How can MSMEs and Startups Support the Indian Army?

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MMA in association with the Swatantra Foundation organised an interaction of MSMEs with Army Design Bureau and Regional Tech Node, Southern Command. This was facilitated by Dakshin Bharat Area.

M Rajaram, Trustee, Swatantra Foundation

Swatantra Foundation is a think-tank involved in policy research and advocacy. The idea for the defence expo originated from our research, where we felt the need to bring to the attention of the various user groups in the army, navy and airforce and the defence sector about the capabilities of our MSMEs. We also wanted to build awareness in MSMEs about the opportunities available in the defence sector and the ways to tap those opportunities.

With the support of Ministry of Defence, we organised the first ever MSME-focussed Defence Expo. It was spread over three days and was a roaring success. There were more than 40 seminars and more than 800 delegates attended. It had more than 500 B2B meetings.  Laghu Udyog Bharati, the main co-organizer, which is an MSME organising body with a Pan-India presence and TIDCO supported us in this initiative.

Lt Gen A Arun, YSM, SM, VSM-GOC Dakshin Bharat Area

Education and skills have no meaning unless they are put to use. For a country to become a strong and robust nation, we need to make our defence procurement processes easier, more transparent and more competitive. In the US armed forces, their think-tank seeds an idea and that feeds the DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency). It gets built into the university curriculum. The university develops an idea and it gets transmitted to the industry that develops a product. Then we buy it, paying for the life of the product. That is what we intend to replace.

We should be able to design the product and we should own the IP of the product and process. It is not enough if we just make in India. In the journey from idea to deployment, there can be many heartbreaks and failures. There can be financial losses and the system may not be able to support everybody’s aspirations and needs. The purpose of our interaction is to minimise those heartbreaks. We would like to initiate a process which will make changes happen. The Army Design Bureau (ADB) is headed by a Major General. There are many Colonels attached to it. One Colonel takes care of DRDO projects; the second one is completely linked to academia. The third is related to industry. We normally reach out to the industry through forums such as CII or FICCI. Defence procurement policy and the amendments to it have a close connection with ADB’s office. As we have scattered manufacturing units all over India, we decided to create Technical Nodes to be a subset of ADB from Delhi. So in all our seven commands, we created technical nodes. The Southern Command office is in Pune. We will discuss the current policies and schemes that exist and the areas that interest defence sector. Everybody need not make a gigantic product. Boeing has probably got thousands of small vendors who provide various components to the Boeing. Even if you make elastic or velcro, it will find its use somewhere. We want to facilitate the correct linkages from where we can have a conversation.

Brig Ravi Yadav, DDG, Army Design Bureau (ADB)

If you want to discover new oceans, you must leave the comfort of the shore. This conveys the ethos on which the ADB functions. In technology terms, you must leave the comfort of predictable outcomes. Our focus must be on the soldier and to make his job easier on the battlefield. ADB was formed in 2016 with the sole purpose of being the facilitator for the industrial technology ecosystem within as well as outside the borders and connecting them with the Indian Army as the user. We have two sections: one is a technology and weapons section which is more like a think-tank. It scans what is available globally. The second section is the Technology Resource Centre.  It is the central repository of technology and knowhow for the Indian Army.  It is a single point of contact for interactions with industry, academia, DRDO and field formations. It provides no cost, no commitment demos for developers.

ADB considers suppliers not as vendors but as partners. We start with the problem definition statement. The inputs come from the Line Directorates and Field Formations. We also have an internal assessment of our needs that come from strategic planning directorate and others. Our R&D projects come under the Head of Army Technology Board. It is headed by the Deputy Chief of the Army Staff. The research requirements may evolve from users or academia.  Through these projects, we engage with IITs, IISC Bangalore and others who are interested in doing R&D for defence projects.  The projects have to be somewhere or the other aligned to the problem definition statement. Deputy Chief of the Army Staff has financial powers to the tune of Rs 12.5 crores for every project handled by government entities like IITs. If it is a non-government organisation, then the powers are up to Rs 7.5 crores. We have established an Indian Army cell in IIT Delhi to facilitate the transfer of capability of the academia to the armed forces. We are planning to establish similar cells in all the IITs and IISC Bangalore.

Design & Development Projects

These can be carried out one on one with industry representatives for big industries or through consortia like FICCI and SIDM. These projects are undertaken under the ‘Make (in India)’ head. We have three categories under this:

  • Make 1- 70% is funded by GOI and 30% by the industry that handles the project. These projects, by and large, will not have a dual case commercial, economic usage in the end.
  • Make 2- 100% is funded by the industry. By the 3rd or 4th milestone, there is a minimum order quantity promised by the government. These are dual use technology which can have business/commercial use, beyond the defence usage.
  • Make 3- These are primarily aimed at components for maintenance of the infrastructure for existing or future projects. Funding is done by the industry. This also permits some amount of TOTs (transfer of technology) from the foreign vendors as well as joint ventures established with foreign firms.

DISC-The Challenge

Smaller businesses are handled by IDEX (Innovation for Defence Excellence) of the Defence Innovation Organisation under ministry of defence. The IDEX Cell is a Section 8 company so that it can facilitate carrying out businesses with startups and MSMEs. It periodically announces launch of Defence Innovation Startup Challenge (DISC), based on the user defined technology needs. These could be processes, components or end-use case technologies. Startups respond to the challenges and give their own proposals. The startups whose proposals are selected are invited to give presentation.  There is a high powered selection committee chaired by the ADG, which selects the winners. The project is given to the startups and they are assisted with handshake with the partner incubators like the IITs or the industry. These projects run between 24 to 36 months duration.  These are partly funded by the Government of India and partly by the startup which is selected. The normal IDEX challenge projects are Rs 3 crore worth. There is also something called as Open Challenge System where suo moto proposals are received from startups. These are examined by subject matter experts within the army, academia and startups. Accepted proposals are taken up for execution through IDEX. The ministry has now come up with up IDEX Prime and which can sanction up to 10 crores worth projects. DRDO is under the Technology Development Fund (TDF). Funding for these projects is done by DRDO up to 90% and the balance 10% is to be funded by the startup. There is a signing of MOU. Tangible milestones are defined. If the milestones are achieved, the payments are released. If you are stuck with a project given to you, we are here to guide you.  We also provide certain facilities for testing and internal evaluation.

Brig AB Sibal, VSM, Director, RTN, HQ SC

For the last two years, the ADB has been an interface between the army, industry, academia and DRDO. However, this was felt to be too central. There was a requirement for Regional Technology Nodes (RTN) in various locations, so as to be able to locally interact with the industry and academia. The first node was established in Pune, which houses the Southern Command. More importantly, Pune is central to many States including the southern states which have a large number of educational institutions and DRDO labs. RTN was formally raised on 2 Nov 2021. We may establish nodes soon in Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore with full-fledged staff, so that we can take these initiatives forward.

RTN has a Chairman, Director and Officer-in-Charge. It has also co-opted members from other branches of the army, who are domain experts by themselves. Whenever any proposal is received, it is sent to the concerned Line Directorates for evaluation. We also have nodal officers who cover most of the states. They assist the RTN to evaluate various products, carry out NCNC trials, interact with the industry, facilitate various trials going on and make available ranges and ammunition for trials. Similar to the ADB, RTN is also an interface between Army HQ, Industry, Academia and Field Army. We don’t directly deal with DRDO. We derive the problem statements from the field army. We assist them in carrying out NCNC demos.  Ideas and innovations are generated. If they are found interesting, we take it forward with the industry. In the last six months, we have created a database of industries and academia and who can be approached for a particular type of problem statement.

Focus Areas

What are the focus areas that the Southern Command is looking for interaction with the industry? The ADB puts in its website various problem definition statements, which they have compiled. In 2020, 120 such statements were listed, which were subsequently reduced to 46 by merging and other exercises. Most of our requirements have pan-India implications. For example, if you are able to develop the spare part for L70 gun which is an old type and for which we don’t get spares, you will address a pan-India requirement. The first step is to ensure that the product that is developed, will meet the quality assurance norms. Remember, all these are made for the soldier and we should not lose sight of this fact.

We are also planning to establish technology hubs and labs.  These are in the areas of electronics AI and robotics, combat engineering, indigenisation of space and skill development for cyber security. We are also working on alternate fuels and conversion of conventional vehicles to EVs. We are now working on conversion of three Gypsy vehicles to EVs.