'Atmanirbharta in defence the way forward': Former Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh

There is a need to compress timelines in an era of fast-changing technology

45-Prime-Minister-Modi Looking at the future: Prime Minister Modi at the Naval Innovation and Indigenisation Organisation (NIIO) seminar ‘Swavlamban’ in Delhi on July 18 last year | PIB
Admiral Karambir Singh Admiral Karambir Singh

On July 18, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the aptly named SPRINT challenges for the Indian industry―the initiative envisages induction of niche technology in an accelerated timeframe. SPRINT stands for Supporting Pole-Vaulting in R&D through Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX), NIIO and Technology Development Acceleration Cell (TDAC). This is now being seen as the flagship programme of the Naval Innovation and Indigenisation Organisation (NIIO), which was launched in August 2020.

The project, being jointly steered by the Defence Innovation Organisation (DIO) under the defence ministry and the NIIO, has radically transformed the defence innovation ecosystem. This is true because of a number of reasons.

First, the scale of the project is impressive. The ambitious aim of inducting at least 75 technologies as part of 'Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav' recognises the need to expedite technology induction. As per data shared in various seminars during the DefExpo in Gandhinagar, over 1,000 proposals were received and over a hundred winners (most of them new to the defence ecosystem) have been declared. This itself should give results in the coming years, even if not in the near term. The important thing, of course, should be the capability that the project will induct, and not mere hankering after numbers alone.

Second, the capability sought to be inducted needs to be examined. We have seen that, for far too long, the “critical” components of weapon systems continue to be imported even as the platforms themselves are made in India. Transfer of Technology (ToT) often remains only on paper. A look at the challenges that have been put out indicates that they are a step away from this approach. The emphasis is on ‘sensors’ and Artificial Intelligence-based applications. Radars, sonars, blue-green lasers for underwater applications (both detection and communication), space communication and electronic warfare systems are some of the fields which, only a few years back, would have been considered beyond the capability of startups.

Third, the collaborative approach taken for the project is noteworthy. SPRINT has been showcased as a joint project of the Navy and the defence ministry. Sadly, the ‘us-versus-them’ attitude has stymied defence production for far too long. A collaborative approach makes all concerned equal stakeholders. A look at the amendments to Chapter III of the Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) is illustrative. The section on innovation, especially through iDEX, has been written anew with old clauses being removed and substituted with more user-oriented ones. Further, this collaboration is not limited to the NIIO and DIO, but brings together all stakeholders, including users, startups, academia and incubation centres. The NIIO has also subsequently signed an MoU with the DRDO to work together on innovations using the existing Technology Development Fund (TDF) administered by DRDO. Some would question the very need for such an MoU. It can equally be argued that it just reiterates the need for the two organisations to work collaboratively towards the shared aim of self reliance. More importantly, it clearly lays down the role and responsibilities of each and commits all concerned to timelines.

Fourth, the steps taken to make the procedures ‘startup-friendly’ are noteworthy. One prominent feature of SPRINT has been the willingness of the Navy to indicate the Minimum Order Quantity (or MOQ) upfront. The industry would be quite willing to invest in R&D provided they have assurance of orders. This enables small firms with promising ideas to raise capital from non-governmental sources and venture capitalists as well. The ministry, too, has played its part and the amended DAP stipulates that the scaling for this ‘initial procurement’ need not be justified and orders can be placed even if the winners are ‘resultant single vendors’ (single bid during open tenders). Of course, this initial procurement will be of limited quantities and is aimed more at comprehensively experimenting with the products before larger orders are placed, but it ensures that the firms will be rewarded for their efforts. There have been cases in the past of firms investing in R&D only to make products that could never be inducted because of procedures. This should now change.

Most of the winners will need more than the Rs1.5 crore grant that is being given by the DIO. The remaining money is coming from the firms themselves, including through loans or infusion of venture capital. Their risk-taking ability has gone up multifold because of the assurance of orders.

Lastly, induction of limited numbers permits a spiral development model with subsequent versions incrementally improving on what has already been inducted. The product developed through SPRINT may not meet the full requirements of the Navy; the follow on products will. The shift from a ‘Qualitative Requirement’ (QR) based approach to the ‘Problem Definition Statement’ (PDS) based approach is important for developing a ‘high-risk, high-return’ category of disruptive innovation. The provision for automatic conversion of the demonstrated capability of the product that clears the single stage composite trials into QRs is a bold new addition to the DAP that needs to be lauded.

I had set out to write my views on the steps required for encouraging defence manufacturing in the country. Even as I realise that I have ended up writing about SPRINT, it is possibly appropriate that this is the case. This short-term project by the Navy already has all the ingredients required for a long-term defence production policy. The need to compress timelines in the era of fast changing technology; focus on core technologies; develop a collaborative approach; change procedures, including for induction; mitigate risk for the industry and encourage inflow of government as well as venture capital into defence manufacturing; and, see the industry as ‘partners’ and not just ‘vendors’, are all steps that need to be taken if atmanirbharta in defence is to become a reality. Having been at the helm of affairs when NIIO was set up, I have watched the growth of this organisation closely and with keen interest. After being at the forefront of ‘indigenisation’ for many decades, the Navy realised the need to add the dimension of ‘innovation’ to ongoing efforts. Indigenisation and innovation are linked, and yet they are distinct. The skill sets required for each are unique. Both are equally important. The NIIO was set up with a ‘willingness to fail’ and was expected to work more like a disruptive startup than a government entity.