Make in India: Will strategic partners spur defence manufacturing? - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 16 May 2017

Make in India: Will strategic partners spur defence manufacturing?

Some worry private Indian firms will be reduced to assembly houses for foreign OEMs

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 17th May 17

On Monday, a meeting of the defence ministry’s top procurement body, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) failed to clear a new policy for nominating private defence companies as “strategic partners” (SP) for building major weapons platforms for the military. This is expected to come up before the DAC again, with some changes, later this week.

The contours of the new policy had been spelt out on Thursday to chief executive officers (CEOs) of private defence firms, who were briefed by the ministry. Under the new policy, six Indian private firms that met stipulated financial and technical criteria would be selected as SPs --- described as “‘system of systems integrators’ that would set up a widespread industrial eco-system encompassing development partners, specialised vendors and suppliers, especially those from the MSME (micro, small and medium enterprises) sector”.

Chosen SPs would be expected to establish production joint ventures (JVs) with global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), shortlisted by the ministry. After competitive bidding, one JV would be chosen for each of four categories – single engine fighters, helicopters, submarines and armoured vehicles.

Former defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, had repeatedly promised an SP policy, but missed numerous deadlines over the last two years as various stakeholders – ministry bureaucrats, public sector defence companies and different segments of the private sector – failed to find meeting ground. The policy was to form part of the Defence Procurement Procedure of 2016, but that was eventually issued last June without the chapter on SP policy.

Meanwhile badly needed acquisitions, such as single-engine fighter aircraft for the air force and submarines with air-independent propulsion for the navy, languish without an SP Policy to select the Indian vendors that would build these platforms locally.

Why private sector “strategic partners”?

The National Democratic Alliance government has always regarded defence production as a key vehicle for job creation. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto promised that India would “harness its skilled human resources and technical talent to emerge as a global platform for defence hardware manufacture and software production”. Private sector partnership was to be the key in achieving this goal.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to hold this view. In February 2015, while inaugurating the Aero India 2015 exposition in Bengaluru, Modi described defence manufacture as “the heart of our ‘Make in India’ programme”. Elaborating on its potential for job creation, Modi said: “Even a 20 to 25 per cent reduction in imports could directly create an additional 100,000 to 120,000 highly skilled jobs in India. If we could raise the percentage of domestic procurement from 40 per cent to 70 per cent in the next five years, we would double the output in our defence industry.”

Yet, for the next two years, the government took only baby steps towards this end. It eased defence licensing, allowing private firms to manufacture more products without licenses. The cap on foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence was eased from 26 to 49 per cent. Taxes and duties were rationalised and private manufacturers protected against foreign exchange rate variation. Even so, private industry has waited impatiently for a Big Bang manufacturing reform that would bring it on par with the privileged defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) and ordnance factories (OFs).

That is why many welcome the SP policy, conceived in 2015 by the Dhirendra Singh Committee. In 2016, a follow-up task force led by former Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) Chief VK Aatre recommended the financial and technical benchmarks that Indian firms must meet to be nominated as SPs in ten different technology realms. It was envisaged that one SP each would build aircraft, helicopters, aero engines, guns, submarines, warships and armoured vehicles; while two SPs each would manufacture metallic material and alloys; non-metallic materials; and ammunition, including smart munitions. The SP policy being finally issued envisages just four technology realms.

Strategic Partner requirements

Financial criteria
Technical criteria

Should be an Indian company, with more than 50% capital owned by Indian citizens
Company should demonstrate “system of systems” integration capability
Must have consolidated turnover of at least Rs 4,000 crore for last three years
Consider projects (launched, on-going, and completed) over the last five years
Must have capital assets of at least Rs 2,000 crore
Certification and accreditation; and the certified quality auditors as a percentage of total employees
Minimum credit rating of CRISIL/ICRA “A” (stable)
Research & development (R&D) budget as percentage of turnover; and R&D successes in last 5 years
Will consider record of wilful default, debt restructuring and non-performing assets
Vendors the company has developed
Debt to EBIDTA (earnings before interest, depreciation, tax and amortisation) ratio no higher than 3
CAPEX for plant and machinery annual and aggregated (for last 5 years)

Models for defence manufacture

The idea of empowering select private companies goes back to 2005, when the Vijay Kelkar Committee conceptualised the “Make” procedure. This envisaged Indian private and public firms designing and developing complex weaponry, with the defence ministry reimbursing 80 per cent of the cost and assuring manufacturing orders for products that met the military’s requirements. The “Make” procedure went well beyond mere licensed manufacture and aimed at creating design capability and system integration skills in India.

To implement the “Make” procedure, the ministry’s Probir Sengupta Committee identified twelve companies, designated “Raksha Udyog Ratnas” (RuRs, or “defence industry jewels”). Like SPs, these RuRs were selected based on strict financial and technical criteria that favoured larger companies. However, trade unions of DPSUs and OFs pressed then defence minister, AK Antony, to scuttle the concept, fearing that RuRs would put them out of business. Smaller defence companies also objected, worrying that RuRs would corner the market, leaving little for smaller companies.

Although the RuR concept never took off, the “Make” procedure remains a category in the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). Two “Make” category acquisitions are currently under way --- the Tactical Communications System, and the Battlefield Management System, with a third being evaluated to build a Future Infantry Combat Vehicle. The “Make” category accords major responsibility to the defence ministry, which would have to create a methodology for assessing cost-plus pricing, since it must accurately assess and reimburse design cost claims of vendors.

Another alternative for the private sector is the “Buy & Make (India)” category of procurement, which was promulgated in DPP-2011. This requires Indian vendors to partner foreign OEMs of their choice in bidding to build proven military platforms, which meet defence ministry specifications. This model has yielded at least two procurements already --- Tata Advanced Systems Ltd is manufacturing naval combat management systems in partnership with Danish company, Terma; while Tata Power (Strategic Engineering Division) is building anti-diver sonar in partnership with Israeli firm, DSIT.

Critique of SP model

Private company CEOs say the new policy has met its objective of insulating ministry decision-makers from future allegations of wrongdoing by introducing competitive bidding for winning contracts. Instead of choosing one/two SPs for each segment, as proposed by the Aatre Task Force, the ministry will choose six SPs to compete in multiple segments. When one SP wins a contract, it would be eliminated from further tendering, since the SP policy restricts each company to a single segment.
This would scuttle an OEM’s bid the moment its SP partner is selected in another segment. For example, if Lockheed Martin partners L&T to build single-engine fighters, their JV would stand nullified if L&T won a tender to build armoured vehicles.

In fact, competitive bidding by the SPs was never envisaged, in the form that it is in the “Buy”, “Make” and “Buy & Make (India)” categories. The Aatre Task Force report, quoting the Dhirendra Singh Committee, states: “Whenever the vendor base is large and competition is feasible, the competitive bidding process must be followed. There are cases however where certain platforms are of strategic importance. For these, we are recommending the ‘Strategic Partnership model’ for creating capacity in the Private Sector on a long-term basis. Such a capacity will be created over and above the capacity and infrastructure which exists in public sector units.”

Private firm executives also complain the government is taking on too much, by nominating the SPs as well as the foreign OEMs. Given there would be just one-to-three OEMs and an equivalent number of SPs in the fray, the latter complain they would have little negotiating leverage.

This lack of negotiating leverage would play out in other ways too. An Indian CEO cites the 49 per cent FDI cap on OEMs to argue that the Indian vendors would carry 51 per cent of the risk, while the OEMs – who would supply most of the technology – would control 85 per cent of the cost. Since the OEM would extract his technology cost through a transfer pricing mechanism, the SP would be left with little financial benefit, but a majority share of the risk.

“In a ‘Buy & Make (Indian)’ category acquisition, the Indian partner decides the foreign partner, and effectively negotiates the price. In the SP policy, the Indian partner is reduced to being the assembly house of a foreign OEM”, says an Indian defence CEO.

Furthermore, few Indian defence companies have the technological savvy to negotiate on comparable terms with high-tech OEMs. This is especially true of new entrants like Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group and Adani Group, which have so far demonstrated no defence technology capability. Given that, selecting these firms as SPs would be fraught with risk for decision-makers, given their perceived proximity to the ruling party.

Indian companies like L&T and Tata Power (SED), who have developed genuine technological capability in defence, worry that foreign OEMs would prefer Indian SPs with lesser technological capability, upon whom the foreign partner could impose terms. Without the capability to demand a greater share of manufacture; or to absorb technology to capture the maintenance, repair, spares, overhaul and upgrade market, a weak SP would allow the OEM to defeat every aim of indigenisation.

Additionally, there are apprehensions even within the ministry that companies without strong defence technology capabilities might prefer to leverage their SP status into lucrative land grants, defence technology enclaves, low-cost bank loans and initial public offerings, rather than risk foraying into defence manufacture.

Nor does the SP policy provide for penalties for defaults and delays in projects, which some private Indian companies, including some candidates for SP status, are well known for.


  1. The partnership will be three ways - between OEM, private partner and DPSU. TOT to be done to both private partner and DPSU. DPSU will be responsible for auditing the TOT, otherwise Indian taxpayers will pay for Adani and Ambani to learn to assemble Ikea kits.

  2. The bottom line seems to be that there is no consensus within the MoD on many aspects. In this situation, the chances of finalizing the SP Model in the next year or so appears bleak. Even if the Govt pushes through the SP Model, it implementation on ground will in all probability run aground.

  3. The last BJP Govt also used the "Strategic Partner" ruse to sell profitable PSUs for a song to companies which have no expertise to the products dealt by those PSUs. The real value of these PSUs built at enormous cost to the nation is way higher than their share value.

    What the Govt is propagating made sense if indeed India was incapable of manufacturing more than 70% of our defense needs as claimed by PM Modi. Fact is just the opposite. Today, India is in a position to fulfil more than 80% of our defense needs.

    When we have HTT40, Arjun MKII, Tejas, Shivalik, Bhim, Dhanush etc etc, why did this Govt instead gave more orders for Pilatus, T90, Single engine 4th gen fighter, Russian frigates, K9, foreign howitzers from Bharat Forge and Tatas?? When the Govt deliberately sidelines indigenous weapons in favor of foreign weapons, then import bill will naturally be higher. The point is why both Congress and BJP are so desperate to import foreign arms by hook or crook when far better and cheaper Indian alternatives are available? Why does this Govt wants to continue import of foreign arms through some of the most incompetent, unethical and corrupt Pvt Cos? Isn't this model of Strategic Partnership another form of creating "East India Companies"?

    When we have more than 8 DPSUs, 43 OFBs and 50 DRDO labs to design and manufacture defense equipment at almost no loss no profit basis, why does this Govt wants to overlook this huge setup and instead import foreign arms through few select financially distressed Pvt Cos with no exposure or expertise in defense?

    How can a film maker, car or truck manufacturer, forge foundry etc become "strategic partners" to make fighter jets, frigates, submarines, howitzers etc in collaboration with "foreign OEM"?

    Is it the job of the central Govt to run Private companies and MSMEs with public money?

    Why both Congress and BJP are so beholden to few corrupt Pvt Cos? Are they working for the country or acting as dalals of these companies who are behind NPAs of PSU banks and for the pathetic state of our economy?

    Jobs will be created and economy will grow only when MNCs make their products in India and not China. Making and buying foreign arms through some of the most incompetent and corrupt Pvt Cos will only lead to beggaring the nation further.

    Pvt Companies need to be entertained only where they are the OEM and have a product better and cheaper than that of DPSUs or foreign OEMs. Anything other than this, is Govt sponsored theft of public money. The Govt in New Delhi is slowly resembling the British Raj and these select few companies the new "East India Companies".

  4. It will take some time . The financial criterion that have formally been defined are good.
    Last couple of years private sector has been participating and contributing well. Pinaka, howitzers, shops/submarines are some good hogh profile examples. Aviation is one area where we need more action, hopefully with c-295 we will have a second vendor. ( This Vendor should been entrusted wilt KA-226 deal too to speed)
    However MoD needs to be fair and quick on financial/technical decisions (see recent case where tata power has its whole contract money stuck for using NAL developed component)

  5. I strongly believe the annual production rate has to be 32 to 36 planes per year for Tejas and the process has to be streamlined. Let the company that makes wings has to have subcontractors to get the part completed with all subassemblies already fitted by the time to comes to the HAL for final assembly. It pained me to see some worker holding steel plate and a rivet gun to place the rivet . It should be dome by high tech computerized robot. Similarly I saw the women holding the cluster of wires and indevedually connecting it. They should have wires and sockets already made by some supplier with few extra wires already in the bundle so that it should be plug and play system and there would be lot of time saving as the part would come with installed components. This is possible and with space to produce nine planes per year the production can be ramped up to twenty seven as the planes can be quickly built with almost completely built subpart to be fitted on final assembly line. Involve lot of partners and have strict quality control. This way it would be easy to maintain and repair these planes. They should make at least four hundred planes to maximize the effort of indigenous production. Tejas must be used as a wolf pack with 6-8 planes with an accompanying f35 or Rafael fighter to use the radar and share the information with Tejas and Texas can very accurately destroy the target. Just six planes per year is not good enough.


  6. Just curious - did the Indian press just learn the phrase "Befitting reply"? it seems to be used everywhere these days.

  7. If we examine the most successful Make-in-India project ever, Maruti Suzuki, we see that in the initial stages, the gearbox was imported and held as a secret but after a generation, the ecosystem it created actually helped spark an industrial revolution in India. It was in Suzuki's vested interest to create that ecosystem. When the plant was set up in 1982 in the wheatfields of Gurgaon, India did not even make philips-head screw drivers. ( we export $6 billion worth of components now).There is nothing wrong with the model proposed by the government. We have to believe that the Tatas, Mahindra, L&T and other private groups will be able to negotiate significant technology transfers by competition at the time of choosing a bedfellow, leveraging the size by the size of the market and the large orders as the carrot.


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