmanirbharta (self- reliant). We have given orders for make in India– 83 LCA Tejas. We are pursuing LCA Mk2. We are pursuing AMCA and DRDO has accepted very ambitious timelines to realize this under that time line. Also, today, we have transport aircraft C295 being built in India. We have basic trainer aircraft—40 of them– are being designed, developed and manufactured in India. Very shortly, we will have the intermediate jet trainer built in India. We have the Dornier as the transport aircraft. You know, Dornier as a civil fixed-wing aircraft, which has been certified by DGCA now and being exported as well. A civil aircraft, modified version of Dornier is being made in India that we use for regional connectivity. So, as far as we are concerned, our top priority is make in India.
So, any proposal that we are pursuing today is make in India. There is no proposal that is pending with us today. But everything that we have pursued in the last two and a half years is largely make in India.
Manish K Jha: You mentioned C295 transport aircraft. Could you talk about the progress in setting assembling line and manufacturing components/sub systems?
Defence Secretary: It is moving at good pace and it is being monitored by a committee headed by DG Acquisition.
The project is moving as per schedule. The transport aircraft C-295 has 13200 detailed parts, 4600 sub-assemblies and all seven major component assemblies. These are outer wings, center wings, box, nose fuselage, center fuselage, appendages and doors. These key components will be done in India. Besides, two testers for these parts and major sub-assemblies will be done in India. Assemblies of aerostructure, including the subassemblies will be all done in India. The various systems such as engines, landing gear, avionics, EW suite will be done in India.
For the first time, we are in the process of introducing the testing and certification system by the industry for the product. And this will be in line with the best global practice. We are using this learning to actually enable our industrial ecosystem system to start doing own testing and certification for other airworthy products also.
So, overall, 96 percent of the total manhour per hour which Airbus used to employ at its manufacturing facility of Spain is planned to be undertaken here in India. The ninety six percent– is the level of indigenization. There are going to be more than 125 MSMEs suppliers who will contribute in manufacturing C-295 in India.
These supplies will be NADCAP certified. National Aerospace and Defense Contractors Accreditation Program (NADCAP) is a global certification agency. So, we will have 125 new NADCAP certified suppliers for the global supply chain. NADCAP is the global quality assurance system. More than 42.5 lakh manhours of work will be generated in India and large number of jobs will be created. So, it’s one of the very intensely make in India projects.
Manish K Jha: Based on such acquisition, there are indications that MRFA will be brought under the same model—which is ‘Buy Global, Make in India’. Could you please clarify and outline the facts?
Defence Secretary: You know, we don’t have to do Buy Global. The important thing is today, make in India is possible to such an extent and next time or effort will be to go further than this. So, it is important to the recognize the maturity of the Indian industry ecosystem as part of this effort.
Manish K Jha: Talks are on with French entity Safran for the aeroengine. Do we get the full matrix of technology which will enable India to further design, develop and manufacture aeroengine?
Defence Secretary: So, there is no agreement which has been concluded with anyone so far that I am aware of. Such discussions are going on but nothing has been concluded.
Manish K Jha: Drones’ ecosystem is building up in the country. There is also ‘no- import’ policy which is the right step for encouraging local effort. But we also need to develop some key component like – sensors. How do you look at this? How do we get to design and manufacture military grade –best in class–UAVs in India?
Defence Secretary: I will call it exploding. It is growing at a fantastic pace and capabilities that our industry and startups have shown, we are very proud of it.
As regards, today, we have focused on aatmnirbharta. A lot of sensors are being developed under idex. One of us startups made 100-megapixel camera which we have been traditionally importing and the cost of the camera is nearly 1/10. It is a fraction of the cost at which we are importing. Camera is a very important part of drones. With this new wave of defense innovation, one of us startups—QNu– have done quantum crypto computing technology at a distance of 150 km, which is the farthest in the world. They are working with the Indian Army. To my knowledge, the best that has been done elsewhere, is 90 km only and we are now working to see how that can be further optimized. The point is today, we have moved.
There is a see-through armor capability that has been created which is again different kind of sensors. Another startup has created capabilities for the soldiers to moniter their health and well-being on a real-time basis. So, lot of capabilities are under development and need to continue this process. So, you will see now more and more sensors getting developed here.
When I was in the Ministry of IT, we started a center — National center for Electronics on IoT, which was only about developing the sensors. It’s based in Bangalore and works along with NASSCOM. They have done some wonderful work on sensors. Another Center– national Center for Flexible Electronics, which is again about sensors.
So, the point you made is important. And the government has come out with a new policy for semiconductors design that is creating capability for using our own semiconductors in various kind of electronic gadgets.
Manish K Jha: Is it about laying ground for the semiconductors industry?
Defence Secretary: It is not about FAB. These are two different things. I am taking about the design part. it is like having your own car or using a taxi, but you still need a vehicle to go. If you don’t have a your own fab, you can go to somewhere and get your chip fabricated but creating the chip ourselves in India that the mission. Which has become super semiconductor mission and that has been created. Program of massive scale has been sanctioned which is worth billions of dollars. Today, all these things are creating the ecosystem for sensors, which you mentioned.
Manish K Jha: You have been focusing a lot on iDEX. Please share some of the breakthroughs in advance technology in defence and aerospace? Does iDEX have sufficient fund to drive such advance projects?
Defence Secretary: As far as money is concerned, they don’t need money, they just need facilitation. This whole thought of thousands of crores of rupees for innovation is not required. In many cases, It is just the facilitation and hand-holding which make the difference. You see a lot of our Innovation is happening. We have marked 500 crores for iDEX for the number of projects and we have even spent less than half of it. So, fund is available and there is no dearth of money for innovation. So, it’s not a question of money, money is not a constraint if required and it can be made available for good projects.