About 450 people, right from the top missile scientist to the contract worker, sweated it out 24×7 for nearly a fortnight on the Wheeler Island, off the coast of Odisha. The dedication and team work culminated in the success of Agni V,India’s longest range ballistic missile, on April 19.
While the blast-off and flawless flight of Agni V was the visible face of the success story, the bigger story on the ground that is unfolding is the strength of the domestic industry and the huge industrial base that can be created in the Defence sector, especially aerospace. In the missile project itself, at least 50-60 industries, both large and small, have participated.
The total process control, linear accelerators, entire vacuum chamber, composite casings, rocket motors, filament winding machines, carbon-reinforced fibres, gyros, GPS systems, low alloy steel, servo valves, autoclaves, solid propellants and a long list, accounting for nearly 80 per cent of the missiles, are today made by Indian industry, in close collaboration with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
The very fact that India has demonstrated the capability to develop Agni V in the face of technology denial regimes, clearly shows how Indian scientists and industry have converted each denial into a challenge and opportunity to develop indigenous capability, said Mr Avinash Chander, Chief Controller (missiles and strategic systems), Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
The Agni missile is a complex system. Hundreds of people across scores of industries in both the public and private (mostly small and medium enterprises) were instrumental in fabrication, from minute components to large systems. Most of the work is still manual in the industry. Hence, the functioning of all these to the most demanding environment in space, has given us the confidence that we have attained a standard of quality and ruggedness, he explained.
At the industry level, there is a need for improvement in the quality and standardisation of products.
Since flight environment cannot be simulated on the ground, it is imperative that the best possible quality checks and standards are maintained. Globally, 75 per cent of failures are due to critical connectors. The next is single shot systems (rocket motors, missile separator systems) and only 5 per cent due to design.
The road ahead for the Indian industry is to transform itself from a mere supplier of components and systems to a production partner. As per rough estimates, around 300-400 industries of different sizes have been involved with the DRDO in various projects ranging from tanks to aircraft, and from food to security systems for the Defence forces.
The DRDO has received a budget of Rs 10,600 crore for 2012-13, which is around 5.6 per cent of the total defence budget, to fund its research and development programmes.
Though, missiles such as Agni-V, per se, will not be mass-produced, the technological capabilities and fabrication infrastructure could stand industry in good stead to take on several projects, not just for the Defence sector, but the civilian market as well.
India has a huge Defence budget of Rs 1.7 lakh crore and the production and purchase by the Defence forces is huge and varied. In the case of Prithvi (range of 350 km), about 100 will be produced, whereas for the Akash (surface-to-air missile), the Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) has bagged a Rs 5,000-crore order.
The Defence Ministry has been initiating several policy measures to attract the industry. The Defence industrial production policy, the 26 per cent FDI and the offset clauses, it feels, can give the much-needed push to the domestic industry to take up a greater role.
Two important moves from the industry aiming to capitalise on the emerging opportunities have begun showing results. The first is the joint venture route and the second is the public-private partnerships. Leading corporates such as the Tatas have struck JVs with Israeli companies. Mahindras, Hindujas, L&T, HAL, to name a few, are exploring possibilities. On the partnership mode, the BrahMos supersonic missile produced by the Indo-Russian JV, BrahMos Aerospace, is proving to be quite successful. Similar initiatives with France, US and Israel are in the pipeline.
The DRDO, on its part, is proposing a couple of moves. First is to create alternative assembly or production lines in the private sector for identified products. In every project, it plans to clearly identify the industry partner upfront. For example, in the missiles area, companies such as BEL, BEML, L&T, Tatas, SEC, Mahindras, Premier Explosives, Walchandnagar can be involved. Among the smaller companies RAP, Apollo Computing, Accord systems and Software, VEM Technology, Analogics to name a few, are active.
The second is to create a special fund. The objective is to provide financial help to the SMEs to indigenously develop components and sub-systems on demand and create production facilities.
The Departments of Space and Atomic Energy have tried this route with success. The strategic sectors have funded the Hyderabad-based, Midhani, which makes special materials to upgrade its facilities in the last few years with considerable advantages to their ongoing programmes.
The DRDO is also collaborating with the CII to create a database for the SMEs. The inputs would also be useful in tapping the advantages of the Defence offsets, which make it mandatory for global companies to source a minimum of 30 per cent of the contract value they have bagged from domestic sources in India.
The organisation, with a string of 50 national laboratories, has also tried the Government-Owned-Company-Operated model with limited success. Here, the DRDO provided the technology and some funding for a private sector company to develop a specific product that has been denied due to export control regimes. Further, the agreement was for a total buyback as it did not have much of a civilian market or application.
A good example has been the development of Servo Valves. The Research Centre Imarat (RCI),Hyderabad, passed on the technology to a private enterprise and provided funds. The company fabricated it and delivered it back to the DRDO. The product has been tested with success. In addition to aerospace, the valves are used in machine tools, furnaces, power plants etc.
Another case is the fibre optic gyros. Fibre optic gyros offer more than a Rs 1,000 crore opportunity for the industry. Already, a dozen Indian industries have approached the DRDO for technology know-how.
However, there is a limitation to this model, as the scope for mass production is limited and the private company will not find incentive to create infrastructure or dedicate manpower. The time is, perhaps, ripe for innovation and new ventures that can spur the domestic industry to seize the opportunities ahead.