In 2012, Centum Group, a Bangalore-based provider of aerospace and defence electronics, broke into the select group of contractors supplying to US-based defence solutions provider Thales. Centum became the first Indian company to ink a sweeping pact with Thales. It can now supply directly to any of the 70-plus sub-groups that make up Thales's diversified business, from military communications in combat management systems for ships to integrated air defence systems for the US military.
Separately, in late 2011, Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division (SED) - an unlisted Tata group company - won a $186 million (Rs 950 crore) contract from the Indian Army to manufacture two electronic warfare systems to be deployed in mountainous regions. Tata Power SED narrowly beat Israeli firm Elta to bag the deal. A few months earlier, Tata Power SED had also won a $260 million (around Rs 1,170 crore) contract to modernise 30 Indian Air Force bases. It was preferred over Selex ES, an Italian arm of Finmeccanica which also owns AgustaWestland, most recently in the news for the cancelled deal to supply choppers to India.
Besides Centum and Tata Power SED, several small companies - such as Dynamatic Technologies, Avasarala Technologies, DefSys, Ravilla and Taneja Aerospace - have in the past three years acquired advanced technological capabilities and are just a step or two away from creating whole systems, as opposed to parts.
Step by step
In defence contracting, there are three distinct phases of manufacturing. The first, "build-to-print", is the most basic capability. Here contractors manufacture according to designs provided by an external client. In 2010, 92 per cent of the private sector's order inflow in India was build-to-print, which requires the least technical proficiency. In 2014, experts estimate it to have shrunk to about 80 per cent of the orders.
The second, "build to specifications", is where the executor of the project can own intellectual property. Here, the client comes with an idea of a product, and asks the executor if it can be manufactured. Often, these products require developing new intellectual property that may belong to the Indian contractor. The third part is developing products from scratch, either to create new capabilities for a particular defence need or upgrade an existing product. Indian manufacturers have now started building capabilities in the second phase, say defence experts.
India's total defence imports were a mammoth Rs 40,000 crore in 2013 and it is a big domestic market for private companies to tap into, says Nidhi Goyal, Director, Deloitte India. More so, with the Indian government stressing indigenous development and self reliance in production in the defence procurement policy announced in 2013. Between 2004 and 2013, the government issued 209 licences to Indian companies to manufacture defence equipment domestically. The rate of granting licences has increased over the last five years, points out Goyal.
Indeed, in many ways the government's policy for the defence sector is similar to that of South Korea. The emergence of South Korea as a defence manufacturing powerhouse, particularly in naval defence and aerospace, is based as much on its industrial ability as its policy. In a planned way, the country has targeted niche segments and has managed to secure orders from partners overseas in areas where they need to develop expertise.
This has borne fruit. In the 10 months ending November 2013, South Korea exported $2.6 billion worth of arms, up from $250 million in 2006. This will further grow, since last year India alone signed a $1.2 billion contract with the Korean Kangnam Corporation for eight mine-counter-measure vessels, along with a transfer of technology condition.
Tata Power SED is also a prime contractor for the Ministry of Defence for indigenous defence production. It has secured orders for Pinaka Multi Barrel Rocket Launcher, Akash Army Launcher and Integrated EW System for the Indian Army and the Akash Air Force Launcher for the Indian Air Force.
Defence projects have a very high gestation period, says Centum's Chairman and Managing Director Apparao Mallavarapu. He spent between Rs 20 crore and Rs 25 crore in 2006 to set up capabilities for defence. It was then primarily a supplier to ISRO for its space programmes with annual revenues of about Rs 100 crore. In 2013/14, 25 per cent of Centum's revenues have come from defence and space projects. In the nine months ending December 2013, revenues were at Rs 313.4 crore. It was 10 per cent of Rs 257.4 crore revenues in 2011/12. "I had no expectations five to seven years ago," says Mallavarapu. Dynamatic Technologies, the Bangalore headquartered company which makes assemblies of vertical fins for Sukhoi 30 Mk-I fighter bombers, too has seen a robust growth in revenues of late - from Rs 51.72 crore in 2011/12 to Rs 64.66 crore in 2012/13.
Balachandran says Indian companies have taken big strides forward technologically in recent years and can now match international standards. But the problem isn't getting contracts. It is in doing original R&D, and thereby creating completely new capabilities. The Indian private sector can build over 80 per cent of the equipment required for naval defence and 70 to 75 per cent of the equipment required for the army, says Gangal. Most of these capabilities are concentrated in small and medium sized companies, adds Gangal. "Big boys aren't necessarily the bigger players in the sector. People don't go by name here. Federal conglomerates are not preferred," he says.
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